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October 28, 2011

Leaders must keep WVU on even keel

MORGANTOWN — The words came easily from West Virginia University football coach Dana Holgorsen’s mouth, standing before a room filled with media in the shadow of a devastating loss to Syracuse over the previous weekend.

The loss was not devastating in the sense that it knocked them out of any chance at winning the Big East Conference, nor was it devastating in that it took a national title dream away, for that had already evaporated in the non-conference walloping No. 1 LSU had given them.

No, this was devastating because the team had been whipped physically and now found itself at the cliff’s edge, one more step in the wrong direction and it was quite a drop from the height at which they had started the season.

“We need seniors and upperclassmen to step up and take control of the team when things gets tough,” Holgorsen said.

He was not passing the buck. Hardly. Coaches understand that they must set the tone, must be the ultimate in leadership and, in the end, that if a team fails the responsibility inevitably falls on them, be it for failing to recruit the right players, prepare them right or lead them in the right direction.

But they have only 20 hours a week with their players.

Seniors and upperclassmen are there all the time. There has to be leadership from within.

Geno Smith is only a junior, but as quarterback it falls upon his shoulder pads to take the reins of leadership, first of the offense, but rest assured the entire team follows the lead of the quarterback. In the closing seconds of the Syracuse loss, he gathered his offense around him and began the healing process.

How did he go about that?

“I told them there’s no need to put our heads down. It is what it is,” he said this past Tuesday night.

“We went out there and we didn’t give enough effort; we didn’t fight back; we didn’t do enough to win,” Smith recalled.

“I just wanted to let my teammates know this can’t define who we are. We’re better than we showed.

“We can’t feed into the media and what is going to be said about us. There is another game and another day to get better and show what we can do.”

That, of course, was all he could do at the time. It is part of leadership, but not all of it.

The real question becomes what is leadership, for you can’t lead until you know what it is.

“It is staying at an even keel,” Smith answered. “Every captain on every ship is going to have waves. Some are tougher than others. You have to make sure that ship rides smoothly.

“When things are up I try to keep my guys humble, and when it’s down I want to make sure they know it’s not always going to be down. You have to fight through it.”

On the defensive side, senior tackle Julian Miller has emerged as something of a leader and spokesman. He, too, was asked to define leadership.

“It’s an attribute you can try to teach, but it comes from within,” he said. “Knowing what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and being able to spread the word among your teammates is what it is. It can be vocal or just by example.

“I’m good at leading by example. I’m not the most talkative guy. If I can touch four, five, 10 players and let them know and spread the word, that’s what leadership is – being the guy who can touch everyone on the team in some kind of aspect.”

If any area was in need of leadership coming out of the Syracuse game, it was the offensive line, which had an awful game mentally, technically and physically.

Donny Barclay is a senior acknowledged as the line’s leader.

“It’s our last six games. We have to pick it up from where it was a couple of weeks ago.” He said.

But how do you get that across?

“You have to lead by example. You have to hold yourself to another level and do your job day in and day out, but you have to be a vocal leader, too,” he answered. “If someone does something wrong, you’ve got to set them straight.”

That is what this past week has been all about as they get ready to go to Rutgers for a 3:30 p.m. game on Saturday, leaders stepping up from within and keeping the season from falling apart. In the shadow of a loss and the conference uncertainty, it is going to test the leadership qualities of both coaches and players.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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