BUFFALO, N.Y. – When Buffalo coach Nate Oats' team upset Syracuse in the Carrier Dome earlier this year, he acted like there was nothing to be surprised about. He declared postgame that Buffalo had "better players," a "better team" and they "play harder." When No. 13 seed Buffalo stomped No. 4 Arizona in the NCAA tournament last season, Oats declared he'd gotten sick of "soft" Pac-12 teams failing to pressure the ball on game film.
His old boss at Buffalo, Arizona State's Bobby Hurley, told him the remark irked Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "But you know what?" he told Yahoo Sports in his office recently. "They're worse this year than last year. Did I lie? Did I lie? I told the truth."
Oats, 44, has emerged as the runaway coaching star in college basketball this season. With Buffalo (29-3) poised to set the modern record for NCAA tournament seeding by a team from the MAC, Oats has built the runaway best team in program history. The twin storylines of underdog coach and the improbable power he's built – No. 18 Buffalo has been ranked for 18 consecutive weeks – have Buffalo poised to be March's most improbable story.
Less than six years ago, Oats was teaching five math classes a day – algebra, geometry and statistics – at Romulus High School in Michigan. He sold Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Capri Suns and Pop-Tarts out of his office to fundraise for his basketball program and in 11 seasons transformed the school into a state and national power.
In his fourth season as the head coach at Buffalo, Oats is headed to his third NCAA tournament and has managed to turn a school with little basketball tradition into, well, a state and national power. He's 93-42 over four seasons and delivered the school's first NCAA win over Arizona last season. With four seniors among their five leading scorers – including star CJ Massinburg (18.5 ppg) – they're poised to make more noise.
It doesn't add up, right? The former math teacher with a star player they beat out Prairie View A&M for in recruiting. No. 18 Buffalo's season is a tomahawk dunk that posterizes some of the sport's longtime conventions, a delicious anomaly of the unexpected, unfiltered and unflinching.
The Bulls have taken on the blunt-force personality of their coach, an indomitable combination of man-to-man defense and blue-collar attitude that no one would be surprised to see in the Sweet 16. Or beyond.
"He's a straight shooter, there's very little filter with Nate," said Arizona State Bobby Hurley, who hired him as an assistant at Buffalo in 2013. "There's almost a naïve youthfulness, as he just has a natural joy for the game of basketball."
Oats' creative fundraising
Oats is a former Division III point guard, the son of a theology professor whose background is more cafeteria-issued sporks than silver spoons. He served as an assistant at his alma mater, Maranatha Baptist, and then Wisconsin-Whitewater before his big break at Romulus, which came partly because his ability to teach math and coach appealed to the school.
He turned around Romulus at age 27 the same way he overhauled Buffalo. Romulus soon began running like a college program – 6 a.m. workouts, study tables, strength training, speed training, academic advisers and daily film sessions. "When people ask me how much harder is it in Division I," Oats said, "I'm like, 'It was harder back at Romulus.'"
Regardless of how Buffalo finishes this season – and a MAC tournament title could vault them as high as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament – Oats has positioned himself at the top of everyone's hot-coach list.
When Oats arrived at Romulus in 2002 the program had $78 in the fundraising account. In the final game of his debut season, they scored 35 points.
Oats' teams won a state title in 2013, earned USA Today Top 25 rankings in three different seasons and went to five state Final Fours. Oats also produced 18 Division I players, seeing enough college assistants come through his gym that he quickly realized he could do their job better.
By the time Oats left for Buffalo, he'd raised enough money for the team to have six shooting guns for skill development – the kind found in college and NBA practice facilities. Romulus had such a robust army of managers that it took Buffalo years to catch up to that level. The program held such cache in the Detroit area that families were moving into the district to play there.
"Anyone who played under him or coached under him, no one is surprised," said Josh Baker, Oats' close friend and former assistant. "The success he's had is expected. Honestly. I don't know if there is a ceiling."
Oats points out with pride that when he left to work for Hurley at Buffalo, there was $20,000 in the Romulus fundraising account. Much of that can be tied to the in-school snack service he founded and remembered fondly: Nate’s Party Store.
Oats realized to deliver his program the trappings of an elite high school one, he needed to raise money. Top programs had high-end gear, money to take players on college visits and specialty items like foam rollers. Oats sold sponsorships, but Romulus' main financial driver came from a corner store he ran out of his classroom to raise money for the program. Nate's Party Store had two dorm refrigerators, boxes of granola bars, oatmeal pies and so many bags of Hot Cheetos – by far the best seller. It became such a booming business for the program that he bought a used mini-van for $1,200, removed the seats and made multiple trips to Sam's Club each week to fill it with supplies.
The store became so popular that faculty grumbled about it becoming an impediment over the years for kids getting to class on time. So Oats adjusted like any good coach. He got trusted players and managers to go sell in the hallways between classes, giving them bags of food to peddle to keep foot traffic moving. He estimated he made at least $500 per week, which added up to college-level gear for players and the ability to shuttle them to college visits.
"He outsold our regular school store and the gas station across the street," said former Romulus principal Hal Heard. "He did what he had to do to support the program."
Oats pulled it off with a style that was both aggressive and endearing. Sam Bonam, who ran the math lab at Romulus, taught Oats how to cut practice film on an Apple computer. Oats was so appreciative of Bonam's help with the program that he once volunteered to go to Bonam’s house to install a hardwood floor.
"He'd do anything for anyone," Bonam said. "It was all about helping the players develop and the program. It wasn't just about him getting to the next level. He stayed for 11 years."
How long will Oats stay at Buffalo?
As Buffalo hits the closing stretch of their historic season, the inevitable question lingers as to how long Oats will stick around. Buffalo athletic director Mark Alnutt reached a new deal with Oats after the Bulls’ win on Thursday, which is obviously a good sign. Oats says he lacks a burning desire to leave for a big-time program. He said he just bought a million-dollar home in the area, and his wife, Crystal, and their three girls – Lexie (14), Jocie (9) and Brielle (6) – are comfortable there.
Not surprisingly, a guy who less than six years ago was selling Hot Cheetos for an edge now dreams that Buffalo could turn into a Butler or Gonzaga.
"If I were to leave, it would have to be something really, really good that just made a lot of sense," Oats said. "Like I would not want to leave for a job that I didn't think you could really win at."
The coach at nearby Daemen College, Mike MacDonald, pays the highest compliment to Oats' job at Buffalo. "The games are an event now," he said.
Buffalo averaged 5,289 fans per game, 800 fans more than its next-best season and second most in the MAC behind Ohio. The students and locals have rallied around the team's ethos, as Oats gives out a blue hard hat to the player who compiles the most "blue-collar points" in a game. It's an equation of deflections, floor dives, charges and other hustle metrics. Oats even came up with a "linear-regression equation" to show the correlation between hustle points and actual ones as a motivator for his players.
Alnutt knows the simplest equation for the show to continue rolling: Keep Oats around. Oats was making nearly $600,000 per year with his old deal and presumably got a sizable raise with his new deal. But there are realities to sticking around the MAC. He's already on his third athletic director, as both Danny White (UCF) and Allen Greene (Auburn) have moved on since his promotion to head coach.
"We're going to put our best foot forward to be able to retain him," Alnutt said. "A school could come in with crazy numbers, $2 million or $3 million [per year]. We can't match that. We can put together a package where he truly feels appreciative of the commitment we have for him. More importantly, the commitment we have for his program."
Less than six years after selling Cheetos and Pop-Tarts out of his classroom to raise money, power conference schools could end up bidding for Oats. It's a rare trajectory that adds up perfectly to those who knew Oats the math teacher long before he became the coveted coach.
Soon after Oats got the Romulus job, he called his close friend and old college teammate Baker to come join him. Baker was nervous because he lacked coaching experience and asked Oats if he should read a book by Pat Riley or Mike Krzyzewski. "Books?" Oats asked. "Shoot, they'll write books about us."
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