'This dude is crazy:' Nate Oats brings intensity, controversy to Alabama men's basketball

·8 min read

There are coaches whose jobs are all-consuming. And then there is Nate Oats.

No basketball detail goes neglected by Oats, 48, the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide whose top-seeded team will play San Diego State on Friday in the round of 16 of the men’s NCAA Tournament. But there was a day more than a decade ago when Oats, then the head coach at Romulus High School in Michigan, did forget something.

He’d left his daughter Brielle, the youngest of three girls and then a toddler, at home alone.

“At least he went and got her,’’ deadpanned Steve Miller, one of Oats’ longtime friends.

The incident, recalled by two assistant coaches and a former player at Romulus, and other history shed light on Oatswho, in the wake of a capital murder case involving a former and current player, has been described as a coach who wants to win at all costs.

The chase for the program's first national championship has only magnified the controversy.

How the Jamea Harris murder case unfolded

Oats has allowed his team’s best player, Brandon Miller, to go unpunished despite Miller’s link to the Jan. 15 fatal shooting of Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother.

Miller transported the gun used to kill Harris, according to law enforcement testimony at a court hearing Feb. 21 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. When Miller's involvement came to light, Oats defended his star player's role in the incident, saying, 'Wrong spot at the wrong time."

Darius Miles, then on Alabama's roster and since dismissed, had left the .40-caliber handgun on the backseat of Miller's car earlier in the night, according to law enforcement. He texted Miller at 1:38 a.m. according to law enforcement.

“I need my joint,'' slang for gun.

After getting that text message, according to law enforcement, Miller met Miles at The Strip in Tuscaloosa. Miles gave the gun to his friend Michael Davis, who shot and killed Harris, according to law enforcement.

"Wrong spot at the wrong time.''

Oats apologized for the words, but they reverberated.

Nate Oats talks to forward Brandon Miller (24) and guard Dominick Welch. Oats has the overall No. 1 seed Crimson Tide chasing its first men's basketball national title.
Nate Oats talks to forward Brandon Miller (24) and guard Dominick Welch. Oats has the overall No. 1 seed Crimson Tide chasing its first men's basketball national title.

Decision not to punish Brandon Miller

Harris' stepfather, Kelvin Heard, said Oats had "crossed the line'' and said it was Harris, not Miller, who truly had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dick Vitale, the longtime college basketball analyst, echoed widespread sentiment when on Twitter he wrote, “I was shocked by the comments of Nate Oats yesterday but I am doubly shocked that superstar Brandon Miller is scheduled to play tonight. Isn’t providing a gun to a teammate that was used in a murder a serious offense?”

Miller has not been charged with a crime, and Oats has cited that fact in defending his decision not to discipline his star player. Miller has been identified by law enforcement as a cooperating witness.

Three days after Harris was shot to death near Alabama's campus, when asked how he was dealing with it, Oats told Sports Spectrum, "I'm a believer. A lot of prayer. A lot of scripture reading just to figure out what to tell the team.''

Oats' father, Larry, is Dean of the Seminary at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin, where Nate Oats played Division III basketball. But Nate Oats speaking publicly about his faith has not blunted the criticism and scrutiny.

With Oats’ character and ethics in question, however, there is no debate about his zeal for winning.

Alabama men's hoops coach 'hates to lose'

In January 2019, during Oats’ first season at Alabama, it was time to step on the scale.

Oats, who puts a premium on fitness, held a weight-loss competition for his staff. The three categories: overall weight loss, biggest percentage of weight loss and lowest overall body fat.

Oats, committed to personal fitness, appeared to be at a disadvantage because he had less weight to lose than others.

As the three-month competition deepened, Oats started complaining he could lose no more than 10 pounds, recalled Josh Baker, then a special assistant to Oats.

Baker noted that only after he and a couple of assistants disclosed they’d lost 15 pounds did Oats start complaining.

Recalled Baker, “I kind of start watching him, watching what he eats, watching when he works out. I’m like, this isn’t adding up. There’s no way he’s just losing like 10 pounds.’’

Two days before the competition ended, Alabama played at Missouri. Baker said he remembers Oats leaving the visitors’ locker room and heading for the court.

“Dude, right before he puts his jacket on, his freaking pants are falling off,’’ Baker said. “I’m like, oh my gosh, this guy. I don’t know what he did, but he got low.

“Nate hates to lose.’’

It can be a painful reality.

How Nate Oats once shut down an outdoor game

There was the Gus Macker 3-on-3 outdoor tournament that Luke Atkins recalled playing on a team with Oats.

“Nate went to save a ball and there was quite a little crowd that had gathered there watching the game,'' said Atkins, who grew up with Oats. "Nate went out of bounds, over the curb and then (fell) backwards right through this glass bank door. Shattered the door, glass everywhere. It shut down the game. We ended up finishing it but Nate was cut on his shoulder and back, so we had to take him to the hospital.

“He was always pushing the limits and got the most out of the talent that he had. Was just a hard, aggressive worker and super competitive, so there’s no doubt in my mind that that play kind of is a snapshot of who Nate was as a competitor.’’

That spirit extended beyond basketball.

Alabama in Sweet 16 for second time in three years

The Romulus High School team was playing cards during a summer retreat in 2012 when Oats entered the cabin.

He crashed the party and joined the card game, recalled Deonte Bell, a member of that team.

“He took the card game so seriously, moving players out the way, jumping on the table, it was like a basketball game,’’ Bell said. “I could just tell, this dude don’t like to lose in anything. And after that, everybody said, ‘This dude is crazy.’ ’’

That season, the dude led Romulus to its first state championship in 27 years.

In 2015, the dude took over as head coach at Buffalo, which had never reached the NCAA Tournament, and led the team to four straight tournament appearances during his four-year tenure.

Now, Oats has led Alabama to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, behind SEC freshman of the year Miller.

Crimson Tide forward Brandon Miller celebrates with coach Nate Oats late in the second half of a win against Texas A&M.
Crimson Tide forward Brandon Miller celebrates with coach Nate Oats late in the second half of a win against Texas A&M.

Nate Oats, the humanitarian

He’s still pushing. At Alabama, Oats has joined his team during military-style drills in the preseason.

“That’s a unique thing that Nate can do just because of that higher gear he has,’’ said Luke Atkins, who played Division III basketball with Oats at Maranatha Baptist.

But what kind of coach lets a star player linked to murder go unpunished?

At Maranatha, Oats held Bible studies weekly at a juvenile detention center for about a year with his friend Steve Miller, according to Miller.

He offered to adopt the unborn child of a high school player Oats was coaching when the player and his girlfriend were struggling to decide what to do, according to the player, Will Clyburn.

He took in another high school player after the player’s mother was jailed four years after the player’s father was shot to death, according to the player, Valdez Green, who shared the story with the Associated Press. 

Oats' former assistant coaches at Romulus enumerate the ways he has acted to help his players on and off the court. Taking players to church. Chaperoning them on preseason retreats. Accompanying them on college visits.

But none of those actions involved discipline that could interfere with success.

Less than three weeks after Harris' death, Alabama gave Oats a contract extension worth just over $30.6 million over six years.

'He's always willing to do what it takes'

Stevie Glenn was an assistant coach at Romulus throughout Oats' 11-year tenure at the school.

"I kind of look at me and my wife,'' Glenn said. "If I was that type (like Oats) as far as basketball, we would be divorced. We were never home.''

But Oats and his wife, Crystal, have survived 25 years of marriage; her diagnosis with lymphoma in 2015 and subsequent treatment she says has left her cancer-free; and his ongoing pursuit of victory.

Even as the victories pile up on the basketball court for Alabama (31-5), Atkins thought about Oats' performances in the weight-loss competitions.

He is a repeat champion.

Said Atkins, "Nate always wins it because he’s always willing to do what it takes.''

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama's Nate Oats brings controversy to March Madness