How Bobby Hurley helped Alabama’s Nate Oats forge a pathway to the Final Four

Apr 6, 2024, 7:07 AM | Updated: 8:25 am

Head coach Nate Oats of the Alabama Crimson Tide answers questions during a media session at State ...

Head coach Nate Oats of the Alabama Crimson Tide answers questions during a media session at State Farm Stadium on April 05, 2024 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Alabama men’s basketball coach Nate Oats did not think he would be a head coach collegiately much less guiding a Division I team to their first Final Four appearance in program history.

Nevertheless, Oats has been on quite the journey since he spent more than a decade as a coach and math teacher at Romulus High School in the greater Detroit area.

“It’s great to be here,” Oats told reporters at his press conference on Thursday. “Very fortunate that I’m able to coach at a place like Romulus that gives us the resources to be able to make a run like this.”

Was that a tongue-in-cheek remark from the Alabama head coach? Perhaps he forgot where he was for a moment?

“Eleven years ago, I was coaching high school basketball, just getting to know the Hurley brothers pretty well,” Oats said. “It’s ironic that my first Final Four that I make, the first one Alabama makes, coaching against Danny Hurley, brother Bobby (Hurley) is the one that got me in this business. If it wasn’t for Danny and Bobby, I wouldn’t be here. We’re playing each other in Bobby’s town down here in Phoenix. Kind of funny how it comes full circle.”

The connection between Oats and the Hurley brothers began when Oats was coaching at Romulus and Bobby Hurley was an assistant under Dan at Rhode Island.

The older Hurley brother and now-Arizona State men’s basketball head coach would make recruiting trips to Romulus to watch four-star recruit E.C. Matthews.

“And in the course of watching this kid practice we can’t help but see Oats really conducting a great practice really saying the right things, his knowledge, his passion for coaching,” the Arizona State head coach told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Friday. “All the things were really evident, you know, just watching them.”

Matthews ended up committing to Rhode Island, but Hurley left his assistant role with the Rams to take a head-coaching job at Buffalo.

“I needed to think about who I could bring in for a staff member in the Midwest,” Bobby Hurley said. “And Nate Oats seemed to be someone that jumped to my mind right away and his head coaching experience at the high school level and also his connections in the Detroit area helped us significantly at Buffalo.”

Even though Oats had been at Romulus for more than a decade, he said he was getting pickier the longer he was there. It took the Hurley brothers for Oats to leave his high school coaching gig. Oats had three daughters that were born right outside of Detroit and he did not want to have to move his family.

“Really the Hurley family kind of helped me come to grips in my head with I’ll be okay just being here the rest of my life,” Oats said. “We were successful at Romulus. We were winning. Good retirement plan as a schoolteacher.”

Oats interviewed at a few different schools in the Mid-American Conference and said he felt frustrated at times after he was turned down for jobs. He also mentioned he was promised a job that didn’t come through.

But despite the disappointment, Oats believed he could stay at Romulus and be happy with it.

“Seems like every time you kind of get that way in life, a pretty good opportunity comes up,” he said.

That’s when Bobby Hurley came calling and offered him an assistant coaching position at Buffalo.

“I got to the point I was not going to go into college if I wasn’t pretty confident the guy I was going in with was going to be successful,” Oats said. “I was pretty confident the Hurley family was going to be successful, Bobby Hurley being part of it, was going to be successful in his college coaching. I didn’t want to have to move getting fired year after year after year. I’ve been fortunate, we haven’t been fired anywhere yet.”

But it wasn’t just his Midwest ties that helped him land a job as an assistant at Buffalo. The way Oats oversaw his high school program made up for his lack of college experience.

“(Oats) was running a college program in high school, just like my dad,” UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley said. “That was the thing I noticed about Nate when we recruited E.C. was like this guy’s wired different, number one. Different level of energy about him. Just the way he shows up when you meet him. Then just the way he ran his program.

“I went and watched them the Florida State tournament game. One of the most detailed video scouts that you’ll see. In the back they had spaghetti cooking on the stove. You could see he was a high-level guy that just happened to be coaching in college.”

Oats also believes his high school experience helped him become the coach he is today. While he was in high school, he was able to run his high school program like a collegiate program in many respects just as Hurley mentioned. 

But what sets high school coaching apart is the low stakes afforded Oats the ability to test different defensive schemes and strategies without fearing for his job. As a result, he was able to take that trait with him to Alabama.

“I’m able to experiment with how I play,” Oats said. “If your first head-coaching job ever is Division I level, there’s a big spotlight on you, you can’t experiment as much.

“One year we pressed the whole year, found out what worked, didn’t work. If you do that at this level, do that, you may get fired after a year. If they fire me from being a coach at Romulus, it only takes like $4,000. I’m still good as a teacher. I still got my math job.”

The average Final Four coach has had almost 20 seasons of Division I head coaching experience during the past 20 years. Oats only has nine years of Division I head coaching experience since becoming the Buffalo head coach in 2015 and later taking the Alabama job in 2019.

But while Oats’ pathway is unique, he’s hoping it will inspire a trend.

“I think it gives some hope and belief for just the normal high school coach out there, maybe not the high school coach that’s on this national level recruiting nationally,” he said.

The Crimson Tide enter Saturday’s matchup with UConn as 11.5-point underdogs, per FanDuel Sportsbook. While four out of the top five scorers on Alabama’s roster transferred from mid-major schools, Oats’ players are much like the coach who led them there.

“I feel like I’m a little bit the same way,” Oats said. “I’m just a high school guy that caught a break that’s still trying to prove that I belong at this level.”

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