Fifteen years ago, Matt Canada couldn’t stop calling P.J. Fleck’s number.
Canada, then a 31-year-old offensive coordinator for Northern Illinois, had lost his big-play receiver, Dan Sheldon, to injury during the undefeated Huskies’ game against Ohio University in 2003. In stepped the 5-9 Fleck, who caught 14 passes for 234 yards, including the tying touchdown on a 15-yard, fourth-down grab late in the fourth quarter in Northern Illinois’ 30-23 overtime victory.
“I remember him telling me after the game, ‘Yeah, I knew you had it in you, so I threw you the ball,’ ” Fleck said. “He was one of the coaches when I was playing that instilled a ton of confidence in me. He made me feel like I was a better player than I actually was.”
Fast forward to Saturday, and Fleck and Canada will be on opposite sides of the field. Fleck’s Gophers open their Big Ten season at Maryland, where Canada is the interim head coach and offensive coordinator. It’s a rare reunion of teacher and pupil, who mutually admire each other, and it comes with much on the line. Fleck is seeking a 4-0 start for his youthful Gophers, while Canada will try to rally his Terrapins (2-1) after a puzzling 21-point loss to Temple last week.
“They’re playing very, very hard and doing a tremendous job playing as a team,” Canada said of the Gophers. “That’s the best compliment you can give any team, but they’re very sound in all three phases of their game.”
Canada, 46, is in his first season with the Terrapins, hired as offensive coordinator after being let go after one season at LSU. Fallout from the death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair following an offseason workout prompted the school to place head coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave and elevate Canada. Results of an external investigation will be released Friday.
In the meantime, Canada continues to handle both roles. He doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
“We’ve had a couple of games that went well and one that didn’t go well, so I’m not spending a lot of time focusing on it,” he said. “I’m just filling in the role I’m in while this is going on.”
Fleck, 37, played at Northern Illinois from 1999 through 2003, and Canada was on the Huskies staff throughout that time. He made an impact on Fleck.
“One thing about Matt: He’s never walked away from any challenge in his life or as a coach,” said Fleck, who caught 77 passes for 1,028 yards and six TDs as a senior with Canada calling the plays. “He demands respect, and that’s not by him asking. You respect him immediately when you get around him because he has a very infectious personality. He’s a heck of an offensive mind.”
That offensive mind has taken Canada to seven schools as their offensive coordinator — Northern Illinois (twice), Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, LSU and Maryland. Fleck knows there is a lot to study about Canada’s offense, which averaged 41 points per game in wins over Texas and Bowling Green to start the season.
“We know a lot about what he wants to do,” Fleck said. “It’s not just the three games from this year. There’s a lot of things you look at from Pitt, from LSU. How is he evolving and what is he doing differently?”
Canada sees Fleck’s hardworking approach as a player rubbing off on his team. And he’s impressed how Fleck has increased the Gophers’ level of talent.
“They’ve done a great job recruiting; they’ve got very good talent,” Canada said. “They’re going to play their best players. Sometimes, you’re playing freshmen out of necessity, and sometimes it’s because they’re the best players on your team. They’re 3-0 and playing at a very high level.’’