Wherever Nate Oats has been on his basketball journey, he has been content.
Content to play basketball growing up in Watertown at Maranatha. Content to serve as an assistant as his alma mater. Content to broaden his assistant coaching skills at UW-Whitewater. Content to coach high school basketball for 11 seasons in a Detroit suburb at Romulus High School, where he won a state title in his final season. Content as an collegiate assistant at Buffalo University under Duke superstar Bobby Hurley. Content to succeed Hurley as head coach once Hurley left for Arizona State, and build on the work Hurley started by turning the Bulls into a perennial mid-major power.
Content, but driven.
"It's been an amazing six years," Oats said of his time in Buffalo.
"You do your job really well, you're ready for next one if it comes. I wasn't looking to leave Michigan, but Bobby Hurley came along. I turned down some places a lot of people would consider an upgrade. I wasn't going to leave Buffalo unless a great opportunity came up."
Two days after Buffalo concluded its third trip to the NCAA tournament under Oats in late March, Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne flew into Niagara Falls on a private plane to interview one of hottest coaching prospects in the country for the men's basketball job in Tuscaloosa. Oats was scheduled to interview for the UCLA job the next day, but called it off to accept the Alabama position Byrne offered him.
"Me and my wife (Crystal) had talked about where we would be comfortable going if something came up," Oats said. "We loved it in Buffalo. We would have been happy to stay there. We liked the people. The community was great. We knew some opportunities might come up that were too good to pass up. We developed a little bit of a game plan. If we moved, what it would look like? It had to be a place we could raise our family, and it had to be a place we can win.
"If you lose a lot of games, that's not a fun life since you are judged on wins and losses. When Alabama came up, it answered both questions. The SEC is a great league. The school has a lot of resources. They have been winning in a lot of sports. Alabama is down in the Bible Belt. That suits us, with the way we are raising our daughters (in the Baptist faith). It's a good place to raise our family. I didn't want to live in L.A.
"I came to the conclusion - I didn't turn down UCLA. It just never got to that point. If we had both offers on the table, despite the prestige of UCLA, I was still convinced we wanted to be in Alabama. When they offered the job, we jumped on it. There was a life-changing money aspect, but I also felt it answered all the other questions we had. I think we can compete on a national level and win championships in a great league, while we raise our kids in a city we are comfortable with."
As he spoke of the Crimson Tide's prospects prior to the season opener against Penn on Nov. 5, Oats described his new team as "getting better, but there's a long ways to go."
Alabama has 13 players on Division 1 scholarships. Six are returners. Seven are new. Two of them are out for the season with injuries.
"We've got some really good talent at the top," Oats said. "We've had a couple injuries. Two guys are out with ACL tears, so our depth is not what we'd like, but Kira Lewis is a projected NBA draft pick. We just had the Milwaukee Bucks in here scouting him. Herb Jones is good. John Petty is good. They have a chance to play in the NBA."
Oats retained Alabama assistant Antione Pettway, who recruited the team's top freshman prospect, Jaden Shackelford. Oats is also excited about two transfers, James Bolden from West Virginia and Jahvon Quinerly from Villanova.
"Bolden is a West Virginia grad transfer who is a 43 percent career 3-point shooter," Oats said. "When we (Buffalo) went in and beat West Virginia last season, that guy was coming off an injury and got cramps and left the game. If he doesn't go out, we probably don't beat them and get into the Top 25. We're trying to get Quinerly cleared to be immediately eligible."
"We've got pieces. I'll be really upset if we don't make the NCAA tournament, but we have to take care of some business to make it. We'll be in the mix. We won't be picked near the top (of the SEC), but we'll be in the middle of the pack and should make the tournanent if things go the way they are supposed to."
Alabama has fostered a winning culture not just in football, but in multiple sports. Oats was additionally drawn to the challenge of boosting the men's basketball program's status.
"I think they have a national brand," Oats said. "Their football has been the best program in the country the last 10 years, them and Clemson. They also have a bunch of other programs that have won. Their softball program is one of the best in the country. Their gymnastics program has won national championships. Their golf teams have won national championships. They are good because they take it so seriously. There are no pro sports teams in the state, so everybody roots for Alabama."
Oats was similarly impressed with Byrne, who previously worked at the University of Arizona.
"He knows how important basketball is," Oats said. "My agent and I did some research to see who to interview with. He came up with great reasons (to go with Alabama). You want to work for a quality athletic director. If you don't, things can go a little sideways, There's a reason he is at Alabama, one of best sports programs in the nation. If you win here, they will support you and enable you to win. When you do win, people will get behind you and keep you at a level where you can continue to win."
One definite perk of the job has been getting to know University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who has led the Crimson Tide to six national championships.
"It's a little crazy to be here at Alabama," Oats said. "Coach Saban is the football coach. I have admired him from afar for a long time. He's one of the best coaches in team sports. I shadowed him for a full day. I have been to staff meetings and walked through his practices. He's been great to me. I am just trying to pick up whatever I can."
During his four seasons as head coach at Buffalo, Oats guided the Bulls to a 96-43 record including three MAC Tournament Championships and earned several coaching awards along the way. He also earned the respect of his players, something Byrne put just as much stock in.
"After the interview, Greg asked for three former players' numbers," Oats said. "He didn't want it leaked. He doesn't like people (coaching candidates) using them for leverage. He asked me for three players ... a guy that played a lot, a guy that played a little and a guy that didn't play at all. He didn't tell the players who he was. He just said to each of them, 'I am Greg. I research coaches.' Then he asked questions. I got some really good reviews. Those kids were all minority kids. Obviously, it certainly didn't hurt."
The native Midwesterner has adjusted to life in the Deep South, where the warm climate allows him to use his boat 10 months out of the year rather than three. He still enjoys coming back to Watertown to visit family, take in the fall weather and get ice cream at Mullen's, but he doesn't miss Wisconsin winters.
"The weather has been great," Oats said. "It was up in the 90s the other day. I spoke at the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association clinic in Wisconsin Dells (on Oct. 4) and it was 43 degrees. I flew home to Alabama and it was 96. I'm still waiting for the fall weather. I bought a house on a lake. My neighbor said he was running his boat on Christmas Day last year. We'll see if it's that nice again this year."
While staying in the Dells for the WBCA Hall of Fame Banquet, Oats ran into another Watertown native, Watertown boys basketball coach Travis Moulton, who was there to take part in various coaching clinics. That meeting brought Oats back to his roots.
"That was me," Oats said. "When I was coaching in Detroit, I went to all these clinics. Those were the clinics I used to go to. I was a junkie. I bought tickets to Bucks games. I would look at our game schedule when it came out, see when the Bucks are playing, get in to the cheap seats, and watch basketball. Now, I am coaching guys who can play at that level sometime soon. It's been fun. It's been a quick rise. I feel fortunate God has blessed me this way, but I have to continue to work hard. Opportunities will take care of themselves if you perform at a high level. When you look forward too quick, that's when you are not doing your job and then those opportunities don't come."