To understand Alabama basketball's rise under Nate Oats, you have to start in Michigan

Brett Hudson
The Tuscaloosa News

Nate Oats still carries a legendary reputation among high school basketball coaches in the state of Michigan, despite the fact he hasn’t been one of them since 2013. In those days, they would try to learn what they could of his famous 6 a.m. workouts and copy them the best they could; Now they take his plays from watching Alabama basketball games.

George Ward even names those plays after him.

Ward was a consistent opponent of Oats who grew to be a close friend. It was Ward on the other bench in Oats’ final game as a high school coach, when Romulus High School defeated Ward’s Detroit Southeastern. Recently, an assistant coach brought him a clip of a play Alabama ran, and Ward immediately loved it.

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Normally, in these instances, Ward names the play after the school from which he saw it. In this case, he named it Oatmeal.

Before he was their inspiration, Oats was one of them — a high school coach looking to others to improve himself and his basketball team. His eureka moment started — as did many other aspects of his coaching career — with raw ambition.

Shot in the dark

One former Oats assistant coach, Keith Rydzik, remembers Oats reflecting on a particular Romulus season, one where he felt his offense drew stagnant. Oats, true to personality, went for it. He contacted Vance Walberg, a pioneer of the dribble-drive offense who was at the time an assistant for the Denver Nuggets: Oats wanted Walberg’s thoughts on what he could do better.

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Walberg told Oats to send him film. A day later, the Romulus staff got four suggestions, which they implemented immediately. Rydzik couldn’t remember all of them, but one was getting the ball out quicker, both after makes or defensive rebounds.

Then there was the trip Oats took to California with Josh Baker, currently UA’s special assistant to the head coach, to visit with Walberg for a week. From a basketball perspective, Oats was a changed man.

“It totally changed his way of thinking,” Rydzik said. “I remember him coming back and he made it his own — he thought there were things in Walberg’s system that could’ve been run better.”

With a clear vision, Oats stopped at nothing to make it a reality.

Selling Cheetos

Oats’ style of play would soon take over the state, with Romulus routinely making deep runs into the state playoffs and finally getting a state championship in 2013. On the way up, Oats was the chatter of the local coaching scene for other reasons.

“The 6 a.m. workouts were legendary, you heard about them all the time,” Ward said. “They were harder than most people’s actual practice.”

As Rydzik remembers, Oats would take the point guards, Rydzik would take the wings and shooters and another coach would take the bigs, all of them leading intense hourlong skill development workouts before classes. Since Oats had recently dedicated himself to the 3-point shot, many of them spent that time getting up hundreds, if not thousands, of shots. 

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“He made it a priority: If you weren’t a post player, you had to knock down open shots,” said Adam Trumpour, another former assistant. “We had guys who could do that job and it came from blood, sweat and tears. It wasn’t a magic formula, it was a case where the kids coming in weren’t the best shooters coming into high school but they sure were coming out.”

The amount of skill development accomplished in those sessions is a testament to two things: Oats’ meticulous practice-planning nature and his tireless work in other areas. Nothing showed that more than the stable of shooting machines he had at Romulus.

The exact number of shooting machines Oats had depends on who you ask. It was certainly no less than three: most say it was five or six. What’s certain is it was a lot more than the competition, who either had none or felt fortunate to have one.

Oats got those machines by selling Cheetos, Gatorade and other snacks out of his classroom, where he taught math. He would make regular trips to Sam’s Club to buy snacks at bulk prices, selling them to students and using the profits to reinvest in the basketball program.

“He should own stock in Frito-Lay from the amount of Cheetos he sold to buy shooting machines. He basically had a full bodega or a 7-Eleven in his classroom,” Trumpour said. “If he wasn’t at church and he wasn’t with his children or his wife, he was doing something to make that basketball program better. Every single waking second, he was a machine.

"I like to think I do a really good job and I have a pretty good rep in Michigan, but I can’t do it to the level Nate does. My wife would divorce me.”

Oats did not stop at selling snacks out of his classroom. Michigan limits travel for high school teams, forcing schools to play regular-season games within 300 miles of campus. Oats found portions of Indiana he could reach for games against top competition.

It is the same work ethic that has Alabama (17-5, 12-1 SEC) on the cusp of clinching the SEC regular season championship, entering Saturday's game against Vanderbilt widely projected to be a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Oats' work at Romulus didn’t stop during the season.

“He was smart enough, he’d have summer leagues,” said Steve Brooks, a competitor at Ypsilanti High School. “He probably had the best summer league up here. He was also smart enough to invite all the teams that would be a threat to his summer league, and he’d film the games in the summer."

Big man in Michigan

Even though he spent most of his time in Michigan beating his competitors — Ward believes he is one of very few to beat Oats more than once — he grew close to them over the years. Brooks says he and Oats are “best of friends,” and wanted to make sure Oats heard him say Oats stole some of his defensive philosophy from him, surely ribbing a good friend.

Ward recalled a time he asked Oats for some film, back when film was primarily traded on DVDs. Oats forgot to bring the DVD to school with him, but made amends by giving Ward his address — and the code to his burglar alarm.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute Nate. I’m a married guy, too, I know your wife isn’t gonna be pleased with you giving out the security code to the home,’” Ward said. "His wife knew who I was, he knew we had battled it out with each other, but he gave me the code to the alarm and I got the tape. I could’ve taken all his diamonds and furs if I wanted to.”

In his Michigan tenure, Oats overcame a regional rivalry: “Even though Nate is from Wisconsin, we hold true to Nate,” Ward said.

All of them watch as much Alabama basketball as possible, some getting the SEC Network so they can see every game.

“I hoped he would get a Big Ten job so he’d be closer to home, but Alabama got him, he’s gonna have some success and they’re never gonna let him go,” Trumpour said. “He’s that good.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson