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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- If you're not paying attention, you'll drive by one of the most effective recruiting tools in college football without noticing.
Tucked away about 20 yards from the heavy traffic on Wedington Drive, about five miles from the Arkansas campus, is an unassuming gray building with turquoise trim. A single light illuminates a simple sign painted in the same gray and turquoise as the building it advertises.
There aren't neon signs like the ones throughout the new multi-million dollar training facility at Oregon. There also aren't video games or countless 50-inch flat-screen televisions like Alabama has in its new-and-improved player lounge. What it lacks in flash and style, it more than makes up for with ambiance and some of the best food you're going to ever eat.
Welcome to the Catfish Hole, recruiting's dream diner.
It's been said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and the same is true when dealing with high school football recruits. In most cases, the food a prospect eats on an official visit can't compare to playing time, relationships with the coaching staff or academics when it comes time to make a decision. But five-pound lobsters, chicken wings, all-you-can-eat buffets and 72-ounce steaks certainly can't hurt.
Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy was dubbed "The Chick-fil-A recruit" after he selected the Tigers over Clemson back in 2012 because he liked the proximity of the chain's location to the Auburn campus. Georgia star sophomore running back Todd Gurley said "the food in Athens is my favorite thing about the school" after he committed to the Dawgs as one of the nation's most highly courted players coming out of high school.
There are also legendary stories about the Papadakis Taverna, a since-closed Greek restaurant where then-USC coach Pete Carroll would bring recruits while belly dancers wriggled through the aisles and plates of veal and lamb were served.
When Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was at Wisconsin, he says, the Badgers landed highly recruited receiver Kyle Jefferson out of Cleveland Glenville because the waffles they served him had W's on them. Bielema said it was then when he truly realized how important food was to recruits. And he's not the only one.
"We put a ton of time researching where we want to take kids to eat," Washington linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Peter Sirmon said. "Our on-campus recruiting ambassador actually goes out and scouts out areas and finds places that represents what it's like to live in Seattle. It truly is one of the most important parts of the official visit."
Per NCAA rules, recruits are allowed to have six meals, plus snacks, during the 48-hour period they're on campus and the meals must be comparable to those provided to student-athletes during the academic year.
Recruiters believe where a prospect eats is just as important as meeting with a business professor, touring the locker room and spending time with the strength coach. All of those things are typical parts of an official visit; great food combined with a fun environment can leave a lasting impression.
"I think it's not necessarily how the food tastes. That's important, but it's more about the image," said Sirmon, who pointed out Washington typically takes prospects up to the top of the Space Needle on larger recruiting weekends.
"You're always trying to paint a picture with the 48 hours that parents and athletes are here with what you want to really highlight. I think the food is an important part of it because you're going to be able to highlight this is what your school and town are about. We're in Seattle, so we tell our recruiting guys to think they're Nordstrom's. When you think of that store, you think you can really get anything you want with personal, warm service."
Personal and warm service personifies the Catfish Hole but only partly explains why it's a vital part of Arkansas recruiting. The story of the Catfish Hole is a tale of what happens when you have vision, deliver a product that can't be matched and create an environment rife with Razorbacks spirit.
After a career as a lawyer and working in the oil-and-gas business for more than 25 years, Pat Gazzola purchased an Alma, Ark., restaurant called the Catfish Hole that had filed for bankruptcy in 1993. Working 18-hour days, Pat and his wife, Janie, turned the business around in less than a year and opened another location near the University of Arkansas, Pat's alma mater.
With a menu featuring hand-battered catfish, fried and boiled shrimp, melt-in-your-mouth steak, hush puppies served with homemade honey butter and much more, the Catfish Hole was an instant hit in Fayetteville.
"If you talk to a kid that played football here 10 years ago, and they're in town for one night, guess where they're going to dinner?" Bielema said. "The Catfish Hole. There was a scout that came through here a week ago. I asked him how long he's in town for. He said, 'I'm in town long enough to go to the Catfish Hole.' The hush puppies are off the charts."
Gazzola quickly became the unofficial "Head Hog" when it came to cooking for the athletic department. Coaches from all of Arkansas' sports called on him to cater training tables, and Gazzola approached Houston Nutt shortly after he arrived in 1998 to see if he would be interested in bringing football recruits over to eat while they're visiting.
It was a match made in Hog heaven.
Since then, every Razorbacks football coach has brought prospects to the Catfish Hole, and it's where recruiting magic happens.
|It may look simple on the outside, but the Catfish Hole is Arkansas' secret weapon when it comes to recruiting.|
"The first time it happened, it was spontaneous," Gazzola said. "It wasn't rehearsed. There wasn't anything rehearsed about it. Now, it just happens on its own. They see the bus or a coach getting out of a car with recruit, they know what to do. When the recruits get in the restaurant, it's deafening loud. Fans will start yelling on one side of the restaurant 'Arkansas' and the other side yells 'Razorbacks.' It's loud, raucous."
Recruits are ushered to the Razorback Room, a special section that seats about 90 people and is plastered with Arkansas memorabilia, including autographed jerseys and framed photos of former stars. They're then served high quantities of everything on the menu, including a special strawberry-and-cream fried pie that's served with a side of vanilla Blue Bell ice cream. Gazzola said the pie recipe is his "secret weapon" reserved only for recruits.
At some point, recruits and family members are encouraged to stand on a chair and "call the Hogs." Many can't help themselves because of the electricity of the environment -- and the sugar high from that special pie -- and are quickly leading the crowd with a series of "woo pig sooie" calls and repeats. Once that happens, Arkansas coaches know they've hit a home run with a prospect and have a great chance at landing him.
Razorbacks freshman running back Alex Collins was one of those recruits this past January. The nation's No. 57 player, out of Plantation (Fla.) South Plantation, Collins originally committed to Miami before opening up his recruitment. Arkansas coaches knew they needed to make his official visit count, and it did, thanks in part to the Catfish Hole.
"The Catfish Hole gets five stars from me," said Collins, who has emerged as one of the top true freshman in the SEC with 797 yards rushing through eight games. "Not only is the food amazing, but the people that were there that night showed me how much they care about Arkansas and care about me. You could feel it the entire time you were there. It was important for me to find an environment like that."
Schools all over the country wine and dine prospects with catered meals at a coach's home or a local country club.. Some will even serve dinners on the field under the stadium lights. But there's only one Catfish Hole, and schools will try all they can but will never be able to replicate one of the most effective tools in college football recruiting.
"The more you can reinforce where ever they go what kind of people are here, it goes a long way," Bielema said. "When they go to the Catfish Hole, and people are so nice and genuine, it makes the food better. It's a recipe I don't think anybody else in the country can copy."