By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Back not long after man became erect and started playing a game known as football, it became obvious that a coach on the sideline had to find a way to let his quarterback know what play he wanted run.
That was when that football genius, Paul Brown, came along and invented the “messenger guards,” alternating guards on each play, the guard carrying in the coach’s instructions. This later evolved into wide receivers, who were changed often anyway, as the messengers.
One season Army developed a system where they sent a wide receiver far out on the flank and never had him return to the huddle — yes, teams actually once gathered in a circle behind the line of scrimmage to call a play — and to get the play the quarterback would signal him.
Seeing that, some wise coach thought it might be a good idea for the coach to signal in the play to the quarterback with hand signals, thereby allowing him to speed up the time between plays.
Hand signals, however, can be deciphered by the opponent and stolen, and so it came to be that two or three people would be signaling to confuse the prying eyes of the spies.
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia University’s inventive young head coach, has taken the signal calling to new heights and all one has to do is keep a sharp eye on him and quarterback Geno Smith during a game to get an idea of how it works.
But before we get into the silent communications between coach and quarterback at West Virginia, let us revert back two years to when Oklahoma State was playing the powerhouse that was Oregon.
The Cowboys, for whom Holgorsen would become offensive coordinator the next season, took play signals to a new height by holding up strange signs, as Oregon offensive lineman Mark Asper explained this year to The Oregonian.
“I remember looking across the field from our sideline, looking at their sign and thinking, ‘Is that Jon Gruden? Who’s on there?’” offensive lineman Mark Asper said. “It was crazy, trying to dissect what they were doing.”
Indeed, Oklahoma State had signaled in the plays with signs, including a blown-up head shot of coach-turned-TV-commentator Jon Gruden.
It so impressed the Oregon team that after Ohio State slowed the Ducks’ offense in the Rose Bowl last year, amidst talk that perhaps the Buckeyes were stealing their signals, they changed to the sign system, holding up rather peculiar placards. One was of the planet Earth, another a shamrock, another the face of Shaquille O’Neal, another a sprinting wild animal.
“To the untrained eye, there is no rhyme or reason to the images, but to the Ducks, they are signals that are easier to see and harder for opponents to decipher,” wrote The Oregonian.
Holgorsen has not yet gone to the flash cards, but his is a secretive mix of ... well, let’s let him tell it.
“It’s a bunch of hand signals, body language, stares and stuff. If I’m aggravated, he (quarterback Geno Smith) probably needs to figure out why I’m aggravated.”
This system is based on a familiarity among the participants.
“It’s not something you just take a class on; it’s a lot like the non-verbal communication that goes on between him, Stedman (Bailey) and Ivan (McCartney) due to the fact they’ve been playing together a long time.”
There seems to be as much interpretation in this as anything else, as much reading minds as reading signs.
“It takes time. I signal to him every day. It’s the same way every day,” Holgorsen said. “Sometimes I do something different and he won’t understand it and sits there and stares, so then I do it again and he’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ve got it.’
“If I make it cut and dry, plain as day, then everyone in the stands can figure out what the play is. We’ve got a lot of ways of communicating, a lot of different signals, but that’s between him and me and nobody else.”
Well, not really nobody.
“You gotta know him,” Smith said. “We spend a lot of time with one another, even if we are not talking about football. We hang out with each other — me, him, Jake (Spivital, QB coach) and Paul (Millard, backup QB).”
Smith reads his face, his mind, his body and his hands. The more he does it, the better the communication gets.
“Just from practicing hundreds of times, you know, him yelling at me, just knowing what he wants and expects from me I can tell how he’s feeling and what he wants me to do.”
The thing is once you know what to look for, it isn’t really confusing.
“It’s not hard. That’s the key to it. It’s simple. It’s something going on for 10 years. It works. My job is to get the right signals and make sure everyone is communicating,” Smith said.
The day may come when they go to the placard thing and if it does, let’s only hope they are smart enough to make one of the signals a big picture of Erin Andrews, because that will be a sure touchdown if they snap the ball while the entire defense has its head turned looking that way.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.