MIAMI – This is a locker room for believers. In here, they believe in a lot. They believe in family and they believe in honesty and they believe in basketball. Everybody in the room wears a Cleveland State basketball logo, and they believe there's a reason for that, too.
The biggest believer is a man named Gary Waters. He is also the one in whom they most believe. Waters, 57 years old and easy with a smile that flashes his trademark Lauren Hutton gap, coaches Cleveland State, the surprise of this year's NCAA tournament after dispatching fourth-seeded Wake Forest in the first round.
"He literally believed that God has sent him here, and this is what he was supposed to accomplish," says Jayson Gee,
Cleveland State's associate head coach. "God sent Moses to free Israel. God sent Gary Waters to resurrect Cleveland State. I really believe that. I believe that 100 percent.
"He's a prophet. Everything that's happening – and you can ask anybody in this locker room – is something he put down in black and white before it happened."
When Waters arrived in Cleveland three years ago, he wrote a set of goals for the Vikings to achieve over a four-year period. The list started simple. Get kids to class. Win on Senior Day. Build a positive culture. At Cleveland State, mediocrity was achievement, and Waters' first team met its objectives.
Year 2 seemed a stretch. Win 20 games? Beat a big-name team? Make a postseason tournament? The Vikings did each, capping the season with an NIT appearance, and suddenly Waters looked more soothsayer than dreamer.
While Waters won't reveal this season's goals, some sort of success in the NCAA tournament surely was among them, and considering Cleveland State's history, it took a man of extreme faith and belief – in self and something far more mystical – to reveal the plan, let alone execute it.
"I had to sell some people, some new people coming into this program," Waters says. "What they had you couldn't sell."
Understand this about Cleveland State: It is something of a non-entity in its own city, more a commuter school than a draw of urban sophisticates. And since 1986, when Mouse McFadden did the scoring and Kevin Mackey the coaching and Cleveland State penetrated the national consciousness with a run into the Sweet 16, the athletic department has stalled. Mackey got caught outside of a crack house in 1990 and was fired six days later. Rollie Massimino rode in on reputation and left the program with lingering academic-fraud accusations.
In came Waters to an untenable situation, a program with two winning seasons in 13 years, no fan base and zero belief. Even now, his situation is perhaps best expressed using dollar signs. Cleveland State last year spent $225,744
on basketball operating expenses, the 218th most in the country, according to its Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act report. Its opponent Sunday, 12th-seeded Arizona, spent $1,601,734
, more than all but 12 teams.
Without money to compete like one of the big boys, Waters tapped into his players' psyches. Whenever the Vikings broke their huddles last year, it was not with the typical aphorisms about working hard or playing together.
"One, two, three – submit," they said.
Waters did not believe loyalty was enough. He wanted his players to invest in him what he had in them. Most were transfers unhappy with their original program or recruits without bigger-name options.
"It means to totally give in and buy in," says guard Norris Cole, one of the stars of the Wake Forest victory.
Before Waters arrived, Cole planned on attending NAIA-level Walsh College. He was one of Waters' first recruits, along with Cedric Jackson, his backcourt mate who had spent two years at St. John's. They found a coach with dozens of edicts. Don't use bad language. Work hard. Be obedient. Never take things personally. Play together. Be humble.
At the beginning of practice, Waters would ask: "How are we going to submit today?"
"Submissiveness is something young people don't have," Gee says. "They've got to see it. He's saying, if you guys really want to submit to this, you've got to do it even when you don't see it or understand it."
At Waters' previous job with Rutgers, the players laughed at the concept of submitting. While the Big East school presented him with a million-dollar budget and better talent than he had seen at any of his previous jobs – Waters took Kent State to the NCAA tournament twice and before that had been an assistant for 15 years at Ferris State and seven years at Eastern Michigan – it also meant he recruited players with delusions of NBA grandeur.
Winning at Kent State necessitated building a team, something Waters cherished and figured he could do as he ascended the coaching ladder.
"I was naïve," Waters says. "I was all caught up into that. I said, 'Hey, I want to aspire to do this and be at a higher level.' Rutgers met all the criteria."
Despite a 20-win season and three winning records in five years, Waters resigned amid pressure from the higher-ups. This season, Rutgers went 11-21 overall and 2-16 in the Big East.
Waters says he had three job offers aside from Cleveland State in 2006, and that the Rutgers experience taught him not to pick a new gig because of money or conference but the people involved. Cleveland State, then, made all the sense in the world. Waters knew its president, Michael Schwartz, from Kent State. He worked with its athletic director, Lee Reed, at Eastern Michigan. They would let Waters be himself.
And who that is the Vikings players express better than anyone. Cole calls across the room to guard Jeremy Montgomery. He says Montgomery does a better impression of Waters than anyone.
"J-Mo," Cole says. "I'm a player. You're coach Waters. I just did something stupid. What does he say?"
"I don't want no part of that one," Montgomery says.
"Do it," Cole says.
Montgomery is a freshman, so he relents. He stands up and leans over, hands on hips.
"That's a joke, Norris!" Montgomery says, his teammates in stitches. "What is you doing, baby! What is that junk you got going on!"
Waters walks through the door. Uh-oh. Busted.
"Guess I came in at the wrong time," Waters says.
Actually, timing is one of Waters' great attributes. He knows what to say, when to say it and how to phrase it to best resonate with his team. When Waters first revealed his plan to a room of kids who wouldn't have been there unless they believed in him, they were skeptical. He told them to erase any cynicism. The plan, he insisted, was handed to him for a reason.
"My visions come from God," Waters says. "That was a vision. See, I can keep the vision in my head. If I don't write it down, I don't know where I'm trying to go. So I put that vision down."
And three years later, Cleveland State, the team with the shoestring budget and the dead-end history and the kids no one else wanted, is here living it out, belle of the biggest ball in the land. Pretty hard to believe.