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January 5, 2008Tulsa coach Todd Graham learned the full impact of quarterback Paul Smith on his program when he was on a recruiting trip in southern Oklahoma and heard a prospect bragging.
Not about Smith's record-setting numbers as the school's leading passer. Not about the way he directed Tulsa's confusing spread attack that led the nation in total offense.
"I've seen your quarterback," the player told Graham. "He was basically preaching down here and doing praise music."
That's the hidden aspect to the triple threat Smith has brought the Golden Hurricane in a remarkable career: a strong arm, good enough wheels and a big heart.
"Just the impact that had on him and just how impressed he was with that, just how he represents our university has been remarkable," Graham said.
"And then you combine all the intangibles he has - the character, the discipline, his faith - you combine that with the fact that he is a phenomenal football player."
The combination won Smith the Wuerffel Award, which honors one college football player each year for community service work in addition to great performances in the classroom and on the field.
Smith, who graduated last month with a 3.84 grade-point average, makes frequent speaking engagements as president of the campus Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter and also has mixed in visits to soup kitchens and other service work along with passing for a school-record 4,753 yards this season.
On Sunday, he'll lead Tulsa (9-4) against Bowling Green (8-4) in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala. It's the first time the Golden Hurricane have played in bowl games in three straight seasons since a run from 1942-46 that included two Sugar Bowls and one Orange Bowl.
"It's kind of surreal to think I've been a part of that," said Smith, Tulsa's career passing leader with 10,624 yards. "I've told people hopefully I can think back and it was no big deal because the tradition will continue. I don't want to come back and be the guy that led them to three bowl games and that's all they had done. I want to come back and people don't think it's any big deal because they're used to doing it.
"That's the most exciting thing is just to get the tradition back to where it used to be."
Smith did it without much proven talent around him. Entering the season, Tulsa had lost four of its five starting offensive linemen and every wide receiver that had 100 yards receiving last season. And then, leading rusher Courtney Tennial suffered an ankle injury in practice and missed the entire season.
Enter Gus Malzahn. The offensive coordinator who never got to implement his no-huddle, motion-heavy spread at Arkansas, brought it to Tulsa this season and has the Golden Hurricane within striking distance of becoming the first major college team with a 5,000-yard passer, three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher.
The offense is averaging 39.5 points and an unmatched 542.5 yards.
"He's the guy that's made it work. We get a lot of credit for having the No. 1 offense in the country," Graham said. "In my opinion, we've got the No. 1 quarterback in the country."
The 6-foot-2 coach's son set Oklahoma's high school passing record but never got a serious look by either of the state's two biggest schools. So, it's hardly surprising that he isn't a household name.
But Graham and Malzahn both believe Smith will have the chance to play in the NFL.
"I think that he'll get picked up by a team, he'll be the backup or third-team guy and then somebody will put the guy on the field and he'll never come off," Graham said. "That's how good I think he is."
"I think he's a phenomenal player. He's a guy that the measuring stick and the 40-yard dash and all that might not be what everybody's looking for, but as far as being a great quarterback? He's a great quarterback in every sense of the word."
That means understanding defenses, leading his team on and off the field and showing the ability to do "things that you would tell quarterbacks, 'Don't do that,' and he can do it," Graham said.
And what will help Smith's legacy linger is his heart. After all, Graham had to explain to his disappointed 5-year-old son, Michael, why Smith wouldn't be around after this season. The two have become friends as Smith stuck around after practice to play with him and carted him around when the Golden Hurricane were on the road.
It was a role reversal for Smith, who remembers tagging along when his father, Ron, was the offensive coordinator on a state championship football team whose players treated Smith like family.
"I remember the ones that took time to talk to me. I always kind of made that commitment to myself to always make time," Smith said.
Time for faith, family, football and plenty more.
"He's incredible. He's got a gift," Graham said. "I think that's what makes him so great. He knows that the good Lord has blessed him with the talents that he has, and he really stays grounded and really stays humble in his approach.
"Man, he's a winner too, though. You say all those nice things about him, but he's intense. He's a competitor."
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