Oats sets sights on turning Alabama into contender


CW/ Hannah Saad

Ben Stansell, Assistant Sports Editor

Wearing a crimson tie covered with white elephants, Nate Oats stood behind a wooden podium in the Mal Moore Athletic complex. Six years ago, he was a math teacher and a basketball coach at Romulus High School just outside of Detroit. On Thursday afternoon, he was officially introduced as Alabama’s new head basketball coach.

Athletics Director Greg Byrne hired the former Buffalo head coach on Wednesday, just three days after it was announced that Alabama would be parting ways with Avery Johnson, and brought him back to Tuscaloosa that night. The first time that Oats stepped off the plane was the first time he had ever set foot in Tuscaloosa.

He had taken the job without visiting the University he would be representing, but the opportunity to coach at Alabama was worth the small leap of faith.

“We said if we were going to leave [Buffalo], it had to be something special,” Oats said. “The University of Alabama is really special.”

Byrne sold Oats on becoming the 21st head coach in program history during a five-hour home visit. The visit also sold Byrne on Oats, although he’s admired his coaching abilities after watching Buffalo’s win over Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament.

“That was the first time I watched an entire game that they played,” Byrne said “I was like ‘Man, they’re playing like their hair’s on fire, on both ends of the floor.’”

Byrne wants Oats to inject that same sense of passion and energy into Alabama’s basketball program, and Oats intends to do just that. His first priority is to build the same culture that led to the success he had at Buffalo, which included three trips to the big dance.

“The culture’s based on relationships but there’s also an accountability factor and you have to establish the culture,” Oats said. “You just keep working at it. When we took over with coach Hurley, when I took over as head coach four years ago, the culture’s light-years now from what it was then. It’s over a period of time … And you’ve got to have the right people on board, too.”

Getting the right people on board will require Oats to re-recruit several Alabama players who are pondering a change of scenery. That starts Kira Lewis Jr., a rising sophomore who led the Crimson Tide in scoring last season. Lewis entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal earlier this week.

“I spent some time watching video of Alabama basketball, and he’s a pretty good player,” Oats said of Lewis. “If you’re a coach, you don’t look very good without very good [players]. You want to get the best players you can. They’ve got a really good one right here on the roster right now, so I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he’s playing in an Alabama uniform next year.”

He met with Lewis on Thursday morning.

Oats mentioned that he also met with Herbert Jones, a rising junior who has not entered his name in the transfer portal. John Petty Jr., Daniel Giddens and Dazon Ingram are the other players who entered their names in the portal. Oats didn’t specify whether he would try to convince them to stay as well, but had plans to meet with the team on Thursday night.

“Maybe some of the guys in the transfer portal don’t need to be here,” Oats said “You’ve got to get the culture built right. We’ve got to have those meetings and see.”

If retaining key players is at the top of Oats’ list, determining his assistant coaching staff falls closely below.

Oats plans on bringing in one of his assistants from Buffalo and said that it would be definitely be Bryan Hodgson unless Hodgson is hired at the Bulls’ next head coach. That leaves two more seats on the bench to fill, one of which Byrne expects to be a current Alabama assistant or someone with ties to the state.

“I think having somebody on your staff that knows what sweet tea and grits are is important when you’re at Alabama,” Byrne said.

Once Oats’ staff is finalized and the roster is more stable, he will begin his quest to build Alabama into a contender. He’s watched the success that the Alabama football team and other athletic programs have had on a national scale and wants to replicate it on the hardwood.

Competing for championships is Oats’ ultimate goal with the Crimson Tide, but he doesn’t promise it will happen immediately.

“There’s no reason we can’t get to that level,” Oats said “Now, are we going to get there next year or the year after? I’m not going to promise that. We’re just going to continue to grow this thing.”