Why I like the hiring of Nate Oats at Alabama
My brother covers Ball State basketball for the Star Press in Muncie, Ind. As a MAC school, the Cardinals have regular conference matchups with Buffalo. That means my brother saw the Bulls up close multiple times, which even as a former Division I athlete himself, impressed him.
Not surprisingly, my brother picked Buffalo to make the Elite Eight in his bracket this year. That was based on what he had seen — Buffalo up 25 points on the road and having players dive into the crowd for loose balls with 4 minutes — and not just what everyone else saw the Bulls do against future No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
So when I saw that Alabama hired Buffalo coach Nate Oats, my brother and I texted back and forth. Something he said stuck with me.
“(Oats) will squeeze every last drop of potential out of that team.”
If that’s not music to Alabama fans’ ears, I don’t know what is.
For all the complaints in the end of Avery Johnson era in Tuscaloosa, that seemed to be the biggest. Despite all the talent that Johnson brought in, he didn’t meet expectations. When opposing players pointed out Alabama’s lack of effort in the first-round NIT loss, that all but confirmed what many fans felt.
It clearly confirmed what Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne thought, too. I don’t know if Byrne had his mind made up about Johnson before that loss, but it’s tough to imagine that postseason dud helped his chances of sticking around.
While some were surprised by the move, I thought it made sense considering what kind of situation Byrne is in. At the root of every athletic director’s job performance review is the hires they make for their top revenue sports. In case you forgot, Byrne didn’t hire Nick Saban. He won’t get to take credit for Saban’s success. If anything, it’ll be the other way around.
Maybe there will come a time when Byrne has to hire Saban’s replacement, but for now, the most important hire he could make was in hoops.
In case you also forgot, Byrne didn’t hire Johnson. As athletic directors usually do, Byrne wanted to bring in his own coach. You know, someone that he can stand by and go to bat for knowing that his own reputation is on the line if it doesn’t work out. That’s not to say that Byrne didn’t do everything in his power to make Johnson successful — Alabama did announce the $115 million renovation to Coleman Coliseum last year — but there’s a certain connection with your first major hire.
Did you notice who broke the news of Oats’ hiring? Byrne himself!
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) March 27, 2019
To me, that’s another little reminder of how invested Byrne is and why Oats is walking into a favorable situation. When you’ve got those kind of resources and that kind of support from your athletic director, you’ve got the right surroundings to work with.
Does that guarantee Oats will win big in Tuscaloosa? Of course not. As we know, mid-major coaches making that next step up are a bit of a crapshoot. It could take even longer than expected if basically half of Alabama’s roster is in the transfer portal.
But let’s back up to that point from earlier. Oats took over for Bobby Hurley at Buffalo and did more than just keep things afloat. The Bulls were 59-13 the past 2 years with an NCAA Tournament win each season. Just for a little perspective, only 4 SEC teams (Auburn, Florida, Kentucky and LSU) won an NCAA Tournament game in each of the past 2 seasons.
And Oats did that at Buffalo. Buffalo!
Look, I’m not saying that Alabama is going to start rattling off SEC titles like it’s football, but I think there were a lot of people hoping for a splashier hire. Maybe Thad Matta or as one Paul Finebaum caller suggested, Billy Donovan?! To be honest though, that probably had a better chance of happening than Rick Pitino.
I don’t want to assume anything, but I’d guess that “Nate Oats” was the most popular Google search in Alabama on Wednesday. After all, the guy was coaching high school ball 6 years ago. That’s OK. Everyone knew who Johnson was when he was hired and that didn’t end so well.
Athletic directors making coaching changes will often do a 180. Maybe Byrne listened to what fans said about having disappointing seasons with the talent they had. Perhaps he talked to people who knew Oats and heard the same thing that my brother told me.
“Oats will squeeze every last drop of potential out of that team.”
And call me crazy, but I think that was music to Byrne’s ears.