By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
On 100 different levels, Geno Smith’s absence from West Virginia University’s Thursday practice was handled badly.
That was sad because he deserved better.
However, it served to shine the spotlight on West Virginia’s greatest vulnerability.
Such is the importance of Smith, who is both the arm and the heart of the West Virginia football team, that so much as an ingrown toenail is newsworthy enough to break into a Jim Stallings morning tirade to report. Yet the man who coaches the West Virginia football team, faced with Smith missing practice, opted to torment his team’s faithful following by refusing to allow anyone to reveal the circumstances behind his absence until he could do it at his 7:30 p.m. press briefing.
That Smith’s absence was not injury dictated was a relief to the fans of WVU, who were heartfelt in the condolences they would send over the death of his grandmother, although it was inexcusable that the school did not have any details to release on the death.
Smith and his family deserved better treatment on that all the way around.
In football terms, though, this served as something of a message to Mountaineerland just how fragile this team is as it moves into the Big 12.
West Virginia’s success is tied directly and above all else to Smith’s availability.
A year ago, Dana Holgorsen, the WVU coach who found it almost enjoyable to toy with the emotions of his fans by delaying a report on Smith’s situation, was blessed as a rookie head coach to have a veteran, gifted quarterback in Smith capable of performing at a record-setting level in his system.
It doesn’t always happen that way, although Holgorsen’s predecessor Bill Stewart hit the jackpot, too, by inheriting Patrick White.
Holgorsen had Smith and little else at the position, just a freshman quarterback in Paul Millard who is talented and may have a large future but you would not have wanted to have him taking snaps last year … and the situation isn’t much different now.
Millard is there, still inexperienced, as is a true freshman in Ford Childress … and that’s it.
The absolute, No. 1 priority in this season is not to get the ball to Tavon Austin so many times, not to to see Stedman Bailey gets 100 catches, not to find defensive linemen or linebackers.
It is to keep Geno Smith healthy and throwing.
If he were to go down, and he is not impervious to injury, having suffered a foot injury early in his career, the Mountaineers would be caught in an unenviable position, without an experienced quarterback in an offense that is built entirely upon the skills of a quarterback.
Assessing Millard and Childress, one of whom or both may become stars in the future, as of today, Holgorsen is realistic.
“They look like young, inexperienced backup quarterbacks out there, and the more they rep the better they’ll be at it. Heaven forbid ever having to be in that situation to have to put them in
with the first string, because Geno clearly makes everybody else around him better. Both Ford and Pat, who rep with the first team, don’t necessarily make everyone around them better,” Holgorsen said.
That, of course, is not the case right now and it never came up last year, but in truth a team is lucky if it can keep its quarterback healthy and on the field for an entire season, and Holgorsen knows he must do that or have to make a lot of adjustments.
Everyone has walked out on a game at the wrong time.
Bob Prince, the great Pittsburgh Pirates’ announcer, may be the clubhouse leader in this department, being in an elevator on the way to the New York Yankees locker room to report for national TV on their victory celebration when Bill Mazeroski hit his dramatic Word Series-winning home run in 1960.
Prince has company, though, in Bill DeLury, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ travel director whose tenure with the club goes all the way back to the Boys of Summer in Brooklyn.
And this is tale he told me the other night when the Dodgers were in town to play the Pirates.
It was 1951, the third and deciding game of the playoff with the New York Giants that would send the winner to the World Series. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, Dodgers leading, 4-1, and DeLury, who worked in the mail room then, decided to leave for Brooklyn to begin sending out World Series tickets.
“So I left the Polo Grounds in the top of the ninth to beat the afternoon traffic and get back to the office in Brooklyn to start printing those tickets,” DeLury said.
The subway was deserted as it roared underground toward Brooklyn, stopping in lower Manhattan when a drunk stumbles onto the train.
“He started shouting, ‘The Dodgers lost, the Dodgers lost,’” DeLury recalled. “I thought he was just drunk.”
DeLury had forgotten about the drunk by the time he reached the Dodgers’ offices, heading inside to begin work when an elevator operator stopped him and told him about Bobby Thomson, who had hit “The Shot Heard Round the World.”
DeLury turned around and left.
“I didn’t come to work for three days,” he said. “I was afraid I was going to be fired for leaving.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.