The Times West Virginian

January 6, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Geno-coach relationship evolved

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The tendency, in trying to find an explanation for what happened in Wednesday nights Orange Bowl, is to get overly scientific and write it off to Darwin’s theory of evolution, for certainly a safety named Darwin Cook evolved what seemed to be a shootout into a 70-33 West Virginia University victory.

There is more truth to this theory of evolution than you may think, however, although in a slightly different way, for this victory was produced out of the culmination of the evolution of a coach and his offense and a quarterback who was the perfect pupil.

That coach is Dana Holgorsen, of course, who is football related to coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, each being instrumental in taking football from a ground-based game into one played high the sky, a wide-open, spread passing game which when operating with the right quarterback and receivers can be nearly unstoppable, as more than 67,000 fans in Sun Life Stadium and a nationwide television audience witnessed.

Holgorsen brought his offense with him from the Wild West, bringing it out of the prairies of Oklahoma and west Texas and introducing it to a quarterback named Geno Smith, a player with untapped potential, a willingness to accept and learn a new way of doing things and the adaptability to evolve into what well could be the nation’s best quarterback next year.

In the aftermath of throwing six touchdown passes — four of them little more than underhand flips to a wide receiver off in motion — and going to the airways for 401 yards, Smith thought about all that had transpired in this wild and crazy year that has passed.

Not much more than a year ago Smith didn’t know Dana Holgorsen, barely knew of him, and it was a mutual feeling for the coach, who had his own things to think about at Oklahoma State.

“That’s the beauty of our life,” Smith would say sitting in the locker room, eye black still fresh beneath his eyes, the warm shower of victory still in his future. “Everything can change in a year.”

When it was noted just how much it changed, how he did not even know Holgorsen at the time, he thought for a moment and added: “No one knew who I was. I was just a kid trying to make a name for myself. I still have that chip on my shoulder.”

Change is hard for anyone to accept. If you have had success one way, if you are comfortable with someone who is teaching and the system he is teaching, it is difficult to change. It’s the way nature’s evolution takes millions of years, a chimpanzee not simply awakening one morning wondering where his Wheaties are.

Holgorsen had to come in and win over Smith and win over the team. It took time, he noted this week, as long as the eighth week of the season before the Mountaineers lost to Louisville and saw that they were failing by not accepting him as the man who could lead them out of the darkness in which he found them.

Smith does not really belong in that indictment, for he had been a willing and winning pupil.

Why not? Suddenly 180-yard passing games turned into 360-yard passing games. Touchdowns seemed not a 20-play drive away, nothing more than an underhand flip to Tavon Austin or a heave downfield to Stedman Bailey.

Smith was smart in so many ways, capable of running the offense as Holgorsen wanted it run with his brain and his arm.

Holgorsen had promised it was a simple offense, one he installed in three days in the spring, and he did not lie. In a game where they try to convince the outside world that it is nuclear physics, to Holgorsen it becomes little more than kids playing catch.

“Go down to the first sewer and run an out,” one child quarterback says to another playing the game in the streets of a big city … and so it is in West Virginia.

Smith knew something about a child quarterback, for it was him. He had grown up no more than a few miles from Sun Life Stadium, was playing the biggest game of his life where he had played some of the smallest games of his life.

And, as it was when he was 6 or 8 or 12 years old, he was the star quarterback again.

“You know, it’s special to be here in a place where I basically grew up at, and to do it in front of my family and friends and to be with my teammates,” he said. “But I'm not a selfish guy. It’s not about me. It’s about getting a victory for these seniors, and making sure we put our program where we need to be and making sure we represented our state and our university.”

It was an elegant way to put it,  the only way the Geno Smith we have all come to know could put it.

This was for the seniors, for the state and the school and all the citizens and students they represent, today, yesterday and in the future.

For the game Holgorsen and Smith play is still evolving, if not in a Darwinian way then in a Smithsonian way.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.