It was Christmas break, and former two-sport athlete Dominic Johnson had just finished his final semester at UB.
Johnson, who excelled on both the football field and basketball court for the Bulls, was waiting for his opportunity to break into coaching. Ever since he was a youth, the Windsor, Ontario native always saw himself pursuing a career in coaching.
Since it was the holiday season, Johnson decided to call an old friend, former UB and current University of Alabama men’s basketball coach Nate Oats, to send his Christmas wishes. Oats coached Johnson for two seasons on the hardwood after convincing the quarterback-converted-wide receiver to try his hand at Division I basketball in 2017.
In the moment, Johnson failed to realize that his phone call would lead to a coaching position at one of the most prestigious athletic programs in the country, right out of college. After the two began to talk about Johnson’s future, Oats mentioned he had an opening on his staff.
He offered Johnson a position as a graduate assistant with Alabama basketball then and there.
“I feel like I’ve almost been coaching my whole life, I mean, I’ve been in sports since before I was born. My dad played in the NFL, so when I was born I already knew I was gonna be an athlete. So I just felt like I always knew that I wanted to be a coach. And I feel like that’s just a part of me,” Johnson told The Spectrum over the phone in May. “I kind of always knew that it would happen one day, I just didn’t know what level and what sport and what that looks like, but I kind of knew I’d do it one day. I just didn’t know it’d be as early as it was.”
Oats also didn’t expect to offer Johnson a job when he did, but he had an opening. Ikenna Smart, his previous graduate assistant and another former UB basketball player, became a video coordinator for the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA.
The two always kept in contact after Oats left UB for Alabama in 2019, and after what was supposed to be a quick holiday “hello and goodbye” over the phone, Oats knew Johnson was a perfect fit with the Crimson Tide.
“It was just kind of a Christmas check-in ‘How are things going?’ Well then, we had a discussion about where he was going, he mentioned he wanted to get into basketball coaching possibly,” Oats said over the phone. “I go to him, ‘Listen I got an opening. How interested are you?’ Next thing you know he’s down [at Alabama] within like a week. His work ethic is unbelievable. We’re enjoying him down here at Alabama, I think he’s got a future in coaching basketball.”
Oats — a two-time MAC Coach of the Year with UB and 2021 SEC Coach of the Year with Alabama — has never hidden his love for the people he met at Buffalo, where he received his first D-I coaching job. Since getting the top job at Alabama, he’s hired assistant coach Brian Hodgson and director of scouting & analytics Adam Bauman (both former assistants under Oats at UB) as well as director of player development Christian Pino (another former player of Oats at UB).
“One thing I’ve learned about coach [Oats] is, he’s big on loyalty. And he’s close to his people and he takes care of his people,” Johnson said. “And I feel like I’m similar in that way and something that, you know, I appreciate in that way.”
Oats’ track record speaks for itself. UB won three MAC Championships and made three NCAA Tournament appearances during Oats’ tenure with the Bulls, while the Crimson Tide advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2004 two seasons ago.
Oats in part credits that success on the court to the team culture he’s cultivated.
“We tried to create a similar culture here, obviously we’ve got different players and it’s a different level. But we had three core values at Buffalo. We created this culture playbook, and we’re trying to use the exact same cultural playbook here. We’re talking about max effort, continuous growth and selfless love, and Dom has always embodied those things,” Oats said.
But the Johnson-Oats story runs deeper than one Christmas-time call. The two were linked as early as Johnson’s high school career, when Oats recruited the 6’5, 215 lb. athlete at UB basketball camps. This was the same time as former head football coach Lance Leipold was recruiting Johnson to play quarterback at UB. Leipold eventually offered Johnson a football scholarship, but Oats always kept an eye out for the intriguing prospect.
So once the basketball team suffered injuries to seven scholarship players during the 2017-18 season, a two-sport career became possible for Johnson. The Bulls were a MAC Championship contender but barely had the bodies necessary to run a full practice. So with his back against the wall and the season on the line, Oats called Leipold to ask if Johnson could contribute on the hardwood.
It all happened at a perfect time for Johnson. After two frustrating seasons as a backup quarterback, he was considering transferring out of UB.
“At the end of the [football] season, I get a call from coach Leipold. Sometimes coaches can call you to their office, and you’ve got to talk about how you’re doing and be realistic with some things and have some tough conversations. So I thought that he was calling me for that, but he was calling me because coach Oats had called him and asked if it was okay if he could have somebody help the team,” Johnson said. “They [UB basketball] did recruit me, and they knew who I was and knew I could shoot and play a little bit.”
Johnson played in the team’s first game of the season and even saw action during the Bulls’ 2018 NCAA Tournament run, when then-No. 13 seed UB upset then-No. 4 seed Arizona in the first round. His transition to D-I basketball was a great opportunity to play two sports, get experience playing on a national stage and grow under one of the nation’s most promising coaches.
Fast forward four years and the two are reunited, but it’s in Tuscaloosa this time. Oats is still the mentor, but Johnson has worked his way up the totem pole. As a graduate assistant, he’s responsible for charting Alabama’s rebounding numbers, cutting up game film, rebounding for players in the gym and assisting players in their off-the-court lives. In short, any way Johnson can help out, he will.
Just like his time playing two sports at UB (he even converted from quarterback to wide receiver when playing football), Johnson is a jack of all trades at Alabama.
“The number one priority is to make sure that you’re useful around the office,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to bring value. You have to also use your strengths to help out… Anything to bring value, anything to be useful, to help anybody in the program, I’ve gotta do.”
Johnson also serves as a role model for many of Alabama’s players. He was an academic All-MAC selection while playing football in 2021 and learned how to adequately balance his athletics with his coursework at UB.
“He’s added to the culture,” Oats said. “He’s a guy that’s closer in age to some of the players, and he’s a kid that’s really disciplined and very successful. Dom’s got his stuff together. He’s helped our players get organized and stay disciplined, be successful as a student and as a student-athlete because Dom’s done it for six years.”
Pino echoed Oats’ sentiment, saying, “Dom’s fit right in, the coaches love him, the players love him, and he’s a great guy for them to look at as they continue their careers.”
This past season, Johnson was able to coach multiple future NBA players in guards J.D. Davison (Boston Celtics), Keon Ellis (Sacramento Kings) and Jaden Shackelford (Oklahoma City Thunder). He’ll also have the opportunity to coach the No. 5 recruiting class in the country at Alabama this season, one that features five-star recruits such as Brandon Miller and Jacob Bradley.
Two phone calls with Nate Oats changed Johnson’s life. The kid who wanted to become a coach found himself coaching at one of the biggest basketball programs in the country. With Oats at the helm, Alabama’s UB ties run deep. Building upon the success he cultivated at UB, Johnson looks to help the Crimson Tide reach the next level.
“Just to be around a high-performing, high-professional institute is just something that I’m blessed to be a part of this early on in my career and this early on in my life,” Johnson said. “I’m just so grateful that coach Oats brought me on board, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.