Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith quiets the crowd during the Mustangs' game against Montana. Nha Ha – Mustang Daily

There is a certain image that stands out in Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith’s memory.

It’s a picture of former Cal Poly linebacker Fred Hives II hoisting the Golden Horseshoe — the distinguished trophy battled for every time Cal Poly and UC Davis meet — above his head after the Mustangs beat the Aggies, 51-28, his sophomore year. The moment capped one of the most prolific regular seasons Cal Poly football has ever seen and the win put the Mustangs’ record at (8-1), crowning them Great West champions.

For Smith, this feeling was new. This was the first time he had ever tasted championship gold. Yes, there was the championship in Pop Warner in eighth grade, but this was bigger. This win made Smith hungry. From this point on, it was not about glory, all he wanted was for his team to win.

Even as Andre Broadous steals more and more of the quarterback spotlight, Smith’s eyes remain locked on one thing.

“That was the first year I tasted winning and I’ll never forget it — we were champions,” Smith said. “To me it’s no longer about stats or glory, I don’t care. If we win every game and I don’t have no sort of stats it’s fine with me. When I look back on my career, I want to be remembered as a winner.”

To start this season, he was.

After a first half against Humboldt State filled with turnovers and missed opportunities, Smith dug deep and busted out a 48-yard touchdown run that proved to be the winning touchdown. Against then top-ranked Montana the following week, Smith punched a 26-yard touchdown run across the goal line, helping his team knock off the Grizzlies for just the second time in history.

In both of his starts, the Mustangs have tallied wins. But the early season success has masked what happened just a season ago. Other than those few weeks, the wins have been hard to come by.

Last year — one year after the Mustangs reached the playoffs — Smith took a flurry of punches to the gut from the politics of college football. Overnight, former Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson and the rest of the coaching staff — whom he had transferred from Utah to play for — vanished to Army. The senior class graduated, taking names like Jonathan Dally, Ramses Barden, James Noble and almost the entire offense with it. Smith and the rest of the team were left to pick up the pieces, posting a (4-7) record and finishing at the bottom of the Great West.

The whole team was to blame, fullback Jake Romanelli said.

“We didn’t have the year that we wanted last year and just being quarterback, (Smith) is going to get the blame for it,” Romanelli said. “If the offense isn’t working well, who are you going to turn to? It’s the quarterback. You can’t put all that pressure on one guy and in my opinion we all made mistakes last year.”

As a team, the Mustangs ranked second to last in the Great West in scoring offense, total offense and passing efficiency and ranked last in passing offense. The team finished with its worst record since 2002, while losing its first Great West championship in four years. While the blame of the losses can be attributed to anybody, Smith is a player who usually carries the burden on himself.

“He is the first one to blame himself for a play before he blames someone else,” linebacker Kenny Jackson said. “He is always the one to take the blame and say ‘I should have made that pass better.’”

After last season, the Mustangs had nowhere to go but up. With Smith a senior, he has one more shot to be recognized as a guy who helped his team to a special season, not 4-7 a record.

It is just going to take some old fashioned blood and sweat.

“You have to take it,” Smith said. “Nobody is going to go out there and give it to you, you have to go out there and take it and you have to play great every week, if you want to be great.”

On the field, in the weight room or in the film room, his work ethic isn’t ignored by his teammates. They recognize the long hours and the constant wear and tear on his body. Day in and day out, Smith does what he needs to do to get better.

“He takes care of what needs to be taken care of, he always wants to go work out and get better,” Jackson said. “He has been working harder this year than I have ever seen him work before.”

Off the field, sometimes his work ethic may go overlooked. No matter how many times he practices the same throw or diagnoses his play on tape, it seems he can’t win over some of the Poly faithful. Some are calling for impeachment, ailing to solidify Broadous as the Mustangs starting quarterback — at Smith’s expense. He lost his spot due to an injury and has yet to find the field since.

“Quarterback is the most glorifed position in football,” Romanelli said. “I mean if the team is winning, you look great, if not, you don’t.”

He is constantly showered with criticism, and Smith said he knows it has become a part of the job description.

“It comes with the nature of playing quarterback,” Smith said. “Not a big deal to me, never really bugged me.”

It all just goes unnoticed now. Fans can bark about a missed read or incompletion but, regardless of what is said, when it boils down to it, it falls on deaf ears. Only one collective opinion matters — his teammates’.

“I don’t want to say I disvalue any sort of fans,” Smith said. “But if I know that I have my teammates trust and my teammates believe in me as well as the coaching staff, it really doesn’t matter what kind of comments are made about me.”

While the fans have their opinions, Smith’s teammates have theirs as well. On the field, Smith is seen as a leader, a field general who has the desire deep down to win. Guys rally around him and he has what it takes to lead a football team, Jackson said.

“On the field he is a person of confidence, he holds himself with confidence,” Jackson said. “He believes he can do it, he leads the offense like he can do it.”

To pair with his leadership abilities, Smith yields knowledge of the game. He knows the ins and outs of the playbook, Broadous said. On every play he can tell you what his teammates assignments are, not just his. The triple-option offense, Cal Poly’s offensive strategy, can often be hard to master, but Smith is making it look easy. He is on the same level with co-offensive coordinator, Bryan Cook, and may even, at times, answer Cook’s questions before they’re asked, Romanelli said.

Broadous sees the same traits.

“Tony, he knows the game really well,” Broadous said. “I mean he knows all his checks, he knows all his audibles and he is real smart with the ball. He is a great student of the game.”

It’s only a matter of time until that skill set leads him and Cal Poly to huge things, Romanelli said.

“I think he definitely showed glimpses of being a hell of a QB,” Romanelli said. “He is only going to get better.”

When it comes down to it, Smith’s motivation motivates his teammates. And one day, Smith hopes he will have the same moment Hives II had — still so vivid and colorful in his memory — just with him holding up that trophy. Only this time it will have the words national championship engraved on it.

“I want people to remember this as a special season,” Smith said. “It’s not necessarily for me, but it’s for this team. I want to win a championship, I want to win football games and I want to do it for my teammates. It’s the right time.”

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5 Comments

  1. The Mustang Daily has a really weird passsion for writing stories about crappy back-up quarterbacks…

    1. First of all, I would be first in line to say that Andre should start. However, your comment really pisses me off. This story reveals the great character behind our former starting QB. Nearly all of these players’ careers will be done when they’re finished playing at Cal Poly, but their character is something that sticks around and is something that I think is far more valuable in the long run than our QB’s passer rating.

  2. Polyfan-

    I have a problem with your comment. This is the second time we’ve had a major article about a player who wasn’t even the starting quarterback at the time. There are several other sports on campus doing a lot more success both on and off the field than our football team. Our women’s volleyball team just swept the 21st ranked team in the country! The cross country teams are looking to dominate the Big West, again! The women’s soccer team has Whitney Sisler who is killing it on the field this year!

    However, the Mustang Daily would rather write a feel good piece about a player on our team who isn’t even in the starting role after previously writing an article about him earlier in the season. Tony Smith is not a special story. There are hundreds of student athletes at this school who if asked, I’m sure would apply similar responses about wanting their team to succeed. However, the difference is that those other team actually DO succeed and are doing well against ACTUAL division 1 competition. Our second tier football team’s back up QB hardly seems to be what the Mustang Daily should be focusing on. Maybe if the paper chose to show the successes occurring within the program, people wouldn’t claim that sports at Cal Poly suck.

    It’s all good and well that we can write about a football player riding the bench behind someone who can’t even break the century mark in passing yards against an FCS defense but I know that many would prefer to read about a Cal Poly athlete succeeding beyond the recognition they’re given.

    1. I’m not trying to argue that an article about our backup football quarterback is more important than our successful volleyball team. The article was written by a guy who seems to ONLY write about football. That appears to be his job on the staff of the Mustang Daily. So if we assume that this article is going to be about something football related, I think that this particular backup quarterback is worth writing about.

      He may not mean much to the fans, but I guarantee you that the team (and Andre) looks up to their senior quarterback. Being a veteran leader, how Tony responds to being replaced sets the stage for the entire team’s reaction. His willingness to put aside his own personal aspirations for the coherence of the team IS something worth writing about. The point of the article is to give the fans an idea of what’s going on with the football team internally, not just on the surface. I really doubt that I’m the only one who was wondering how Tony has responded to being replaced.

      As an example, if the 49ers ever benched Alex Smith again, there would be a at least a few articles featuring interviews with Alex trying to gauge his reaction to the situation. It’s pretty standard stuff.

  3. He’s the sports editor, not the football editor. His job is to cover cal poly sports, not just cal poly football. You make a good point. He only seems to write about football.

    But then again, how good of a job covering cal poly sports can a guy, who when pictured in the paper last year was wearing a cal shirt, do?

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