Unlimited food? NCAA ruling could add fascinating layer to recruiting

Wednesday April 16th, 2014

Tulane could become a recruiting power by feeding its players local cuisine, such as ribs from The Joint.
Andy Staples/SI

For the sake of this exercise, let's pretend for a moment that they'll choose the smart option. Let's pretend they won't freak out over a little freedom and hurriedly try to make more rules. Let's pretend they understand the value of positive public relations.

The NCAA's legislative council approved a measure on Tuesday that would allow schools to provide unlimited meals and snacks to athletes. That may sound insignificant, but it's a massive PR win for a system that got blasted earlier this month when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, in the process of winning a tournament for which the NCAA receives about $770 million a year in television rights fees, complained that there are nights when he goes to bed hungry. Not anymore, Mr. Napier. The athletes who come after you can snack to their hearts' content if their schools choose to stock the fridge. Meanwhile, the surging athletes-rights movement loses an effective-if-slightly-disingenuous narrative. (Here's the only one that matters: Revenues have skyrocketed, and the workforce hasn't received a raise since the 1950s.)

#DearAndy video: Taking official recruiting visits based on local food options

This is great news for the schools and their beloved status quo, unless they screw it up, which they probably will. They'll probably override this attempt at deregulation. Remember, it was representatives from the member schools who took a well-meaning suggestion a few years ago and turned it into a ban on cream cheese in a futile effort to keep from widening the gulf between the spreadable Haves and the dry-bagel Have-Nots. They're also the ones who couldn't bear the thought of deregulating college football recruiting communication -- If we allow text messages, Nick Saban will outsource "Come to Alabama" texts to India; someone in Mumbai will text some kid in Montgomery 150 times a day -- so they overrode an attempt at common sense. These people looooove their rules, and many of them wouldn't know what to do without them.

So, they'll probably ditch this ruling, which, among other things, finally allows tuition-paying walk-ons to get meals in return for their service as human-tackling dummies. That's a shame, because if this rule went into effect, it would add another fascinating layer of intrigue to the recruiting process -- especially in football. Let's imagine for a moment that the schools actually choose the intelligent option and allow Tuesday's ruling to stand. It would completely set the recruiting world on its ear.

Imagine, as this Auburn blogger did on Twitter, if schools hired celebrity chefs to feed athletes morning, noon and night. Would LSU lock down Emeril Lagasse? Would Cal hire The French Laundry's Thomas Keller and suddenly dominate the Pac-12? Would Ole Miss look in its backyard and hire Oxford's own John Currence, who won the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award naming him the South's best chef?

This probably wouldn't happen for a few reasons. If you follow any college athletes on Twitter, you know their tastes do not trend upscale. If my feed is to be believed, about 73 percent of them are devouring Chipotle burrito bowls at this very moment. Also, Currence is originally from Louisiana and might not relish trying to fuel the Rebels to beat LSU.

Still, there is so much excellent college town cuisine that this rule could help tip the balance toward certain schools if it goes into effect. (And if coaches don't mind their backs weighing 290 pounds and linemen weighing 430.) Let's take a look at a few.

Alabama: Ribs from Archibald's in Northport for lunch and dinner? Yes, please. But what about breakfast? The Waysider is right next to campus, and Bear Bryant's favorite morning spot could deliver thousands of those tiny, impossibly fluffy biscuits and several vats of red-eye gravy to the football complex every day.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks already try to close their recruits with a visit to a place called The Catfish Hole. But if coach Bret Bielema wants to be a little more trendy, he'll enlist Hammontree's to set up a gourmet grilled cheese bar just outside the locker room.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils will land the best linemen in Pac-12 country when the big uglies realize they can get even bigger chowing down on Chuckbox burgers every day.

Auburn: Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said in 2012 that he chose to matriculate on the Plains instead of at Auburn With A Lake -- also known as Clemson -- because Auburn had a Chick-fil-A on campus and Clemson did not. McKinzy was wrong; Clemson does have a Chick-fil-A on campus and a freestanding store nearby. Still, Gus Malzahn and company need to keep the waffle fries flowing and the recruits will come. Of course, Malzahn would probably choose Waffle House to scatter, smother, cover, chunk and top his players' meals.

Baylor: No team in the Big 12 would dare attempt to block a Bears' defense fed exclusively with Gut Paks from Waco's own Vitek's BBQ. For the uninitiated, the Gut Pak is a Styrofoam container filled with Fritos, cheese, chopped beef, sausage, beans, bread, pickles, onions and jalapenos. The olfactory assault generated by one attempt at an inside zone -- what do you think will happen when you push on their stomachs? -- would debilitate an opposing offense. After that, it would be up to Art Briles' offense (slightly slower on account of the Gut Paks) to pile on the points like so many baked beans.

Cal: Somebody has to try to hire Keller, right? If the Bears don't do it, Stanford will. Sure, the kids love their fast food, but maybe it's time to introduce five-stars to Michelin stars.

Clemson: We've already discussed the Chick-fil-A situation, but Dabo Swinney can also tap into the meat-and-three goodness of The Esso Club. But before his linemen overdose on country fried steak, Swinney can order brisket and pulled pork from The Smokin' Pig in nearby Pendleton, S.C.

Georgia: While Latin food isn't the first thing that comes to mind in Athens, the crew at Cali N Tito's could walk ample quantities of skirt steak and fried plantains to the nearby Butts-Mehre football complex. Also, with service inside the building, Mark Richt wouldn't have to worry about his players getting tempted by the beer from the gas station next door, or distracted by the sundresses on the premises of Cali N Titos. And if the Bulldogs are looking for more traditional Southern fare, the Butt Hutt is only a phone call away.

Kansas: Sorry, Missouri. Gates and Arthur Bryant's may sit on the Tigers' side of the state line, but the Jayhawks can claim Oklahoma Joe's -- which the school should immediately hire to set up shop in Lawrence and feed the football team. Charlie Weis once used "Have you taken a look at that pile of crap out there?" as his recruiting pitch. Now, he can ask recruits if they've taken a look at that pile of Z-Man sandwiches (brisket, provolone and two onion rings on a toasted Kaiser roll).

LSU: On top of all the crawfish etoufee they can eat, LSU athletes could inhale brisket and cheese po' boys or tamales from Pimanyoli's. They could also follow in the footsteps of former LSU beat writer Wright Thompson -- the only sportswriter who eats better than me -- and gorge on Roman pizza pies from Fleur de Lis Pizza.

Memphis: With Gus's Fried Chicken and a bevy of dry-rubbed deliciousness at any number of quality barbecue joints, the Tigers should be national title contenders within three years.

Michigan: Unlimited sandwiches -- get the Jon & Amy's Double Dip -- and sides -- get the jalapeno peaches if they're in season -- from Zingerman's Deli would make Michigan's athletes the envy of the Big Ten. Post-workout jerky from Biercamp would deliver the nation's best protein boost. Of course, given athletic director Dave Brandon's former job, the Wolverines would probably wind up eating a lot of Domino's Pizza.

NC State: The Wolfpack will attempt to turn the ACC's best prospects away from Tallahassee by offering unlimited whole hog barbecue and vinegar-based sauce from The Pit in Raleigh. The toughest recruiting battles on Tobacco Road will be between NC State and North Carolina, which will attempt to lure recruits with fried chicken-and-cheddar biscuits from Chapel Hill's Time-Out (available 24 hours a day, of course).

Nebraska: Personally, I'd opt for a training table supplied by Lincoln's Phat Jack's BBQ. But knowing Nebraskans' love of the cinnamon roll-and-chili combo (don't ask), it's quite possible that Runza would get the contract.

Northwestern: That pesky union vote doesn't stand a chance if the Wildcats can chow on deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati's on a daily basis, courtesy of the school.

Notre Dame: A few nights ago, a buddy who graduated from Notre Dame texted me a photo of his burger from C.J.'s Pub. After realizing I couldn't eat my phone, I reveled in the memory of the Golden Domers I've eaten there. What's a Golden Domer? It's 20 ounces of beef on a Kaiser bun with your choice of toppings. I add bacon, mushrooms and Swiss cheese. Fighting Irish athletes would be able to add anything they like.

Texas: If the Longhorns could somehow convince Aaron Franklin to smoke briskets exclusively for the football team, there would be no keeping up with these Joneses.

Texas A&M: It would be the ultimate irony if the Aggies could dominate the state while devouring brisket from the Longhorn-shaped smoker at Fargo's in Bryan. Kevin Sumlin's secret weapons would be the chicken fried bacon from Sodolak's Original Country Inn in nearby Snook and the 24-hour artisan tacos from Fuego Tortilla Grill across the street from campus.

Tulane: Between Jacques-Imo's, Cochon (and Cochon Butcher), Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, the entire Emeril empire, late night cheese fries at F and M and dozens of other glorious eateries, no program should be able to compete with the Green Wave. Meet the new Alabama.

USC: The Trojans thought it was great when interim coach Ed Orgeron served chicken and waffles from Roscoe's after a practice last season (as what the NCAA calls an "occasional meal"). Now, imagine a Roscoe's training table. Eat on.

Wisconsin: For breakfast, scramblers and milkshakes from Mickie's Dairy Bar. For lunch, brats from State Street Brats. For dinner, burgers and cheese curds from Dotty Dumpling's Dowry. For a late-night snack, mac-and-cheese slices from Ian's Pizza. The Badgers' offensive linemen would be exactly the same size as they are right now.

Already a sought-after program, Texas A&M could lure recruits with chicken fried bacon from Sodolak's.
Andy Staples/SI

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