Gaz­zola ful­filled needs for UA sports

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - CLAY HENRY

Bret Bielema re­layed his fa­vorite quote from Pat Gaz­zola.

“What­ever you need, coach.”

Any Arkansas coach could say the same. Hous­ton Nutt has heard it. So has Mike An­der­son, John McDon­nell, Nolan Richard­son or any other Ra­zor­back coach you want to name.

Bielema has been Arkansas’ foot­ball coach since 2012. He was at his emo­tional best Wed­nes­day as the lone rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Ra­zor­backs asked to speak at Gaz­zola’s memo­rial ser­vice at St. Paul’s Epis­co­pal Church.

Bielema warned the over­flow crowd that he’d never been asked to speak at a memo­rial ser­vice and hes­i­tated when the fam­ily called af­ter Gaz­zola’s pass­ing on Aug. 5. But there was no hes­i­ta­tion in his de­liv­ery. All in the church and a full ad­join­ing hall with closed cir­cuit TV knew they got all of Bielema’s heart in his fi­nal re­spects for Gaz­zola.

Just as Gaz­zola — who, with his wife, Janie, built one of North­west Arkansas’ most pop­u­lar restau­rants — pre­pared per­fect food for the Bielema and Bobby Petrino ra­dio shows, there was noth­ing but a per­fect de­scrip­tion for “Pat from the Cat­fish Hole.”

That’s who staffer Bobby Allen told Bielema to call for the first big re­cruit­ing

din­ner af­ter he took over as head coach.

“I’m a Yankee,” Bielema said. “I didn’t know any­thing about cat­fish. I asked Bobby, ‘We aren’t go­ing to feed the re­cruits cat­fish?’ I didn’t know.”

Allen told Bielema that it was in­deed a cat­fish eatery, but the Cat­fish Hole fare was di­verse and one of its best meals was steak.

“So the first time I met Pat was at the re­cruit­ing din­ner,” Bielema said. “He hugged me with a lot of love. Those hugs were al­ways the same.”

Ba­si­cally, those hugs rocked you. Pat passed on the love. Bielema said it never got old and never changed.

“What you learn to trust is con­sis­tency,” Bielema said. “Pat was al­ways the same. He al­ways loved the Hogs.”

The church filled 45 min­utes ahead of the mid-af­ter­noon ser­vice. I knew that was go­ing to be the case, but I al­most waited too late. I got a seat on the last row, the only thing avail­able 50 min­utes be­fore the start.

It was kind of like go­ing to the Cat­fish Hole on a Fri­day night. You are go­ing to wait for a seat, maybe for an hour. Come early, or you may not get some of those great hush pup­pies for a bit. Bielema had ev­ery­one’s mouth — as well as some eyes — wa­ter­ing when he talked about the hush pup­pies.

“That’s what you are al­ways go­ing to re­mem­ber,” he said. “That’s what ev­ery one one of our play­ers al­ways talk about. First time I was there, some­one said, ‘Hey, coach, dip them in the but­ter sauce.’ I’ll al­ways think of Pat for those hush pup­pies.”

Bielema said ev­ery­one else should do the same thing. He was re­minded of when his older sis­ter, Betsy, passed away from a horse rid­ing ac­ci­dent in 1990. He was 19 and didn’t know how to cope.

“The pas­tor told me to think of what my sis­ter loved the most,” Bielema said. “It was when she made those great cin­na­mon rolls. He told me no mat­ter where I went when I smelled or saw cin­na­mon rolls to tell peo­ple about your sis­ter.

“So I’ve done that. I might be in an air­port. I might be around to­tal strangers. If I smell them, I’m go­ing to tell some­one about my sis­ter.”

It will be a great way to pass on thoughts of Pat Gaz­zola. No one made bet­ter hush pup­pies and few know the recipe. There was love in those hush pup­pies. Ask any Ra­zor­back, past or cur­rent, and they know about the hush pup­pies, or the cat­fish or the steaks.

And they def­i­nitely knew Pat.

One player told me about or­der­ing steak for the first time on his re­cruit­ing visit. He re­ally didn’t know what to say when Pat asked for the steak tem­per­a­ture. The player heard some­one else say medium rare, so he re­peated it.

Pat brought a medium rare steak, but the player wouldn’t eat it. It takes courage to send a steak back, but Pat asked for a chance to make it a per­fect steak.

The deal was, Pat had been down that road with so many. There was an­other well­done steak ready and the player was soon smil­ing at how eas­ily “the cat­fish man made it right.”

Some play­ers were at­tracted to “the cat­fish man” more than the cat­fish. Run­ning back Alex Collins loved him like a fa­ther.

“Alex was one of Pat’s fa­vorites,” Bielema said. “Alex had a great way to bond with peo­ple. He fell in love with Pat.”

Like many play­ers, Collins worked at the Cat­fish Hole dur­ing the off-sea­son. And like many oth­ers, one of his first mem­o­ries of Arkansas in­cluded the restau­rant.

Bielema tricked Collins on their first trip to the Cat­fish Hole dur­ing a re­cruit­ing visit.

“We al­ways call the Hogs there,” Bielema said. “So when we took Alex there for his visit — and you know he’s left-handed — Alex just put up his left hand. I’d known Alex for a long time and I knew he was com­ing here. So I de­cided to have some fun.”

When Bielema and Collins left the Cat­fish Hole, the coach told him he’d “com­mit­ted a big no-no. I told him he’d dis­re­spected the peo­ple of Arkansas. You can’t call the Hogs left-handed. You have to do it with your right hand and that Pat had come up and told me that. It’s one of the very few times I’ve had Alex — for about a minute and a half.” Bielema told Gaz­zola later. “He took off his glasses and he wiped away a tear,” Bielema said. “He loved it.”

Gaz­zola was a men­tor to Collins dur­ing his time at Arkansas. An­other Collins men­tor is Doug Gate­wood, ath­let­ics di­rec­tor at South Plan­ta­tion High School in Plan­ta­tion, Fla. Gate­wood re­layed the pass­ing of Gaz­zola to Collins at pre­seaon camp for the Seat­tle Sea­hawks.

“When Alex de­cided to visit Arkansas, I’m not sure he could tell you where it was on the map,” Gate­wood said. “So I got with Bret to help plan the visit. One of the things I did was call Pat. He was go­ing to be in­volved in the meal. There were 9,000 ques­tions. I told him that Alex put ranch dress­ing on ev­ery­thing. Pat had a gi­ant new bot­tle of

ranch by his meal.

“I came on the visit. We hit it off, and Alex fell in love with Pat im­me­di­ately. I know ev­ery­one thinks they have a good re­la­tion­ship with Alex. He can make you feel that way, but what he had with Pat was very true.”

From the time Collins ar­rived at Arkansas, he wanted to work for Gaz­zola.

“Bret is care­ful about that,” Gate­wood said. “He didn’t get to work there un­til be­tween his sopho­more and ju­nior sea­son. But it was a great sum­mer for Alex.

“When my fam­ily would come for a visit, we’d head for the Cat­fish Hole. We’d go in the front. Alex would go in the back to star­tle the work team. He loved ev­ery­one there. It’s one big fam­ily there.

“I’m telling you, Alex loved it at Arkansas, loved Pat and loved the Cat­fish Hole. It killed him not to come back for his se­nior year and it was a close de­ci­sion. You don’t know how close.”

With­out ques­tion, Gaz­zola was close to a lot of play­ers, not just Collins. It was Gaz­zola who en­cour­aged Bielema to bring play­ers with him for his ra­dio show each Thurs­day dur­ing the sea­son.

“I had been do­ing ra­dio shows for years and I’d never thought about bring­ing play­ers,” Bielema said. “Pat taught me that the play­ers loved cat­fish more than the fans.”

Gaz­zola could teach any­one love. He loved the Hogs es­pe­cially hard. He loved go­ing to prac­tice. In the days that me­dia could at­tend on a rou­tine ba­sis, he might find a writer to sit with and talk foot­ball, bas­ket­ball or track. If it had a Hog on it, Pat wanted to talk about it.

It was clear that Gaz­zola was close to Nutt. He vowed never to be­come that close to a coach again af­ter Nutt left in 2007, but he even­tu­ally be­came close to Bielema, too.

Bielema re­called two vis­its with Gaz­zola in the last few weeks when it was ap­par­ent the health is­sues were get­ting worse. One time Gaz­zola couldn’t talk be­cause of a breath­ing tube, but it was still a good visit.

“The last time, just be­fore our daugh­ter was born, he was talk­ing,” Bielema said. “He kept say­ing, ‘It’s go­ing to be a big year for you. Your daugh­ter is com­ing.’

“It was a great visit. He was smil­ing. He was want­ing to know how I was do­ing. He kept say­ing, ‘Coach, it’s go­ing to be a spe­cial year.’ That’s the way I want to re­mem­ber him. He gave me a fist bump on the way out.”

Pat Gaz­zola could de­liver a great meal, but he’d give you an ex­tra help­ing of love.


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