Rooting Out The Truth In Bret Smith Saga

Getting top football prospects from other states is like pulling teeth, but getting top football prospects from Arkansas is like pulling impacted wisdom teeth without an anesthetic.

In other words: it's a protracted, painful process that features lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Two years ago, it was Cedric Houston who felt the slings and arrows of outraged Arkansans, both before and after he accepted a scholarship to Tennessee. The heat was turned up in his hometown of Clarendon where it fully felt by Cedric, his head coach, family and friends.

As a senior, Houston was rated the nation's No. 7 tailback (Jabari Davis was rated No. 2, Derrick Tinsley was rated No. 4), and a top 25 prospect overall. He was the only Arkansas player chosen for the Parade All-American Team and he was also named to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. However Houston didn't get the award for top player in the state after he announced his commitment to Tennessee. That instead went to De'Arrius Howard of West Memphis, a good back recruited by the Vols and signed by the Hogs.

When I interviewed Houston during the height of the tumult two years ago, he had this to say about the situation.

"My family and friends were like cool with it. As far as other people they were wild, crazy. It's still crazy now. It don't bother me really, but there are a lot of people that aren't cool with it that act like they are. They don't talk to me too much. They talk to my auntie and try to get her to change my mind. That's happened a whole bunch from alumni."

When Houston showed up for the an awards banquet in which the state's top 10 players were invited, he quickly realized he was being treated differently than the other players in attendance.

"At the awards banquet in Little Rock, I didn't hear anything but I know they're talking," Houston said of the many Arkansas fans in attendance. "I saw folks looking at me kind of crazy. I've been treated different since I announce I was committed to Tennessee, but it don't bother me. Tennessee is where I want to go."

Occasionally, Houston would run into that fan who couldn't fathom why he wouldn't want to go to Arkansas and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask him, unrestrained by the fact they were total strangers. Houston had a response that was as quick and to the point as his cutback running style.

"I tell them I like it better than Arkansas and that's where I want to be. I know Tennessee is going to sign a lot of backs, but that don't bother me. I'm not changing my mind. Tell everyone to stop worrying. I'm Tennessee bound."

True to his word, Houston came to Tennessee and wasn't bothered by the competition. The same confidence it took for him to leave Arkansas served him well when the tailback's job opened up this fall.

One of the standard tools used to tighten the screws on any gifted Arkansas athlete so brazen to believe there is life outside of the Natural State, is an appeal from the sports editor of the only statewide daily newspaper — Wally Hall of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In 2001, Houston was warned by Hall in print of the perils of leaving the state, and Parade All-American wide receiver Bret Smith got a version of the same stale spiel in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper. The good news for Tennessee fans is that when things get to this point that's usually a good indication the prospect is headed out of state.

The column, amusingly enough titled: "Like It Is," was written under the guise that Arkansas is running into negative recruiting tactics related to the NCAA penalties brought about when a big-time Razorback booster was found to have under worked and overpaid football players he employed in summer jobs at his trucking company . The booster was later forced by the NCAA to disassociated himself from the University and take back some $525,000 in donations to the UA athletic program. Arkansas had other penalties enforced like the loss of eight football scholarships, one basketball scholarship and visit reductions.

Hall contends Arkansas prospects are being told by rival recruiters that the Razorbacks won't be allow to play in bowls or appear on TV. He later speculates that perhaps this is the reason the Warren trio of Smith, RoShaun Fellows and Terrance Hampton are considering going out of state to play their college football. This appears to be a thinly veiled accusation against Tennessee, since Fellows has already committed to the Vols and Smith is only considering UT and Arkansas.

Hall writes: "There was a time when guys like Bret Smith, RoShaun Fellows and Terrance Hampton would have walked barefoot on hot coals rather than consider leaving a state where their futures would be assured because they had become members of the Razorback family."

"Being a homegrown hero was important."

"Now, some seem to think the grass is greener in Tennessee or Texas, or Nebraska."

"Of those guys, Smith will be the one who gets the hardest knock if he leaves."

"If he signs with Tennessee — or any other SEC school - next week, he can expect to be booed every time he steps on a basketball court outside of Warren."

Of course, Hall doesn't mention that one player who left the state to play college football has returned and is probably more revered than any former pro player who resides in Arkansas. Tight end Keith Jackson, who went to Oklahoma and later played in the NFL for Philadelphia, Green Bay and Miami, is a successful business man, sponsors a charitable youth organization in Little Rock and does color commentary for Razorback football broadcasts. How's that for the Razorback family holding a grudge?

Jackson knew where he wanted to go and believed his best interests were served by going out of state. It's the same type of thing that happens in every state, including Tennessee.

When it happens in Arkansas many fans, alumni and at least one columnist can't seem to help but taking it personally. That's certainly their prerogative, but when you blame a kid choosing another college on negative recruiting, you're not giving enough credit to the kid or the competition.

The final irony of this opus is found in the fact that Arkansas, which has lost eight football scholarships, has already committed 27 prospects — including two from Tennessee and 12 from Arkansas — and the count is climbing.

The Razorbacks don't appear to have been hurt too bad by any negative recruiting that may have occurred, especially in the state. Besides, do you honesty believe if Tennessee couldn't go to a bowl or be on television the in-state prospects wouldn't already know about it? The University of Arkansas is the only real sports story in the state. To no avail, a few hardcore pockets of Arkansas State fans rail against the whole Hog coverage, but most readers are pleased with the attention accorded UA.

The only professional teams in Arkansas that compete for coverage are an Arena 2 football team and a lower minor league hockey squad. By the way, Arena 2 football has all the appeal of an intramural ice hockey match, but crowds in access of 10,000 routinely turn out to watch. In Houston Nutt's first year, when Arkansas went 9-3 and earned a bid to the Citrus Bowl, where the Hogs were hammered by Michigan, there were actually mugs commissioned to commemorate the campaign.

Arkansans haven't caught on yet that the Cotton Bowl isn't any longer a major post-season attraction and a rather lively debate played out in the press last December when pigheaded partisans passionately argued over which was the better bowl to attend — the Independence Bowl or the Music City Bowl. The point is: do you honestly think anyone in Arkansas with even a modicum of interest in football could possibly be unaware if the Hogs were banned from bowls or television?

Yet, that's the sketchy example of negative recruiting cited in the column, and it's made to sound like it's coming from Tennessee since the Vols are recruiting the Warren trio, having a commitment from one and possibly leading for another. Hampton is likely headed to Arkansas.

The problem with the allegation is that it indiscriminately impugns the integrity of UT assistant coach Steve Caldwell — who recruits Arkansas for the Vols — when nothing could be further from the truth.

Caldwell is a highly underrated recruiter because he's not spectacular. He doesn't dazzle recruits on first impressions and he doesn't try. He's not glitz and hard sale, rather he's amiable and straightforward. He builds a relationship with prospects over time and earns their trust by following through on what he says he will do. He doesn't make promises he can't keep, and he doesn't mislead prospects about opportunities or competition. That's another reason Houston wasn't worried about how many backs Tennessee signed, because Caldwell told him he'd be given a fair opportunity to win the starting job.

Houston was and did.

Caldwell harvested commitments in the much the same manner with Leslie Ratliff, Reggie Coleman, Greg Jones and Fellows. He might be fortunate enough to do the same thing with Bret Smith, but it won't be because he decided to smear the opposition or compromise his integrity. The sad truth is that Steve Caldwell is a man who has managed to do his professional best at a time when his private life has been ripped asunder by the tragic death of his son last fall.

Like a laborer in the fields, Caldwell has stayed true to his task, kept the faith and toiled from dawn till deep into cold winter nights, touting Tennessee. Surely it's not an easy challenge, and it speaks volumes for Caldwell's character that he has courageously carried on and conquered without complaint.

Anytime a player chooses to go out of state when there's an opportunity to earn the adoration or survive the criticism of his home state, it doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with the in-state school. It just means it's not right for that individual. I guess that's why, whenever asked my opinion, I always say: "Follow your heart because if you aren't happy you won't do your best. And if you don't do your best, it's bad for everyone involved."

That would be the same advice I'd give Bret Smith, if he were to ask, but I'm sure that's something Coach Caldwell has already told him.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories