By Dillon Tabish, 8-15-12
||Caption: Shay Smithwick-Hann at University of Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
“If you’re afraid to compete, don’t be a Grizzly.”
The words resonate more than ever for Shay Smithwick-Hann. Almost three years after being recruited as one of the best high school quarterbacks in the state, the Kalispell native is in an enviable yet difficult situation – battling to be the starting quarterback for the University of Montana Grizzlies football team, one of the nation’s winningest programs the last two decades but one that’s reeling from a tumultuous offseason and being investigated for possible misconduct.
On Aug. 7, the same day the Griz stepped onto the field for the first official practice of the season, Jordan Johnson appeared in Missoula County District Court to plead not guilty to rape. Johnson was the starting quarterback for Montana last year and led the Griz to a share of the Big Sky Conference title and the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision. County prosecutors have charged Johnson with raping an acquaintance in February, and the university has suspended him indefinitely pending the criminal case. Johnson maintained his innocence through a statement from his lawyer.
As Johnson’s court proceedings move forward, so do the Grizzlies. With less than a month of practice left before the season opener against South Dakota on Sept. 1, the Griz are trying to rebuild a perennial powerhouse that has advanced to the FCS national championship seven times, winning two. The team returns a few standout players, including Kalispell’s Josh Harris and Whitefish’s Derek Crittenden. But a few starting positions remain vacant, too, most notably at quarterback.
Montana has four quarterbacks on the roster, but not one of them has completed a pass in a college game yet. In fact, only one of the four has stepped onto the turf inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, surrounded by 25,000 fans during a game. Only one of them has been to every offseason practice and workout the past two seasons, studying the offense like its algebra. Only one of them was standing on the sidelines every game last year, helping usher plays to Johnson while analyzing every snap and preparing for any opportunity to emerge.
Surrounded by three freshmen, including two redshirts, Shay Smithwick-Hann, a redshirt sophomore, is the bona fide veteran leader.
“He’s what they need right now,” Glacier High head football coach and former Griz standout quarterback Grady Bennett said. “What a perfect person to have taking the helm and leading your football team. It’s perfect. They really couldn’t have a better kid in that situation to choose from than Shay.”
Shay grew up a Griz. His dad Jim was a tight end for Montana.
“Being a Griz was something I always dreamed about when I was little,” Shay said last week while back home in Kalispell days before the football season began. “I can remember going out and playing in the snow and pretending I was Brian Ah Yat or (John) Edwards.”
Shay became one of the best high school quarterbacks in the state despite playing for an upstart Glacier program. In three seasons he compiled 5,584 career passing yards and gained attention from regional schools including the Griz and Montana State University.
Montana’s recruiting coach at the time, Mick Delaney, had become familiar with Shay and urged the Grizzlies to seriously consider the 6-foot-4 all-state quarterback. Besides standing out athletically, Shay also seemed to possess the intangibles – character and work ethic and natural leadership.
“His leadership ability just comes from being Shay and doing the right thing in the right way and always doing the extra things,” Delaney, who is now the Grizzlies’ head coach, said. “He’s the type of guy the kids just gravitate toward because of how hard he works and how much time and effort he puts into anything he does.”
Shay chose to sign with Montana even though he knew nothing was guaranteed. He still remembers Ryan Fetherston, a defensive end at the time, telling him to prepare to battle every day. Fellow 2010 recruit Jordan Johnson was being touted as one of the best quarterbacks from Oregon and was a presumptive shoe-in for the starting position. But Shay remained committed to the Griz, committed to battling. He’s still committed.
Shay Smithwick-Hann at the University of Montana.
Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
“The more competition, the better each person is going to be,” he said. “When you go to Missoula, you’re always going to have to compete and I’m excited for it.”
Redshirt freshman Trent McKinney, a 6-foot, 198-pounder from Hawaii, and Shay have been taking the most snaps in practice of four quarterbacks, including freshman Brady Gustafson and Adam Brzeczek, a redshirt freshman who recently transferred from Stanford. But McKinney took first-team snaps at the team’s first fall scrimmage on Aug. 12 and Delaney told the Missoulian that McKinney currently has a slight edge as the top quarterback.
But nothing is settled.
“(Shay) is a leader on our football team and a quality young man who will battle for that starting position,” Delaney said in a recent interview. “The competition is wide open at QB and he’s certainly involved in it. Obviously production will be a key and seeing who can produce. It may take a couple games into the season and to see how they react in game situations.”
Delaney said Shay’s knowledge of the offense gives him an advantage over the other candidates. Players often come to Shay for questions, and he’s always available, always eager to help. That’s the leadership Delaney saw years ago.
“Leadership is definitely always important but this year it’s probably more important than any time during the previous four years I was here because of the situation we faced off the field,” Delaney said.
The Johnson case is the latest chapter of the stormy saga at UM. Federal governmental agencies and the NCAA are investigating the university and its football program after another investigation earlier this year uncovered nine allegations of sexual assault that went unreported over 18 months. Two more sexual assault allegations surfaced in recent months. The Department of Justice and Department of Education are both looking at how university and city officials responded to reports on campus and in Missoula.
The NCAA has not released details of its investigation into the Grizzly football program. Whether student athletes were involved in any of the sexual assault allegations has not been made public, although running back Beau Donaldson was charged with rape in January and suspended from the team, and now Johnson is facing a rape charge. Donaldson pleaded not guilty. A week after the university released the details of its special investigation, President Royce Engstrom dismissed head football coach Robin Pflugrad, who was Big Sky Conference coach of the year last year, and athletic director Jim O’Day. Engstrom gave no public explanation other than saying a “change in leadership” was needed.
Uncertainty continues to swirl around the program as the NCAA and federal investigations continue, leaving the possibility of repercussions looming overhead.
Shay said the team is not letting those uncertainties distract from the main goal.
“I think the biggest chip on our shoulders is we still lost in the semifinals last year and we tasted that defeat,” he said. “I think that’s the bigger chip on our shoulder. All the other stuff that’s been going on has just been adding more fuel to that fire. We’re excited about this season.”
Instead of splintering the team amid controversy and public accusations, Shay said the difficult offseason ended up bringing the players together more than ever before.
“We have a great relationship in that Griz family,” he said. “When you’re on the field or in the weight room, all that other stuff is out the window and it’s just you and your teammates. All that’s really important to us is getting back on the field and getting back to where the Griz normally are, in the hunt for the Big Sky championship and, most importantly, that national championship.”
Shay Smithwick-Hann is competing for the starting quarterback position at the University of Montana. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Even if he’s not the starting quarterback, Shay has remained intent on leading by example. Academically he’s double majoring in accounting and finance and holds a 3.97 GPA – he dropped from a cumulative 4.0 last semester after receiving two A-minuses.
“There are a lot of late nights and early mornings, but you’re thankful for the situation you have and being able to go to a great school and play for a great football program,” he said.
He’s at every workout, voluntary or not. Just like high school.
“I guarantee he was focused every day of practice (at Montana),” said Bennett, who coached Shay at Glacier. “I really believe he is ready. The coaches may count up and say he’s only got 50 practice reps over the years, but really he’s got closer to 1,000 because he’s been mentally preparing for this from the start. That’s just the way Shay is.”
“I absolutely believe he is ready,” Bennett added. “There is no question. Shay’s a winner.”
At the University of Montana, where Griz football breeds fanaticism, everything comes down to winning. As much as it would be a storybook situation – Montana native with standout character takes over troubled football program – athletic programs everywhere inevitably live and die by wins and losses.
Shay knows that.
“I think as much pressure as the fans put on us, we put more pressure on ourselves,” he said. “You walk down that tunnel every day to the stadium and you know the pressure that comes with that. Once you put on that Griz uniform you know the things everyone will expect from you.”
You just control what you can control, Shay said. You work hard, you put yourself in the right situations, you make the right decisions. You do anything you can to help the team. You try to build on a legacy you’ve always revered. You try to become someone a young kid would look up to and stand out in the snow pretending to be.
“You just take advantage of every opportunity you’re given,” Shay said, “and that’s when the good things happen.”
[End of article]