By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
They say you don’t know what an athlete is really like until he faces adversity.
If that clichéd axiom is true, we will now find out exactly what West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith is really like.
Oh, he had faced adversity before, lost games, thrown interceptions and the like, the usual stuff that happens to quarterbacks.
But all of that happened when he was just a face in the crowd, one of a 120 or so starting quarterbacks in college football, not the man they were trying to give the Heisman Trophy to in mid-October.
Then along came a pair of difficult losses — one to Texas Tech by 49-14, the other to No. 3 Kansas State by 55-14 in which he threw for just 143 yards and one touchdown.
The aura of invincibility was gone; the fun house mirror that had created an image of perfection had broken with a pair of interceptions, his first since last year.
Now Geno Smith is putting together the pieces and, listening to him speak on Tuesday night in the academic lounge at Milan Puskar Stadium, he sounded as if his true persona is not much different than the one he displayed during the most glorious days of his career.
He understood, that as quarterback, he was the focal point when all that was good happened with the Mountaineers as they climbed into the Top 5 in the nation and the focal point when the bad times hit and they fell to the bottom of the Top 25.
“My thing is not going to buy into the negative or positive hype. I’m going to by myself. That’s all I can be,” he said.
He often had spoken of his quest for perfection when he was doing things like throwing for 656 yards and 8 touchdowns against Baylor and about the realization that it was an impossibility to attain it, but that it would be among the things that drove him.
“You want to be the best,” he said as he spoke on Tuesday evening. “You want to be almost perfect … you know, I kind of throw that word around a lot and it’s hard to be perfect. It’s hard to be 75 percent right with the amount of things going on around you.”
He accepts that, has heard it from his coaches. It is part of the game, part of being a human being playing the game.
If he has drawn any criticism from his coaches it’s that he takes losses too hard, takes his own shortcomings too hard.
“He needs to learn how to lose better,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said earlier this week. “We talked about that this last week, but he is not responsible for the loss. There is a whole bunch of people, probably 50 or 60, that play in the game. There are coaches that are involved in the game. There are a whole lot of people that can accept responsibility for the loss.”
“Dana (Holgorsen) knows that I am my biggest critic, and I’m always going to be hard on myself. I try to keep things in perspective and understand that it’s a team game, and no one man can win or lose a game,” Smith said.
“It is 11 men on both sides of the ball including special teams, and we all have to come together and play as a team. It’s not the end of the world — we’ve lost two games. It’s something that we don’t to ever want to happen, but you have to play the cards you’re dealt with. Right now we are in the situation where we just have to win.”
Smith knows and understands that, but there is this thing inside him that keeps pushing him toward perfection, and he realizes he can’t let it get the best of him.
He says he must “remain humble, remain calm and just play ball,” and only he can control that aspect of his game.
“It’s an experience thing. You can’t coach that. There’s one thing you can’t coach, and that’s composure,” he said. “That goes not for just one person, four or five people on the team, but for the entire team. You have to be put in tough situations and learn how to overcome it.”
It isn’t easy to accomplish, either.
“Sometimes you fail to do so, but you will learn from it,” pointed out.
Someone brought up to him that losing is something more than a loss, that it is a test of character, even a bigger test of character than the act of trying to win the game.
He was asked how handles losing.
“Everyone does it different. My thing is win or lose, I’m going to evaluate the tape and evaluate myself … fairly. I’m not going to be biased and say, ‘OK, what if the guy caught the ball when it’s a terrible pass? That was OK.’ Well, it’s not,” he said.
“You have to be picky; you have to be that type of competitor. You want to be the best.”
A number of his teammates talked about having enjoyed having the off-week to give them a chance to get away from the game for a while, to go home and watch brothers play high school ball, to clear their minds, Smith approached it differently — his way.
“I stayed with it,” he said. “I watched tape, worked on my fundamentals. I’m trying to be a better leader. That’s something you can’t coach as well. That has to come from within.
“I evaluated myself there. Overall, I think I did a pretty job of handling the situation. It’s pretty tough losing two in a row, but you have to keep things in perspective.
“You can’t get ahead of yourself,” he continued. “You lose two in a row, and you can’t think you’re a bad team. You’re not. It’s the same team, the same coaching staff. It’s all about getting back to it and remaining confident.”
And that is how he is taking it, looking forward to TCU, trying erase the bad plays and memories and build new ones as he continues his quest for perfection.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.