Decades of listening, soaking up details prepared Gates to be head coach

Dennis Gates has spent a career listening, asking questions and taking notes.

A Florida State assistant coach from 2004-05 and 2011-19, Gates recalled the hours spent sitting in Leonard Hamilton’s office, discussing players, opponents and strategy. And soaking up knowledge.

Gates is in his second year at Cleveland State, where he guided the Vikings to the Horizon League title. How he built the program — from the defensive system to the culture — is in may ways out of the mold that he learned from various coaches and mentors through the years, including Hamilton.

“There’s nothing I don’t do right now without calling Leonard Hamilton or trying to figure out what he thinks,” Gates said via Zoom on Tuesday afternoon. “ ‘Coach, what do you think?’ I’ll call him at 3 o’clock in the morning. ‘Coach, what you think?’ I know the answer to it. I just need to hear it. What I miss most is taking my laptop, sitting in his office and just being a fly on the wall. I miss those days, but I can still get them and gain them in retrospect with a call. 

“Hopefully I’m making him proud because I know he put his arms around a perfect stranger who said on the first day, ‘Coach, I want to be just like you.’ So a little bit of me I hope he sees himself. And I hope I’m making him proud along the way because I stand on his shoulders. Our defensive system is from the Leonard Hamilton junkyard dog philosophy.”

Gates, 41, is back in the NCAA Tournament. It’s where he was for many years as part of Hamilton’s staff. No. 15 seed Cleveland State (19-7) will face No. 2 seed Houston (24-3) on Friday at 7:15 p.m. (TruTV). The Vikings have won with balance and have played good defense, limiting opponents to just 30.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. 

This is where Gates has been with great frequency but now he’s the man answering the questions. He recalled standing off to the side at press conferences and listening as Hamilton would address the media after a home game or at the NCAA Tournament or answering questions from fans.

“Everything that I do now, the way I walk, the way I talk is because I sat in these postgame press conferences,” Gates said. “I stood by the curtains listening. I went to his radio show every Wednesday night, just to see how he interacts, see how he answered questions, in hopes that I can get a little bit of residue on my shoulder. So that one day I can be a successful head coach.”

Gates and Cleveland State may be a Cinderella team in March but they didn’t have the fairy tale start. The Vikings went 0-3, including a 101-46 loss at Ohio. Adversity would make the players better, Gates told them. The season improved. The following week, there was a six-point loss at Ohio State. But the Vikings kept winning, rattling off nine straight, and despite some losses built confidence as the calendar turned to March.

“I feel like we just learned a lot of lessons and he just let us know that he believes in us,” said senior Torrey Patton, who lead the team in scoring at 14.9 points per game. “He’s going to tell you exactly how he feels. He’s going to shoot you straight. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’s just a guy you can really be comfortable around.”

Gates is now facing someone he also considers a mentor in Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars are “probably his most talented team,” Gates said. That’s saying something considering his on-court success at Oklahoma, Indiana and Houston. 

But for Gates it goes beyond the matchup on the court. The relationship Gates had with Sampson dates back to a car ride he gave the head coach in 2003, back when Gates was a graduate assistant at Marquette.

On Monday, Gates posted a photo on Twitter. It is of Sampson’s book, reflecting on a Final Four appearance at Oklahoma in 2002, with the inscription to Gates: “Keep working – you will be a great coach one day!” Under the signature, “Always do your best!”

Gates said young coaches need the opportunities the Final Four provides, to rub shoulders, listen, learn and build relationships. It has been missing of late — last March with no tournament and this March with a Zoom environment. Gates encouraged young coaches to reach out to those via social media, and implored head coaches and others in position to be mentors to respond and pass along their wisdom.

“I was afforded the opportunity to ask Kelvin Sampson, at the age of 23, questions in a car ride, for an hour and 15 minutes, and I made sure I took the long route so I can have an extra 15 minutes along the way,” Gates said. “I didn’t know what he was going to say, I knew it was going to be memorable. I didn’t know it was going to be so impactful. No. 2, I want all these young people to do their very best. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t see where your life is going to be at. 

“I didn’t know I was going to be at an NCAA Tournament facing Kelvin Sampson, but I knew some of the nuggets he gave me during that moment would inspire me to give my very best. The third advice I said was make sure you keep two hands on the wheel, right? And I said that because, Lord forbid, if I got a ticket or anything else, he probably wouldn’t have sent me that book. That means I did a good job. But ultimately, you got to keep two hands on your career. And not be panicky in those dark moments when you don’t see where your career is going. Because you got to have some faith. So that’s symbolic for keeping two hands on the wheel.” 

Gates said it’s now on him and other coaches who have established themselves to give back, to answer questions and help the next generation. 

“These small conversations add up,” Gates said. “And that small conversation with Kelvin Sampson added up and gave me inspiration and where I am today.”

Gates was nothing short of entertaining on his Zoom with the media. Beyond his story of being a cabbie for a Final Four coach, he asked his players a few questions, comically introducing himself as if he were a member of the media. He also recited a poem by Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, “I have only just a minute.”

I have only just a minute,

Only sixty seconds in it.

Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.

Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.

But it’s up to me 

to use it.

I must suffer if I lose it.

Give account if I abuse it.

Just a tiny little minute,

but eternity is in it.

Cleveland State’s minute, 60 of them, are coming up on Friday. He now prepares the Vikings for what will be an NCAA Tournament unlike any other. Hamilton and Gates will likely be within the same downtown hotel convention center complex but must remain distant, with their teams in the “controlled environment” of Indianapolis. Gates’ experience has prepared him for what may unfold on the court but little about the minutes before the first-round matchup.

“I can’t relate this experience to none of my assistant coaching experiences as we move forward in each game in the tournament, because you’re not dealing with the same dynamics,” Gates said. “Here we are in a bubble, everyone in the same city.

“We don’t go by records. We go about minutes. And the most important minute is the one that we play on Friday night. We’re only as good as our next minute.”