UB head coach Nate Oats is a student of the game
Nate Oats has coached basketball for 18 years. He's waited behind Bobby Hurley. Now he’s ready to build Buffalo by himself.
Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Pat Miller was sweating bullets, nervous about the prospects of coaching his first-ever conference tournament game. He wanted to dot his I’s and cross his T’s before the big game.
Only, he forgot the most important thing.
“We get on the bus, I look and lo and behold, I forgot my bag that included my suit,” Miller said. “Forty-five minutes before one of the biggest coaching games of my career and I had no suit, no pants, no nothing.”
He looked around to his assistants, hoping each coach could provide at least one item. Maybe one had an extra pair of shoes, one had an extra pair of pants – maybe he could throw some semblance of a professional outfit together. But as he went to each of his coaches, he began to think it wasn’t going to happen.
And then he approached Nate Oats.
Oats smiled and pulled out an extra suit, pair of shoes and a tie. It was a microcosm of Nate Oats’ life and coaching career.
“He was always so prepared,” Miller said. “Whether it was an extra suit, or coaching, there was never a moment where I thought he was unprepared. He had an additional suit that day and the first thought was relief, but my second thought was ‘Why am I not surprised?’”
Speak to anyone who’s met Oats and they’ll tell you the same thing. His combination of readiness and energy is radiant and contagious. The desire to be one step ahead and outwork others is what made him successful traveling throughout the Midwest recruiting and turning Romulus High School into a basketball powerhouse outside Detroit, Michigan.
“I always wanted to outwork people,” Oats said. “You get out what you put in and the most prepared teams often win. I knew whenever I got into this position, that my teams were going to play tough defense, they were going to hustle and they were going to be prepared.”
And now, after 18 years of being a student of the game, and just before he makes his debut as the head coach of the Buffalo men’s basketball team, Oats is ready to be the teacher.
Oats was named Buffalo’s head coach after serving as an assistant under Bobby Hurley the past two seasons. After Hurley bolted for Arizona State last April, it was Oats who Athletic Director Danny White propped up as the man who would provide stability for a team coming off its first-ever Mid-American Conference Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
But nothing has been stable for Oats’ team or family since then.
Star point guard Shannon Evans joined Hurley at Arizona State after a heavily publicized and dramatized transfer and spat with White. Same for top recruits Torian Graham and Maurice O’Field who also joined Hurley. Then MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss, who Oats coached and mentored at Romulus, was caught stealing from a dorm room over the summer and expelled from UB.
And just days before Oats begins his first-ever season as a D-I head coach, doctors diagnosed his wife Crystal with lymphoma.
Oats goes between taking his three young daughters to school in the morning to Bulls practice to taking care of his wife undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
He knows he’s facing an uphill battle. Between roster changes, the transition from assistant to head coach and his wife’s health, Oats has to shoulder the responsibility of a Division-I program and his own family.
It would be a lot for any man to handle.
But based on his journey to this point, Oats just might be the man capable of keeping everything in tact.
A desire to coach
Growing up in Watertown, Wisconsin, Oats lived in a community of just under 20,000 people. He describes it best as a “classic, middle America city.” It was a community of people that looked after each other, both children and adults. It was where Oats and his love for sports grew.
In middle school, basketball captured his interest. He was a guard who did a bit of everything. But Oats will tell you that he wasn’t that good.
“I was never that good,” Oats said, chuckling. “I was a starter, started my sophomore, junior and senior year and we went 24-0 and won the division. I had some moments on the floor, too. I had a couple games where I hit about four or five threes in a row. My best role was defending the opponent’s best player.”
As he continued to get closer to his final season of school and the dream of playing basketball at a professional level seemed further and further away, Oats looked to stay involved in the game he loved. He began to look at coaching.
Head coach Nate Oats poses in the Triple Gym of Alumni Arena just days before he makes his Buffalo head coaching debut. / Yusong Shi
“I knew I wasn’t going to be an NBA player, so I started watching coaching more and more,” Oats said. “It became something that allowed me to stay in the game and be around the game I love.”
Oats started with a coaching DVD. “The Basics,” as he would call it. In a desire to know more about the game, Oats went to the library, taking out a book on simple coaching schemes. Offense, defense, fundamentals. Whatever was available, Oats would get his hand on.
Oats received several scholarships on the Division-II and Division-III college level, but opted to join his father, an administrator, at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown. Oats balanced a year of football, basketball and school, but also kept his eyes on coaching one day.
“I was always there talking to the coaches, just looking to know all the little things that we did out there,” Oats said. “I was almost like another coach – making sure we had everything we needed on the floor.”
After his career was over, he remained with Maranatha and accepted his first coaching position as an assistant.
After three years on the bench, Oats’ desire to move up was apparent. After hearing that the Maranatha head coach was retiring, Oats eyed the position from a far.
But he waited.
His father and the board of directors discussed an exit plan for the coach and Oats kept his ear to the ground and waited for a result. He had a plan, he experimented with the playbook, but it was all for naught. Both the head coach and administration agreed to a two-year plan, locking down the job for the foreseeable future.
But it was Oats’ first brush with leading his own program.
“I wanted to be the next guy,” Oats said. “I knew that his time was coming to an end and I wanted that position. Back then, I at least wanted to explain why I deserved the position … Let them know that I was serious about the job. He ended up with two more years and I felt a way about it. I really didn’t get the sense that I was getting the job. I was only 25 years old at the time.”
At season’s end, Oats opted to continue his career elsewhere, leaving Maranatha for an assistant head coaching position at Wisconsin-Whitewater alongside Miller and legendary WarHawks head coach Dave Vandermulen.
The great drive
After Oats’ first year, Vandermulen retired as head coach of the WarHawks. Miller was nabbed as his replacement and Oats was upgraded to Miller’s first assistant head coach. Miller and Oats had became close during their tenures as assistants.
An admirer of Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, Oats worked with some plays and incorporated some of the Spartans’ out-of-bounds plays.
When they didn’t work as well as they liked, they took the play out of the playbook, providing Miller and Oats with a teaching moment: work with the personnel you have.
“It was a moment that allowed both of us to grow as coaches,” Miller said. “He began to understand that while it was a great play, we just couldn’t execute it well. It showed both of us that we needed to work with what we had and model and tailor our game plan to them.”
Another new aspect to Oats’ job was recruiting. Under Miller at Whitewater, Oats traveled to the inner cities in Milwaukee in lieu of recruiting talent to the program. Due to the violent natures of some of the cities, the games often happened during the afternoon rather than night.
But that experience allowed Oats to develop his ability to scout and recruit players. He would study a player, find the traits that he liked in them and wait for the right moment to express interest,
As the months went by, Oats expanded his recruiting base by adding the suburbs of Milwaukee to his inner city trips. There, he gained a more adverse ability to find what he wants in a player. From a big man’s ability to run the floor, to a small forward who can pass, Oats discovered the traits he liked. He wanted the “hard-nosed player.”
What impressed Miller about Oats was his ability to do “a bit of everything.” In the different aspects of coaching, Oats “checked all the boxes,” according to Miller. He showed the ability to coach, he showed an extreme passion about the game, he was active as a recruiter, knew how to manage people and was good with X’s and O’s.
“He’s a basketball guy 24/7. I’ve never met someone so passionate in working with the game, advancing his knowledge and creating new connections,” Miller said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t learn anything from him in our time working together.”
In their two together, Oats and Miller continued the success of Vandermulen by going a combined 42-14 together and finishing in the top-two of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference each year.
Oats then received a phone call that would change his life.
Southfield Christian School head coach Josh Baker played with Oats on the Baptist basketball team, but the two first met at a basketball camp in high school. Baker was the new guy, while Oats was the big man on campus.
“I just remember a big flat top hair cut,” Baker said, “spiked at the top and just preening confidence. He was the man and knew everyone by their first name.”
While Oats was off working at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Baker accepted a teaching position at Romulus High School. It was a school in need of a basketball coach.
It was then, that Baker, as well as tipped off Oats about an opportunity to run his own program.
“I knew we were looking for a basketball coach,” Baker said. “I knew that Nate was working his way up the coaching tree, so I told him about the job and thought it would be a good chance for him.”
Ed Horn, Oats' close friend and former teammate who has since passed away, was also influential in letting Oats know about Romulus.
It was a chance for Oats to show his ability to run his own program. After years of being an assistant coach on the college level, he would be able to call the shots, at least on the high school level.
But he didn’t want it.
Oats had concerns about leaving a college position for a high school position. It wasn’t something he wanted to do because he only wanted to move forward in his career and he originally considered it a downgrade.
And he was also uncomfortable moving away from Wisconsin. Aside of some summer trips, Oats had lived in Wisconsin his entire life. He was Wisconsin.
So he came up with another plan.
“I basically decided to go and apply and interview for career development,” Oats said. “I wanted them to offer me the job so I can turn it down.”
But during his second visit at the school, Oats began to find a connection with the people of Romulus. He got a chance to tour the school and speak to the kids and members of the basketball team. What he found was people who had love for the community and shared the same love he had for the game of basketball.
“I began to fall in love with the place,” Oats said. “I began to create a connection with the kids there and administration was going to allow me to do what I wanted to do with the team, so I took the job.”
And with that desire of change and the prospects of running the show, Oats accepted the position and became the new head basketball coach at Romulus High School.
The little things
Romulus, Michigan is a suburban city just an hour outside of Detroit. It’s home to more than 25,000, a slight upgrade from Watertown. Ask about the city and words like “quiet” and “peaceful” come up. It was a diverse area where people worked hard and earned what they received.
It was also the same area where Oats would start his head coaching career.
“In retrospect, I needed those 11 years,” Oats said. “It was the best time of both my life and my career. I probably wouldn’t be ready for [the Buffalo job] if I didn’t take the Romulus job. It allowed me to work on those little things that helped advance my career.”
The first nuance was working on relationships with the members of the community. After working and recruiting in Milwaukee under Miller, Oats had a different challenge in building Romulus without recruiting. Coaches aren’t allowed to recruit on the high school level.
So instead of recruiting players to Romulus, players would often switch districts, which isn’t uncommon in high school basketball. In building and recreating Romulus into a basketball power, a part of the contribution would come from players moving districts in order to help their career.
But it would all start with work on the court.
“His goal was to challenge people on the floor,” said former Romulus player and current Bulls senior forward Raheem Johnson. “He wanted to get the best from us. Make us work everyday. If he saw you slacking off, he wouldn’t let it go, even for a second. It was a lot, but it came from a good place because he wanted to us win.”
Oats wasn’t one to be a coaching cliché. But everyone who worked with him will tell you he was a grinder. At Romulus, his energy and grinder mentality was the embodiment of the team.
He started with practices. Double practices. Under the rules in Michigan, Oats took his teams and began running practices before classes start. Fifteen guys taking jumpers, running suicides and executing Oats’ playbook at 6 a.m.
It soon became practice before classes and after school, and then practices on the weekend. Oats didn’t want to overwork his team, but he wanted them to be ready. He wanted them to work and always strive for success. He wanted to outwork everyone else.
The grinder mentality.
“He was great. When I was there, it was almost like a college program,” said former Romulus player and current Bulls sophomore guard Christian Pino. “We had a ton of college guys there on the roster by my senior year. Coach put that drive in us to be great.”
Once Oats got the support and respect of his players, he, along with his staff, began working on the community. A basketball city, Romulus High School was seen as something to get everyone together in support. Winning only made it easier.
After two seasons of building the program together, the third season under Oats was when everything began to fall into place. It was there where Romulus made its first-ever Final Four and defeated Persian High School. It was the beginning of the run for Romulus, both on and off the court.
“It was a town with a small town feel, winning at the highest level,” Oats said. “Once we got everything up and running, the town began to support us more and more. There was always support, but that third year, we began to get all of the support. The entire town, the local businesses, the alumni, to have all of them supporting us was a great feeling.”
Nate Oats in family portrait with his wife Crystal and three young daughters Lexie, Jocie and Brielle. / Courtesy of Nate Oats
In attempting to turn around Romulus, he wanted to learn from some of the best of the best in business. He looked around and decided that it was best to the resources that the state of Michigan was offering him.
He started with a road trip to East Lansing, Michigan.
Along with Baker, then an assistant coach under Oats at Romulus, Oats geared up for their first Division-I college basketball experience: a trip to Michigan State University to watch an open practice.
He sat down in an open practice and watched Izzo run the show, working with freshman, emphasizing positioning and getting the best shot. Oats was amazed with Izzo’s presence and work during the practice.
“I remember Nate and I walking in there and Nate having this ‘I run the place’ attitude,” cool as ever,” Baker said. “There were times where I questioned if we were going to get into whatever building we were going to, but not Nate. We got into the building every time and got to speak to some of the best coaches in history.”
But the thirst for knowledge didn’t stop there.
The two would continue across the country to basketball camps. Trips to California to learn the dribble drive offense from legendary head coach Vance Walberg at Pepperdine. Gathering notes from a Scott Skiles-led Chicago Bulls practice. Learning from Hubie Brown during a Memphis Grizzlies camp.
“It was much better than just watching film,” Oats said. “To be able to sit there and witness these great coaches work their systems live, seeing the things that they were looking for on the floor and being able to identify weaknesses.”
From the tempo and rules of the practices, to different out-of-bounds plays, to defensive ideals, Oats took notes of everything and brought it back to Romulus to add it to his arsenal and replicate success.
“The thing in high school is you can’t just recruit all the time to your system,” Oats said. “You take the best players and learn how to coach them. There’s some really good high school coaches – you have to adapt to your player and learn how to coach. You also learn how to tinker with some things. ”
Path to Buffalo
After 11 years of success and accolades earned at Romulus, the feeling for Oats began. The feeling he was ready to coach at the college level.
He wanted to attend a practice at Wagner University in Staten Island, New York. He wanted to see a practice under Dan Hurley. Years earlier, Dan had made the move Oats envisioned – moving from St. Benedict High School to Wagner. He wanted to pick his brain.
Oats began to make calls to Wagner, seeing if he could attend a practice, but not just any practice. He wanted to attend a practice while Hurley’s father, legendary high school basketball coach Dan Hurley Sr., was in attendance. So he called Wagner’s athletic directory and after several tries, he got an answer.
On the other side of the phone was college basketball legend and Wagner assistant head coach Bobby Hurley.
The two chatted about setting up a meeting with Bobby, Dan and their legendary father, but it never worked out. Instead, they kept in touch, and their conversations, Dan included, began to revolve around coaching and some of the intricacies of the game.
“I remember attending a game at Romulus and coming away impressed with Nate and his coaching,” Dan Hurley said. “He ran his Romulus teams like a college team in every aspect. It reminded me of the job I did at St. Benedict’s and the way my dad did at St. Anthony’s.”
Keeping in touch became vital two years later.
On March 26, 2013, Bobby was nabbed by White to be the next head coach of the Buffalo men’s basketball team. That left an assistant coach vacancy on Dan’s staff at Rhode Island.
But with a Midwest recruiter already on staff, Dan decided against hiring Oats. Dan did however recommend his brother hire him.
“Bob needed someone with some experience beside him,” Dan said. “He needed a guy who could help him build the program up. Someone who help with the vision. Nate crossed off every need for an assistant coach at the time and he was a good fit in terms of recruiting and overall team success.”
And it was Oats’ ability to provide a plan and his Midwest ties that intrigued Hurley. And on April 11, 2014, Oats was named as an assistant coach on Hurley’s Buffalo staff.
“After continuing to learn about Nate as a person, we began to talk about him accepting an assistant head coaching position here,” Hurley said in email. “I wanted to create a winning culture and program at Buffalo and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I saw a ton of great qualities in Nate and I wanted him to join my staff. He was a big piece to our team’s success.”
Oats called the move from Romulus to Buffalo the toughest thing he’s ever had to do, but it was also a move he couldn’t pass up.
The golden opportunity
For two years, the Buffalo Bulls were the toast of the MAC. With Hurley at the helm and Oats as an assistant for two years, the Bulls went 42-20 overall, won two MAC East Division titles, one MAC Tournament Championship and eanred the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
While also assisting with some of X’s and O’s, Oats’ major contribution was also recruiting in the Midwest, an area he was all too familiar with. Soon, nearly half of the Buffalo roster came from the Midwest.
Oats was responsible for bringing in starting point guard Lamonte Bearden from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He also brought three players from Romulus, in Johnson, Pino and of course the biggest contributor, Justin Moss.
“We had a good thing going,” Oats said. “I was able to get some good guys in here, guys who can come in and help right away.”
But then, everything changed.
A 48-hour period in which no one knew which direction the basketball program was headed.
Hurley, with his success at Buffalo and name recognition, became a hot name in coaching circles to move to a bigger program. It’s college basketball’s Darwinism. Schools like St. John’s expressed interest and DePaul went as far as conducting an interview with Hurley.
But contract extension talks between Hurley and White fell apart. And apparently, so did the two’s relationship. They no longer follow each other Twitter.
When Hurley left for the head coach opening at Arizona State, Oats had an offer to join him.
But Oats wanted a chance to replace Hurley at UB.
Much like a decade earlier when he wanted to become the next head coach of Maranatha, Oats had his sights set on the head coaching position at Buffalo. And this time, he was prepared to use everything he had learned to get the job.
Oats had an inside track on the position. He had the relationships with the players. He had enough experience to warrant to a Mid-Major head coaching job.
White didn’t want much change in the basketball program. With a roster capable of winning the MAC again and returning to the NCAA Tournament, there was little desire to go in an entirely new direction.
White and Oats sat down for negotiations. One was financial, but the other was a healthy discussion about the game.
“He made it known that we wanted to win,” Oats said. “The thing about it is that he’s a basketball guy. He knows about the game and what he wants on the floor … Once we discussed the parameters of the contract and where we wanted to see the program go, I felt confident.”
On April 13, just 24 months after Hurley had been introduced as Buffalo’s coach, Oats took to the podium in Alumni Arena as the new men’s basketball head coach.
The road ahead
“Just run the da-,” Oats said, holding back the last word and grunting in disappointment.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in November and the Bulls are running a scrimmage in Alumni Arena. Blue team vs. White team. Oats’ team just messed up a pick-and-roll, resulting in a steal and dunk in transition.
On the court, the teams go back in forth. Bearden and freshman guard CJ Massinburg are jawing back and forth. Massinburg gets in Bearden’s ear while he’s at the free throw line, resulted in two missed free throws for Bearden.
With a single minute left, Massinburg comes down and runs a 1-4 pick and roll. Bearden traps Massinburg, resulting in a jump pass and a turnover. Bearden gets the ball and finishes off the game with a simple dunk.
With his team victorious, Oats runs to the blue team, made up of mostly freshmen and newcomers to the Buffalo roster.
“I told them about some of the things I saw on the court. Nothing too special … I told CJ that I loved the swagger,” he said with a smirk.
Everything looks fine on the court. The Bulls appear more athletic and longer defensively. New assistant head coach Donyell Marshall looks on while Director of Player Development Julius Hodge jokingly antagonizing a player who got blown by on defense.
“We have the talent returning and some of our newer players will make an impact,” Oats said. “It’s our jobs to get them to be ready and I think with the staff we have, we can certainly do it all again. It’s all about buy-in and working hard.”
As the regular season looms, Oats gets together possible rotations, assess recruits and figures out which players work with whom in possible substitution patterns.
But he does so with a heavy heart. A few weeks ago, he sat with his wife awaiting to hear the results of a CAT scan and blood test.
The result was lymphoma, a group of cancerous blood cell tumors. Crystal’s condition is considered to be “aggressive.”
Over the next five to six months, Crystal will undergo chemotherapy treatments in order to treat the double-hit lymphoma.”
She has been there every step of the way and her and Oats have three daughters together. They’ve been married for close to 18 years. In a Facebook post announcing his wife’s diagnosis, Oats said that he would balance the time between the basketball team and watching and caring for his wife and daughters.
Oats said he’s put a plan into action for his family and that he believes God has a plan.
“It was a rough couple weeks once we found out the lymphoma and the type because it’s a hard type to deal with,” Oats said. “Her spirits are good and our daughters are in a place where we trust the plan … We have some family coming in so that I can be able to coach and have my girls taken care of while she’s in care.”
Friday night in Alumni Arena will mark the start of Oats’ Buffalo tenure. It’ll have been nearly 18 years since he started coaching back in Wisconsin. Between the adversity he and his family are going through off the court and departues during the offseason, Oats hasn’t had it easy.
But with all his experiences, like studying the game and recruiting across the Midwest, his preparedness, whether it’s creating a thorough game plan or having an extra suit, and his faith and family support behind him, Oats is ready for the moment.