Alabama's first-year coach says he would be a "complete idiot" not to pick Saban's brain.
Weeks before Alabama’s men’s basketball team convened in mid-September for its first practice of the season, new coach Nate Oats walked from his office in Coleman Coliseum across the parking lot to the Mal Moore athletic building.
It was 7:15 on an August morning, and Oats wanted to make sure he was not late for the start of a meeting -- a football team meeting.
When the clock struck 7:30, another jam-packed day of fall camp began for Nick Saban and his players. It would not end until 10 o’clock at night, and Oats was there from start to finish.
As a high basketball school coach in Michigan and a burgeoning college coach at Buffalo, Oats studied Saban’s methods and tried to adopt them with his own teams.
Now, Oats had a chance to observe Saban up close and absorb whatever he could.
Saban, though, caught Oats off guard when he pulled the new coach on campus into his office during a dinnertime break amid an otherwise busy schedule of back-to-back meetings and practice.
“Do you have anything for us?” Oats recalled Saban asking.
“Are you asking me if I have anything to help you?” he said.
In the mind of Oats, 45, there was little advice he could provide a coach whom he believes is “one of the best in the history of team sports.”
Yet there Oats was, sitting across from a six-time national champion, trying to think of what knowledge he could possibly bestow upon an inquiring Saban.
“I was like, first off, that’s not why I’m here. I haven’t even thought that way,” Oats said last week. “Second, if I did, the answer would probably be no. Like, I’m here to learn from you. I don’t really have any suggestions. I’m not at a place where I would give anything even if I had any.
“I thought it was ironic that he even asked. I think he is trying to learn. But, no, I will not be offering up suggestions to how they need to run their program. He is doing just fine with that. I’m a young coach trying to get a lot better.”
The Saban-Oats relationship is not like that of Saban and Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach who visits annually with his longtime friend in Tuscaloosa.
The latest meeting of two of the most successful football minds in history was captured last year for an HBO documentary titled, “The Art of Coaching.” Those sorts of glimpses into the knowledge of championship coaches have long been red meat for Oats.
During his 11-year career coaching boys basketball at Romulus High School outside Detroit, Oats would provide his players with a quote of the day. Some came from Saban, who just a few years earlier had caught Oats’ eye as Michigan State’s coach.
When Oats was hired in 2013 as an assistant at the University at Buffalo and two years later became the Bulls’ head coach, his daily practice plans became more high-tech.
In his Microsoft Excel spreadsheets was a drop-down menu to add his quotes. An entire section was devoted to wisdom from Saban. It came from news conferences, articles, podcasts, YouTube videos -- wherever Oats could find Saban’s words.
“[We] just kind of tried to get our program in Buffalo to kind of emulate [the idea of] every day working, the process and we’re not talking about winning championships, we’re trying to win the day in every different way,” Oats said. “I had never met him though until I got hired here. I just kind of followed him and admired him from afar.”
Oats had a similar admiration for Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and would visit East Lansing to observe his program.
Izzo, who became the Spartans’ head coach the same year as Saban took over the football program, recommended Oats to Alabama before he was hired last March.
“[That] meant a lot to me, because my relationship with Tom Izzo would never be one that steered me wrong,” Saban said this week.
Oats met Saban for the first time moments before his introductory news conference, but the two coaches did not have much time to spend together until they shared a plane to the SEC spring meetings in Florida last May.
Their relationship has grown since, with Saban mentoring Oats on a variety of topics.
“He doesn’t text or email but you can get a hold of him,” Oats said. “I had questions and he’s given me solid advice on different stuff with the state of Alabama, the university, what would you do in this recruiting situation?”
When Oats’ predecessor, Avery Johnson, was hired by Alabama in 2015, he visited a spring football practice and Saban invited the former NBA point guard to his pick-up basketball league.
Synergy between the football program and other sports, not just men’s basketball, is what Saban has tried to achieve at Alabama.
“I’m always really open to try to help all the coaches here, wherever I can,” he said. “My philosophy here is we want to be good at everything here. I try to support all the other programs the best I can to help whatever way that I can so they can be.”
Saban, though, has been impressed with Oats’ proactive approach to learning, which included Oats asking if he could shadow the football team for a day.
“In his case he went beyond the call of duty when it came to trying to do more so that he could get acclimated to being in the Southeast Conference and see how somebody else does things,” Saban said. “Most of the other coaches have never done that.”
Oats receives Saban’s schedule of motivational speakers visiting campus and tries to listen to the guests when possible, including talks to the football team by college basketball analyst Jay Bilas and former NFL player Ray Rice.
Some of Oats’ other trips across the parking lot involve his potential future players.
When Oats has a recruit on campus, he credits Saban for carving out time even in football season to give his pitch.
“He’s so good,” Oats said. “He’s really talking to them about what it takes to be great. What we have here at Alabama that can help them get to their destination.
“I learn a lot listening to him. I’m like, shoot, that’s a great point. I need to get better at this, that or the other [thing].”
Oats has also found Alabama football analyst Butch Jones, a former head coach at three different schools, to be a valuable resource given his experience. Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran and Oats have also struck up a friendship.
“Access to [Saban’s] program in general has been great,” Oats said. “[I can look] out my office window straight over to the football offices. I could walk to his office in a minute. For me not to take advantage of that, I would be a complete idiot. I’m going to take advantage of that as much as possible.”
Oats has tried to glean as much from Saban as possible but ultimately wants to put his own stamp on the basketball program.
“Nobody can be [Saban]. He’s his own guy. He’s a machine. I’m not trying to be him,” Oats said. “You’ve got to be your own person. I think you can pick and choose areas of his program that he’s great at that you can implement parts of that just try to help make us better.“
Oats’ team has a 13-10 record this season, including a 5-5 mark in the SEC. An overtime win last Saturday at Georgia ended a three-game losing streak, but Alabama will be tested this week with a trip Wednesday to play No. 11 Auburn followed by hosting No. 25 LSU on Saturday.
Saban has observed the team closely.
“I think he’s done a great job with limited resources this year with all the injuries he has and an ineligible player,” Saban said. The NCAA ruled sophomore guard Jahvon Quinerly cannot play this season after transferring from Villanova, while Alabama lost forwards James Rojas and Juwan Gary to season-ending knee injuries before its first game.
Starting guard Herb Jones has not played since wrist surgery earlier this month but could return by next week, Oats said Tuesday.
“That’s really hurt them,” Saban said. “They’re just playing with seven guys, basically.”
Saban has been impressed with how Oats has coached the players available to him.
“The thing that I look at is the players are playing hard, they’re really bought in,” Saban said. “They’ve all improved as players. There’s probably five games that they could have won, if they had a little more depth -- they ran out of gas at the end and can’t finish. Their guys are playing a lot more minutes than the other team.
“I just think the guy has done a fantastic job.”