Dennis Gates made a positive first impression as Missouri’s new coach. His engaging and genuine personality played well in the room, and on TV. We saw why he’s been so popular in his stops along the way in his basketball life. And we got a glimpse of why he’s such an effective recruiter. There’s just something about this dude …
That’s all I have to say about his introductory press conference. Dan McLaughlin isn’t paying me to do theater reviews.
In the last couple of weeks SEC members have fired basketball coaches at Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, LSU and Mississippi State. Except for Georgia – which pulled Kevin White from the hot seat at Florida – the SEC gigs were filled by mid-major coaches.
There were no splash hires. In that context, we haven’t seen any “whoa” hires by power conference programs so far in this cycle. Disgraced Arizona coach Sean Miller going to Xavier doesn’t count; he’s going home and there’s an existing relationship and they love him there. The SEC athletics directors who run the programs did the best they could at this moment of time, and their hires will be judged later. In a year or two or three.
1) Gates, 42, did a helluva job as the head coach at Cleveland State. He took over a sad and barren program. The situation was brutal. In his first season (2019-2020) Gates inherited fewer than five players from the previous regime, scrambled to recruit some JUCO talent to fill the roster, and went 7-11 in the Horizon Conference. What’s so special about 7-11? Cleveland State hadn’t won that many conference games since 2014-2015. The immediate improvement under awful circumstances earned Gates the conference Coach of the Year Award.
In his next two seasons Gates went 31-10 in the Horizon and 39-19 overall. In 2010-2021 he won his second straight conference Coach of the Year award and guided Cleveland State into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. Before Gates came along, Cleveland State made it to the NCAA dance only two times in 47 seasons. Gates led the program to one NCAA Tournament in the two years that it was played during his time there. (The NCAAs were canceled in 2020 because of Covid.)
2) Cleveland State entered the Horizon Conference for the 2001-2002. Before Gates became the Vikings’ head coach, the program’s best regular-season showing in conference play was a three-way tie for first place in 2010-2011. Gates led Cleveland State to back-to-back outright conference championships in his last two seasons there. Two regular-season conference titles for the Vikings in 22 seasons – both with Gates as coach.
3) To recap: two conference titles, two Coach of the Year awards and an NCAA Tournament in three seasons after being put in charge of one of the worst college basketball programs in the nation.
4) When Gates-to-MU was set in place, there was considerable dissatisfaction by Mizzou fans who presumably expected AD Desiree Francois-Reed to give Coach K a call and convince him to delay his retirement to take over at Mizzou. I’m sorry, but Dana Altman was never coming here, and Chris Holtmann was never coming here. Mizzou doesn’t have access to those coaches. The expectations were unrealistic. But as the process went into the closing phase, Mizzou fans rallied a bit and had an open mind and warmed in their support of Gates.
5) It was grumbled, many times, that hiring Gates would do nothing to create buzz and sell tickets for the downtrodden and increasingly irrelevant MU program. OK, here’s how you create buzz and sell tickets: win a bunch of damn basketball games, and do that consistently, make frequent appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and start dancing in the Sweet 16.
6) It’s all about the winning … and Mizzou has won 42 percent of its games over the last five seasons. That includes a hideous .303 winning percentage in regular-season SEC games. There was an intense buzz and a lucrative run on ticket sales after Cuonzo Martin was hired and brought the Porter brothers in as recruits. How long did the buzz last? A year? Lesson: you gotta win, and do it consistently. Or the freakin’ buzz fades.
7) If Coach Gates wins enough games, he’ll win over the people and refill Mizzou Arena. The Tigers don’t need gimmicks that please the short-attention span fans. Because unless the losing ends, their interest will expire in short time. Mizzou is overdue in the most critical area of all: building a winning program that lasts. Permit to offer this: it would be swell if folks got behind the coach now, when he needs them the most.
8) I make no predictions about Coach Gates and how this will all work out. Why do that? There’s no need for a Swami here. And there’s nothing to predict right now, good or bad or mediocre. His work and his record will generate the outcome.
9) However: As the coaching search started, I said the No. 1 priority for Mizzou was hiring a terrific recruiter who will work the high schools and the coaching connections in this region (for starters) and leap into the transfer-portal process with great gusto. And the preferred coach would also be someone who embraces the vast challenge of the new NIL world. Everything I know about Gates tells me that he’s that guy. Doesn’t mean he’ll be a recruiting dynamo that regularly beats out big-time coaches for the top recruits … he’ll have to prove himself … but he definitely has the necessary energy, enthusiasm and attitude. And he has the recruiting connections that he built over many years as an assistant in college hoops. Especially in his home base of Chicago. He can sell himself to recruits, and to MU fans. That’s a very fine starting place for the coach in his new job.
10) What about the style of play? Isn’t it Cuonzo II? The fans who hated the hire immediately began honking out the Cuonzo II narrative. Here’s the deal: we’ll see the style of play when Mizzou actually begins playing. To malign this guy before he coaches a single game is ridiculous. And I’ll circle back to recruiting: if you can’t bring in really good players, does the style of basketball really matter? Get the recruiting part solved first, and we can fuss over style points later. If necessary.
11) In another lifetime I knew Leonard Hamilton. He was Joe B. Hall’s top recruiter and assistant at Kentucky. I was a high-school basketball reporter in Baltimore for two-three years in the early 1980s, and “Bawlmer” was loaded with future NBA talent. It was a busy and highly competitive recruiting destination, and I’d hang out in gyms with visiting recruiters who liked to trade notes with me. Let me tell you something: Leonard Hamilton was one of the all-time great recruiters, and he knew how to work every angle, and he had tremendous people skills, and all of the high school coaches loved him. He was a legend. He was so impressive. Seriously. (And he’s won more than 600 games as a power conference head coach, most notably at Florida State.) I share this because, as many of you know, Leonard Hamilton played a major role in developing Kevin Gates as a coach recruiter. Gates’ Florida State years (as an assistant) shaped him in a profound way, and anyone who was schooled in recruiting by Leonard Hamilton had a head start on other young coaches who aspired to run their own programs. Gates is a Hamilton guy – Hamilton views him as a son – and that’s a really big deal, and that’s one of the reasons why I like this hire.
12) And then there’s Eddie Fogler, who was a consultant on the Mizzou coaching search. As was the case with Leonard Hamilton, I knew Eddie in another lifetime. He was Dean Smith’s recruiter at North Carolina at the time, and made regular trips to the better high-school programs in the Baltimore-Washington area. Fogler was one of these guys who could walk into any town, or any gym, and know half the people in the place. He made friends and connections with ease, and that was a key to his recruiting success. Eddie Fogler was one of the great recruiters of his time, and he knows a talented recruiter when he sees one. And if Fogler encouraged Mizzou to hire Gates … well, I like knowing that Mizzou landed a Fogler stamped-for–approval recruiter. That matters to me.
13) What about Kim English? The Mizzou basketball alum just completed his first season as head coach at George Mason and did a good job. Since his playing days Kim has been talented at politicking and cultivating support from media. He predictably worked the local media again to entice them to campaign for him for the Mizzou job. (By the way: I praise English for his political skills; that’s a huge asset for a coach.)
14) I would have been fine with Missouri hiring English. But I see Dennis Gates as an older and more experienced version of English, and there are some similarities. Gates already has proven that he’s capable of turning a loser program around – and doing it quickly.
15) Good luck to the new coach, and congratulations to AD Desiree Francois-Reed and chancellor Mun Choi for conducting an organized and targeted search that was smooth and devoid of chaos and unnecessary drama.
Thanks for reading …
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