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Gazzola fulfilled needs for UA sports

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Photographs by Catfish Hole, Facebook

Pat Gazzola, left, was the co-owner of the Catfish Hole and a longtime supporter of the Razorbacks.

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 well- done 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.

Clay Henry can be reached at chenry@nwadg.com .

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