Brilliant as Dennis Gates is, emotional intelligence has been key to success at Mizzou

L.G. Patterson/AP

Not long after Dickey Nutt rejoined mentor Leonard Hamilton on the Florida State men’s basketball staff in 2015, Hamilton was gushing about a 35-year-old assistant he considered one of the sharpest people he’d ever met.

It didn’t take Nutt long to be similarly struck by the genius of Dennis Gates, who resuscitated the University of Missouri basketball program this season after its longest NCAA Tournament victory drought since the void between 1944 and 1976.

Nutt’s perspective speaks to why this rejuvenation, and the reasons for it, will hold true regardless of how seventh-seeded Mizzou (25-9) fares on Saturday against 15th-seeded Princeton (22-8) after Gates on Thursday coaxed MU to its first NCAA tourney triumph since 2010.

“He has it all worked out,” Nutt, now an MU assistant, said on Saturday in a hallway outside the Mizzou locker room at the Golden 1 Center. “He may not tell you, but he’s ahead of you.”

That’s why Nutt, who worked with Kansas coach Bill Self at Oklahoma State, refers to Gates as “the next one” in that elite category.

He could see that special something in the depth and scale and sense of purpose in virtually everything Gates touched at Florida State and then as a head coach at Cleveland State. In Gates’ mere demeanor, for instance, or his scouting reports and how he organized practices.

The brilliance was evident in Gates’ ability to be two or three plays ahead all the time, too. So much so that Nutt, formerly a Division I head coach at Arkansas State and Southeast Missouri, says with a laugh that he frequently has to tell Gates “to dumb it down for me.”

And it resonates in Gates’ remarkable ability to absorb, translate and retain data without the need for notes and his constant habit of trying to recalibrate traditional methods.

Making such cases in point as putting a team on the floor without a traditional post presence and implementing the idea of having whoever was closest to the ball take it out to expedite MU’s pace, Nutt said, “He is changing the way the game is played.”

It’s something more than all that, though, that explains why Nutt likes to refer to him as “The Chosen One.”

The X’s and O’s and scheming and details might be vital.

But it’s Gates’ emotional intelligence and persona as what Nutt called a “relationship collector” that reverberates most — particularly when it comes to the truly uncanny way Gates connects with his team.

“The reason he wins, in my opinion, is his relationship with his players,” Nutt said.

As Gates demonstrated yet again in crunch time on Thursday, you can see it in the near-tranquility he exudes — nevermind if he’s churning with intensity inside — even in the crucible of a game.

It’s a reassuring and liberating approach from which players take their cue. Not to mention a refreshing statement that a coach can command respect with dignity instead of the hysterics we so often see … and something Nutt says he has learned is appealing to parents of prospects.

But know it, too, from the approach he took in bringing his first recruiting class here.

Not to mention in how he compelled first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer Kobe Brown, his brother, Kaleb, and Ronnie DeGray to stay when nine other players took to the transfer portal as Gates was replacing Cuonzo Martin after last season.

“His first words to me were if he’s not invited to my wedding by the time it’s all said and done and I’ve moved on from college, then he didn’t do his job,” Brown said Wednesday in Sacramento. “I knew then it was more than a business with him. I knew he wanted to build actual relationships. He just cared more than just me putting the basketball in the hoop. ... He opened my eyes big-time. It led to me staying.”

In the locker room on Friday, I asked eight of the newcomers what it was about Gates that had struck them so in the recruiting process.

For a far-flung group of varying backgrounds, the spectrum of their answers was broad … but had certain key common denominators.

*Guard D’Moi Hodge, a native of Tortola, British Virgin Islands, who previously played for Gates at Cleveland State:

When Gates came to visit him for the first time at State College of Florida, Hodge still marvels, “he came on picture day. He didn’t even come to watch me work out. … He talked to me about my family and everything else. We didn’t even talk about basketball that much.”

As he frequently tells recruits, Gates told him he’d want to come to his wedding one day. And something else that apparently sealed it:

“‘I want you to trust me with your life,’” Hodge recalled him saying. “That stuck with me. Nobody ever asked me a question like that. That was it for me with Coach Gates, just off that.”

Gates reinforced the message by visiting Hodge’s family in Tortola the day after Hodge committed and by conveying that the relationship was two-way.

“Some coaches, they hide certain stuff,” Hodge said. “But he’s open with everything personal. He trusts us with that, so it’s a lot easier to trust him and open up to him.”

*Guard Sean East, a Louisville, Kentucky, native, recruited from John A Logan community college in Illinois:

East immediately saw Gates as “a stand-up guy” who was easy to talk to.

“The way he speaks, the way he communicates is not like the average person,” said East, adding that Gates’ demeanor and “body language at all times” makes you “want to know more about him and also be a part of what he has going on.”

*Center Mabor Majak, a native of South Sudan recruited by Gates to Cleveland State out of Indiana:

Their first meeting, Majak said, was “amazing” and made him believe Gates was “someone who looks out for you beyond basketball.”

He’s seen that ever since and is impressed with how Gates can relate to people from such different circumstances.

“He paints every player with a different brush,” Majak said. “He really enjoys being able to connect with each of us individually.”

*Guard Tre Gomillion, who played for Gates at Cleveland State after being recruited out of Augusta, Georgia:

On his first true call with Gates, Gomillion said, Gates spent six to eight hours “on and off” speaking with him and alternately asking him to hand the phone to every other family member and his high school coach.

“He won’t just fill your head up with a bunch of nonsense,” Gomillion said. “And the words he says are what he means.”

By the time that marathon session was over, the overwhelming consensus was, “‘This is the man you need to go play for.’”

Gomillion smiled as he recalled he hadn’t had other offers. But Gates saw something in him that others didn’t, something that moves Gomillion to go that much harder knowing how much Gates cares about him beyond the court.

*Guard DeAndre Gholston, from Gary, Indiana, who transferred from Milwaukee:

“He had an aura or something about him that told me he was who he said he was,” said Gholston, who smiled at the memory of Gates knowing things about him he didn’t know how he knew. “He told the truth. He talked about believing in me as a person.”

Noting that everything Gates had told him has come true, he said, “I thank him and honestly love him for it.”

*Forward Aidan Shaw, a freshman from Blue Valley:

Like others, Shaw said Gates had made it a point to speak with not just his parents but extended family such as his grandparents and aunts and uncles. Shaw was seeking a sense of family and to have a coach “just be a part of my life in the long run.”

He found it in Gates, staff, teammates and a program further nurtured by sports psychologist Joe Carr, whom Gates first met as a player at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Bringing a psychologist in early for us really helped us build some chemistry,” Shaw said at a news conference before returning to the locker room. “I feel like I have a connection with all my teammates. It will be a lifelong connection just because (of Gates) and all his ideologies, what he believes in.”

*Guard Nick Honor, a native of Orlando who transferred from Clemson:

Honor appreciated how low key and positive Gates was with him — and that Gates opened right up to him.

“He tells us his story, we tell him our story,” Honor said.

Moreover, giving “everyone grace,” Honor added, has enabled players to be themselves and all come together.

“He loves us outside of basketball,” he said. “And he always tells us this bond is for life.”

*Forward Noah Carter, a Northern Iowa transfer from Dubuque, Iowa.

The first time Gates met Carter’s father was at a fishing tournament in Detroit. That led to bonding with Carter over fishing, a hobby Gates was taught by his grandmother, Lee Alice Goines, while growing up in Chicago.

Carter hasn’t yet gotten Gates out in the 17-foot “Noah’s Ark” he brought to campus. But last summer at a lake near Columbia, he said, the two went fishing “to spend some time in nature and decompress.”

While that relationship has its own dynamic, Carter admires how Gates is able to find such different ways to align with people in all situations and players in particular.

Brainiac that Gates is, that’s perhaps his most essential superpower.

“When you have good relationships,” Carter said, “you connect deeper and you’re able to really get the most out of somebody.”

With no McDonald’s All-Americans among these Tigers, this season has been testament to that.

“We may not have every (NBA) lottery pick,” Nutt said. “But I’ll tell you what we do have: We have a team.”

And a program with a promising future under a coach who’s ahead in so many ways.