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Zach Smith, Bret Bielema, K.J. Hill, and a Bunch of Nonsense: What?

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Because we live in Hell-world, Arkansas sports media is focusing on a recruiting story about K.J. Hill rather than the fact that we play TOMORROW in our second trip to Omaha in as many years.

I really didn’t want to write this story. In fact, I thought it would all just blow over as more tabloid gossip. But we live in Hell-world, and rather than talk about the fact that the baseball team is gunning for a second straight College World Series, or really anything else, we’re talking about something that may or may not have happened with recruiting four years ago. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the carbon monoxide leak that’s taken the state by storm for the past two days.

A Brief Summary

Based on my research, Saturday Down South was the first to break this story. Here’s the skinny: 2015 Wide Receiver K.J. Hill was the number one recruit in the state of Arkansas. He was a highly coveted recruit that committed to Arkansas, but ended up flipping to Ohio State by National Signing Day. It was disappointing, and a lot of folks were sad to lose him, but in college recruiting, you take your lumps and move on. He wanted to go to Ohio State— more power to him.

Here’s where it gets, uh, interesting? On a recent episode of his podcast, renowned humanitarian and former Ohio State receivers coach, Zach Smith told a story about K.J. Hill’s recruitment. Allegedly, during the final weeks of his recruitment, K.J. Hill was scheduled to take an official visit to Ohio State.

“It’s the Monday before his official visit starts that Friday. (Former Ohio State assistant) Chris Ash comes into my office and says, ‘Hey, listen to this. This is bizarre.’ He has a voicemail from Bret Bielema saying, ‘Hey Chris, Bret. Just wanted to let you know that K.J. is going to cancel his official this weekend. I just wanted to apologize but he’s not going to come.’”

Smith elaborated: “Arkansas is backwoods state, they do some stuff like you read about Southern recruiting where all of a sudden, K.J.’s stepdad’s job is being threatened by the boss and his family is getting run out of town... They are coming to his basketball games and just destroying the kid, but Bret Bielema did something that I’ve never heard about in college coaching.”

Ugh. So, let’s take a look at this and break it down.

What We Know for Sure

  1. Zach Smith is a Grade-A Scumbag: In addition to being charged with domestic violence, and violating the terms of his divorce, Smith has been arrested for drunk driving, and accused of ordering some $2,000 dollars worth of sex toys to his office at Ohio State. He also had an illicit relationship with a staffer (something we know all too well about with the Bobby Petrino scandal), and behaved otherwise improperly during his time in Columbus. Brett McMurphy with Stadium has detailed all of these allegations. As if all of this was not enough, Smith seems to bask in the light of being a bad guy, and constantly has meltdowns on Twitter, which garner national attention. Oh, by the way, his podcast is called “Menace 2 Society,” so you can be sure he’s just an awesome guy.
  2. Bret Bielema is prone to gaffes: Call it arrogance, call it foot-in-mouth disease, call it stupidity, but we can all agree that Bret Bielema was prone to the occasional verbal slip-up during his tenure at Arkansas. From charming goofs like saying he would “hop on the wife— HOP ON THE PLANE!” after beating Ole Miss in the 4th and 25 game, to the questionable description of Bijhon Jackson’s “incredible, incredible ass,” to the downright stupid indictment of Texas High School football (“if you don’t play with a fullback we’ll kick your ass, and if you throw it 70 times a game we’ll kick your ass”), the man was simply prone to a flub. I don’t see the voicemail with Chris Ash as an impossibility.
  3. K.J. Hill believes that this situation occurred: After a day of hubbub and gossip, K.J. Hill weighed in, tweeting:

Now, if K.J. believes this happened, I’m inclined to believe him, because I have no doubt that this is what he was told.

What’s Iffy:

  1. Context: Smith insinuates in his podcast that the voicemail was made in a more-or-less malicious manner, implying that Bielema called Chris Ash with the intent to sabotage K.J.’s decision process. I’m not sure that’s the correct reading of the situation. Chris Ash previously worked under Bret Bielema both at Wisconsin and Arkansas, meaning that Bielema liked him enough to bring him with him from Madison to Fayetteville. When Ash was hired at Rutgers, Bielema even went out of his way to compliment Ash, stating: “Very excited for Chris and the opportunity he has at Rutgers and in the Big Ten Conference. He’s got all the tools to lead a program and has certainly earned it. As a first-year head coach I’ll be there to help him in any way, but my guess is he’ll do just fine.” Does that sound like someone with the intent to harm? My guess is that Bielema made the call in jest, and despite it being a ham-fisted attempt at humor, I think it’s a stretch to assume anything else.
  2. Smith’s Motives: We know Smith is a liar. You don’t have to consider the evidence above for very long to come to that conclusion. Smith was K.J. Hill’s recruiter with Ash as well. Is it really that far fetched to believe that Smith stretched the truth a little bit to turn Hill away from Arkansas? This is not to take agency away from Hill, by the way. He made a decision to join the Buckeyes, and I don’t fault him for that. But if you were weighing your options, and this information was presented— with Bielema being none-the-wiser, mind you— wouldn’t you be pissed? What sense does it make to cancel a kid’s recruiting visit, and then not tell the kid? It doesn’t. I wonder, does Smith’s personality or history suggest that he would resort to underhanded tactics?
  3. Timeline: Consider when this is happening. This has come out in 2019, some four years after Hill committed to Ohio State, almost two years since Bielema was fired by Arkansas, and a year after Smith was fired by Ohio State (what a joke that it took that long— it’s for the kids, right Urban?). After being deemed “an imminent threat” to his wife, being more than likely unhireable in his industry, and being pushed into irrelevance, what can you do but stir up drama to get clicks on your podcast? We’re all talking about it, aren’t we? I had never heard of “Menace 2 Society” before this week (and long for the days I was ignorant of its existence). Had you?

What to Make of It:

Here’s what I believe: the phone call happened, K.J. Hill was told about that happening, and Zach Smith is a scumbag.

Here’s what I don’t believe: Bielema made the call with bad intent, Smith has anyone’s best interests in mind beside his own.

Admittedly, that does leave a lot of wiggle room, but the more you examine the situation, the more it seems like something that Smith pushed to drives clicks, and a bored media ran with it in a dead time for most major sports. K.J. Hill didn’t commit to Arkansas, Bielema was fired, and we’re all older and wiser. Who cares about this story at this point? What are they going to do? Double Fire Bielema? For me, I would much rather focus on what is happening in Omaha with a potentially legendary baseball team. Let the past be in the past, and let Smith rot in irrelevance.

We’ll be giving you a preview for Omaha soon, and perhaps a roundtable discussion with some of the good folks in our pod. Go Hogs.

Tucker Partridge can be followed on Twitter @tuckerpartridge.