Nate Oats will be asked the same question numerous times in the months ahead and more frequently in March, which happens every time coaches like him emerge from relative obscurity and build powerhouses at mid-majors like Buffalo. Let’s just get this out of the way:
What are your long-terms plans?
“Personally, I’d love to keep growing this thing,” Oats said Wednesday. “We love the area, and I’d love to stay here.”
Oats is one of the best young coaches in college basketball, reaffirmed Friday night when UB beat No. 13 West Virginia. Senior guard CJ Massinburg scored a career-high 43 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while the Bulls handed the Mountaineers their first season-opening loss at home since 1989.
It wasn't a fluke. Oats became a rising star in the coaching ranks after taking the Bulls to the NCAA tournament twice in three years. Last season, they finished with a 27-9 record, the best in school history, and knocked off third-seeded Arizona in an 89-68 blowout in the first round before falling to Kentucky.
It was a matter of time before bigger schools from better conferences showed up with a contract he couldn’t refuse. Pittsburgh expressed interest before the NCAAs last season and others were sure to follow, especially after the Bulls won their first tourney game in history.
Oats resisted the temptation of more money and signed a five-year contract extension worth $3 million to remain in Buffalo. It was far less money than he would have pocketed in the open market. Bobby Hurley, who hired Oats as an assistant and left Buffalo in a contract dispute, is making $2.1 million per year at Arizona State.
Why would Oats stick around at UB for a fraction of his potential earnings? The primary reason was he wanted to continue what he and Hurley started when they arrived in 2013. Both believed Buffalo had the potential to become a perennial power in the Mid-American Conference and compete against most teams in the country.
Oats isn't one to hold his tongue. Last year, he called Kentucky coach John Calipari a whiner, for example. He said he wanted to return to Buffalo, and that’s exactly what he did. There's no reason to doubt his sincerity now.
For all of their success last year, many believe Buffalo could be better this season. The Bulls lost only one key player, point guard Wes Clark, who was ineligible last season until December. Buffalo was among teams receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll and could be ranked with a strong start.
“We’re definitely going to get everybody’s best shot,” Oats said. “I actually think it makes us better. We have to play our best all year. Come March, everybody is going to bring their best shot because it’s win or go home. You might as well get their best shot all year.”
Oats’ vision now is turning Buffalo into the next Gonzaga or Butler, mid-majors that were frequently ranked in the Top 25. Arizona was ranked third nationally last year when the season began and finished the regular season at No. 12 before getting drilled by Buffalo.
Gonzaga has never had a losing season under head coach Mark Few, who helped put the program on the map. Few has a 536-118 record over his 20 seasons. He has guided the Zags to 17 West Coast Conference titles and 19 NCAA tourneys, including one Final Four.
Butler was just another school in the Horizon League before Brad Stevens showed up in 2007-08 and led the Bulldogs to national prominence. Butler reached the national title game in consecutive seasons and were 166-49 under Stevens.
Stevens left for the Boston Celtics in 2013 and has evolved into one of the best coaches in the NBA. Butler has been in the Big East for the past six seasons, including five straight 20-win seasons and four straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Why not UB?
“Gonzaga was lower than UB is currently, you know, X number of years ago,” Oats said. “Butler was lower than we are right now X number of years ago. There are teams that have decided, and schools that have decided, that they want to grow their sports program, their men’s basketball program in particular, and just keep it going.”
Things often change quickly in sports, but for now every indication points toward Oats sticking around for the foreseeable future. He has continued to reload his roster. Rochester star Jeenathan Williams drew interest from the likes of Georgia Tech, Marquette and Minnesota before choosing Buffalo and starting the season on the bench.
It’s difficult to fathom UB not winning the MAC this season given their talent, experience and depth. In a league in which most teams are seven or eight players deep, they can play 10 or more.
UB opened the season with an 82-67 victory over St. Francis of Pennsylvania while shaking off the rust. The Bulls came back and beat WVU, 99-94, in overtime without playing their best. Massinburg was 9 of 15 from three-point land, but the rest of the team was 2 of 22 from long range. They can play better, much better.
Upcoming opponents like Syracuse and Marquette best be prepared.
“The trajectory we have this thing going on, I mean, I don’t want to sound arrogant,” Oats said. “Gonzaga and Butler are at a pretty high level right now, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying we have this program higher than they had theirs.”
Oats has a $600,000 annual salary, plus incentives that includes $50,000 for winning the conference title, $50,000 for winning the conference tournament and bonuses for his assistant coaches. He would earn escalating bonuses for every NCAA tourney win.
If Oats left for another job after this season, he would owe $1 million to UB. The buyout for him decreases every year he remains with the school. If UB decided to fire him, it would cost the university the full balance of the contract.
Six years ago, he was making $70,000 as a high school teacher and basketball coach in Detroit. He's making big money. He has a great job. He's rich in so many other ways.
Oats purchased a $1 million home in Grand Island, N.Y., shortly after signing his extension. It could be construed as an indication that he was interested in staying at Buffalo for the long term and building the program he envisioned rather than chase the highest bidder.
What are his plans?
You’re looking at them.
“Honestly, we love it here,” Oats said. “… If the administration is behind growing this thing the way I want to grow it, I wouldn’t mind staying here and growing it like a Gonzaga or Butler or something like that. If that time comes where they want to make a different decision, the answer will be different.”