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Opinion: Mark Whipple was a better option for Pitt than Matt Canada

The former UMass coach can cure Pitt's passing woes and provide continuity

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Former UMass coach Mark Whipple was hired as Pitt’s offensive coordinator on Monday, and on Tuesday, Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that former Panthers offensive coordinator Matt Canada “wanted the job very badly.” He then added, “Pat Narduzzi should have given [the job] to [Canada].”

While Starkey may be right about Canada’s interest in Pitt, the suggestion that Narduzzi should have welcomed him back after he used the school as a stepping stone for a lateral move to LSU is entirely wrong — at least when viewing Pitt as a team in need of continuity.

Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke came short of directly stating that continuity was the program’s top priority when she signed Narduzzi to a seven-year contract in December 2017, but if actions speak louder than words, then her vision for the football program was clearly articulated. And if there was any ambiguity over that point, she left no doubt about her stance on how Pitt should proceed in her recent comments on the situation.

”He needs continuity of leadership,” Lyke said of Narduzzi, according to Brian Batko of the Post-Gazette. “He needs continuity of staffing, he needs to bring the right people in and he needs to recruit and retain the right people.”

Although Canada has served in the position in question before and achieved historic results, he left no doubt about one thing: He does not want to be in Pittsburgh — at least not on a long-term basis. Canada belongs to the legion of coaches who place Pitt on a lower tier than other Power Five schools, and with that already out in the open, hiring him would not provide Pitt with continuity. Instead, it would set up another reset in a year or two and undermine the team’s effort to develop chemistry on the offensive side of the ball.

And the implication that Canada would bolt for another opportunity is not based on a hunch or the fact that he did it to Pitt once before — it’s based on data. Since ending a four-year stint at Indiana, his alma mater, in 2010, Canada has had stints on six coaching staffs. Five of those were one-year stops, and the lone exception was a three-year stay in Raleigh, with NC State.

This is part of why Whipple is a solid hire.

While the average duration of Canada’s employment periods since leaving Indiana is 1.3 years, Whipple’s is 3.5 years over the same span. There’s also the fact that Whipple has ties to the Pittsburgh area through his son, Spencer Whipple, who is a former Pitt quarterback and graduate assistant as well as a graduate of Pine-Richland High School. The elder Whipple also coached at Heinz Field as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach during that period in the mid-aughts, so he is more than familiar with the city himself.

But beyond his ties to the city and the fact that he has taken a less mercenary approach to the profession than Canada, Whipple has also outperformed the Maryland coach over the past two years. In 2018, for example, his UMass team averaged 32.8 points and 437.6 total yards per game. Canada’s Terrapins could only muster 28.5 points and 371.4 total yards on average. 2017 saw similar results, as Whipple’s Minutemen posted 30.6 points and 432.8 yards per game and Canada’s LSU team averaged 27.2 points and 411.1 yards.

What should put this debate to rest, though, is a closer look at Canada’s 2018 offensive stats in relation to Shawn Watson’s at Pitt.

In 2018, Maryland ranked 17th in rushing offense, with 230.2 yards per game. Pitt ranked 18th, with 227.9. The same year, the Terps fielded the 122nd-ranked passing offense, averaging 141.3 yards per game. The Panthers came in at 121st, with 141.8 yards per game. All told, the only way Maryland’s offense differed from Pitt’s was in points per game, as it had a 2.9-point lead in that category.

Given the surprising similarities between the offenses fielded by Canada and Watson, it seems Pitt would have been the party making the lateral move this time around had Narduzzi pursued his former coordinator. Instead, he got an experienced coach with a penchant for turning around lackluster passing offenses, as Whipple took the Minutemen from 113th in that category in 2013 to 11th in 2014.

That’s the kind of transformation Pitt needs, and with Whipple on the sidelines, such a change is now a distinct possibility in 2019.