TUSCALOOSA — Nate Oats stood next to his truck in Buffalo after listening to a voice mail from Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne on Sunday when he noticed the serendipitous “Roll Tide” University of Alabama license plate holder surrounding New York plates on the car beside his.
For the 44-year-old Oats, it was clearly a positive sign.
Four days later, Oats was standing behind a podium bearing the Alabama script-A logo in the Naylor Stone media room on the second floor of the Mal Moore Athletic Complex. He retold that story during his introductory news conference as the Crimson Tide’s next head men’s basketball coach Thursday.
A self-professed “basketball junkie,” Oats raved about the opportunity ahead of him at Alabama, where he believes the basketball program can eventually reach the championship-caliber level that the football program has established under Nick Saban.
“I’d like to play for national championships. I’m a competitor. I’m ultra-competitive on everything. Can you do that here? Yeah, I believe you can,” Oats said Thursday in a meeting with reporters following his news conference. “I mean, they proved it in I don’t know how many other different sports. … Football competes for it every year. There’s no reason we can’t get to that level.”
Of course, that’s a work-in-progress and something that will take time.
“I’m not one to over-sell and under-deliver, so I’m not making huge promises,” Oats said, “but I’m going to say this: the football program set the standard of excellence around here at the highest possible level, and we’re going to work our tails off every day to get this thing rolling in that direction.”
But before any of that — even before the prerequisite sit-down with Saban before Thursday’s news conference — Oats had one priority: meet with freshman point guard Kira Lewis Jr.
Just hours into his first official day on the job, Oats made it a point get to know Lewis, the Crimson Tide’s leading scorer last season as a freshman. Lewis recently entered his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal to weigh his options following the departure of head coach Avery Johnson. Oats also met briefly with sophomore guard Herb Jones, who has not entered the transfer database. The Tide coach was scheduled to sit down with other members of the Crimson Tide roster later Thursday.
“There’s a reason I met with him first thing this morning — him and Herb (Jones),” Oats said Thursday. “If you’re a coach … you want to get the best players you can. They’ve got a really good one right here on the roster right now. So, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he’s playing in an Alabama uniform next year.”
By all accounts, the meeting went well — though not well enough for Lewis to rescind his name just yet.
Since submitting his name Tuesday, Lewis and his family have fielded interest from more than a dozen teams from all across, including Baylor, Duke, Memphis, Tennessee and Nevada, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
Now, whether that means Lewis will transfer — which would more than likely require him to sit out a year — remains to be seen. That ultimately could depend on the impression Oats made Thursday morning.
Lewis is one of four Alabama underclassmen who have entered the NCAA transfer portal earlier this week, including redshirt junior guard Dazon Ingram, junior forward Daniel Giddens and sophomore guard John Petty Jr. Ingram appears headed elsewhere after announcing his decision over social media Monday, and Petty could be exploring other options outside of college basketball.
“You’ve got to have the right people on board, too. That’s the other thing we’ve got to figure out. Maybe some of the guys in the transfer portal don’t need to be here,” Oats said without mentioning names. “You’ve got to get the culture built right. We’ve got to have those meetings and see. If they’re not the right kids for the program, then let’s get the right kids in the program and build this culture the way we want to have it built around here.”
That culture will also likely include several new assistant coaches, with Oats confirming Buffalo assistant coach Bryan Hodgson is expected to join him in Tuscaloosa unless he’s ultimately named the Bulls head coach after interviewing in the next week or so.
Part of the balancing act includes weighing whether to retain any holdover members from the previous staff, including former Crimson Tide player and longtime assistant Antoine Pettway, who has been part of prior two coaching staffs under Johnson and Anthony Grant.
Byrne said that while he likes his head coaches to have the “autonomy” to hire their own assistant coaches, he does see the value of having an assistant with Alabama ties.
“I think having somebody on your staff that knows what sweet tea and grits is is important at Alabama,” Byrne joked.
Of course, Oats could decide to go another direction and dip into his own past by hiring a current high school coach within the state to his staff.
That said, having someone with Alabama connections is of vital importance to Oats, who is originally from Wisconsin and has spent all 22 years coaching career in the North.
“I definitely think that would help. I don’t want to come in here as a guy that’s never been in Alabama before and hire three guys that don’t know the state of Alabama,” Oats said. “I mean, Alabama’s got players, athletes on a yearly basis that want to go to the University of Alabama. I don’t want to upset the state of Alabama.”
Byrne, who described Oats as being “at the top of my list” of candidates, said Oats has already signed a memorandum of understanding and agreed to a five-year contract, but declined to get into specific financial terms.
“He checked every box in what we were looking for,” Byrne said.
All athletic department employment contracts must be approved by the University’s Board of Trustees compensation committee, which met earlier this month to approve contracts for 12 members of the Alabama football coaching staff, including all seven new assistants.