It was July 2019, and the 352 Division I basketball head-coaching jobs had all been spoken for. Players were going through their summer workouts, building cohesion and chemistry for the upcoming season.
That July, a new athletic director at Cleveland State University, a mid-major program in northeast Ohio, decided to fire his coach. He offered the job to Dennis Gates, a 39-year-old understudy to Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, one of the most successful coaches in the country.
Gates had always dreamed of being a head coach. A former player at the University of California, Gates was also one of the hundreds of African American assistants who at times feel they have to wait too long to get their shot to run a program. Here was an opportunity, but the program was struggling and there wasn’t much time to recruit new players for the 2019-20 season. Much was on the line.
But Gates also knew the story of John McLendon, the first Black head coach at a predominantly white institution. Of all places, McLendon broke the color barrier in 1966 at Cleveland State. That made the job more attractive, and Gates accepted it even though some of his closest peers had advised him to wait another year for other, presumably better, jobs to open.
“Everybody in the country said it was a bad job,” Gates said from Indianapolis, where his team has been holed up since arriving March 6 to win the three-day Horizon League tournament and where the entire NCAA tournament will be played. “But I’ve been taught to look at it in a certain way as a great opportunity.”
Less than two years later, Gates has proven his mettle. Under his leadership, Cleveland State has punched its first ticket to the NCAA tournament in 12 years. The No. 15 seed Vikings play the No. 2 seed Houston Cougars on Friday night.
Cleveland State holds a special place in college basketball history beyond hiring the first Black coach. In 1986, it became the first seed lower than 13 to win an NCAA tournament game. But wedged in between the school’s historical highlights have been long stretches of losing and other dysfunction. Leaders at the school now hope the Gates era means the school can become a mid-major juggernaut that consistently wins on and off the court.
“It’s about how do we keep the train rolling,” athletic director Scott Garrett said. “And what does Coach Gates need to be able to keep this thing going to turn it into a Butler or a Gonzaga.”
Indeed, the 41-year-old Gates has had so much success in his second year at Cleveland State that local pundits are worried a bigger school in a more-prominent conference is poised to poach him.
School officials are promising to rip up Gates’ existing five-year contract and replace it with a new deal that will pay him more than the roughly $300,000 a year, with incentives, that he currently receives, according to Cleveland.com. Gates brushes aside talk that he might leave and says he’s just thrilled that he’s “doing something right by these kids and no one is talking about firing me.”
Over Zoom on March 12, Gates was clad in Cleveland State’s green and white sweats. He has a smiling and gracious yet serious demeanor. He is a natural storyteller and told about how some of his peers reacted after Garrett offered him the job.
They told him he wouldn’t have time to get the team together because summer was almost done. They told him there wasn’t support in the university or the community for college basketball because it was a pro sports town. They told him the pay wasn’t good enough for him or his assistants.
At times like those, he usually checks in with two mentors – former Iowa and USC coach George Raveling and Hamilton, who was still his boss at Florida State at the time. Both men advised him to bet on his own talents.
“We always adhere to the philosophy that you can win anywhere if you go with the right approach,” Hamilton said in an interview with . “And I truly believe that and I told him that all his life. There is enough talent in the country where if a guy goes in and evaluates, makes good decisions and builds a culture that he believes in, he can win anywhere in the country.”
Gates’ decision to take the job was also about McLendon, who, before being hired at Cleveland State, had coached at three different historically Black universities and the professional Cleveland Pipers basketball team.
“And in that moment of Cleveland State calling me, I thought about, ‘I get to walk the same sidelines as John McLendon?’ ” Gates said. “ ‘The first Black man to get an opportunity in a predominantly white institution? And it happened at Cleveland State University in 1966?’ That’s what I looked at. I said, ‘That’s a dream.’ ”
Cleveland State is not without high points in its men’s basketball history.
Kevin Mackey’s Cleveland State team was the first Cinderella.
In March 1986, when I was sports editor of the school’s student newspaper, the Vikings earned the nickname “The First Cinderella” when, as a No. 14 seed, they stunned the Bob Knight-coached No. 3 seed Indiana Hoosiers in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Syracuse, New York. (In recent years, I’ve been active with the school, including creating a scholarship in honor of my late mother.)
Coached by ex-Boston College assistant Kevin Mackey, Cleveland State then beat Saint Joseph’s in the second round before falling by a point in the Sweet 16 to Navy and star player David Robinson. Mackey coached four more years but developed a drug addiction, encountered legal troubles and hasn’t coached college ball since. (Larry Bird, whom he knew from his Boston days, helped Mackey get work as an NBA scout.)
In 2009, led by head coach Gary Waters and future Miami Heat guard Norris Cole, the team won a first-round game against Wake Forest. Waters retired after the 2017 season and was replaced by former Georgia coach Dennis Felton, who went 22-44 before Garrett replaced him with Gates. Garrett said he believe that Gates, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, was a good fit at Cleveland State partly because of his Midwestern, big-city roots.
Gates says he did three things upon arriving in Cleveland. He visited McLendon’s gravesite in suburban Cleveland Heights. And he phoned the last two coaches to take the Vikings to the NCAA tournament to pick their brains.
Cleveland State president Harlan Sands says an achievement like the NCAA bid is about more than basketball. He said it’s good for the whole city, which has had its challenges. Last fall, a U.S. Census Bureau report said Cleveland had the highest poverty rate among large U.S. cities in 2019, surpassing Detroit.
“This city is thirsty for college basketball success and we’re the only game in town,” said Sands. “Basketball is a front door to Cleveland State University and these young men and this coaching staff set the example for everything we do here.”
The bedrock of Gates’ philosophy is eight values that he rattles off during an interview: friendship, love, accountability, trust, discipline, unselfishness, enthusiasm and toughness. “Those were intentional,” he said. “The others are we build our program on three Cs: champions in the classroom, on the court and in the community.”
Gates recognizes that Cleveland State competes in a crowded sports landscape that includes three pro sports teams: the Browns, Cavaliers and Indians. “We’re in the same two-minute radius as, arguably, the best fans in the country when you speak of the most loyal,” the coach said. He said he’ll give fans a reason to come out to games, and this reason will be winning, which the Vikings did this year by going 19-7. Unfortunately, the arena was empty because of coronavirus restrictions.
Gates’ staff includes offensive coordinator Rob Summers; defensive coordinator Ryan Sharbaugh; special teams coach Dru Joyce III, who also handles recruiting; and Dickey Nutt, a former head coach at Southeast Missouri State and Arkansas State, who heads up student development.
Joyce’s father is the head coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio. In high school, the son teamed up with another young man from Akron, LeBron James. After going on to the University of Akron, the younger Joyce toiled 12 years as a point guard in Germany. “He gave me a chance that doesn’t happen to a lot of people,” Joyce said of Gates.
In his first year, Gates recruited guards Tre Gomillion of Augusta, Georgia, and Craig Beaudion of Chicago. They mixed with players already in the fold, including center Deante Johnson of Detroit; forward Algevon Eichelberger of Saginaw, Michigan; and Torrey Patton of Trotwood, Ohio.
“Craig Beaudion, the starting point guard, was sitting at home in August ,” Gates said. “The only school that had offered him was Alaska-Anchorage. An inner-city Chicago kid talking about Alaska? That ain’t happening. That ain’t it.”
Still, Gates’ first game at the helm of the Vikings didn’t go well. Cleveland State lost an exhibition to Notre Dame 69-64. But not that Notre Dame. They lost to Division II Notre Dame College of South Euclid, Ohio. “Our guys played together as a team,” said Scott Swain, Notre Dame’s athletic director, “and I remember Cleveland State was a bunch of individuals.”
When the real games started, Cleveland State dropped four of the first five. All the losses were by at least 20 points, including a 46-point defeat to Florida International. Gates’ first season ended at 11-21.
“I saw the progress behind the scenes,” said Garrett, who was a senior athletics administrator at Kansas State before coming to Cleveland State. “I’d been around NCAA tournament programs to see how they operate. And all the things behind the scenes showed this was an NCAA-caliber program even though the results weren’t translating on the court.”
That offseason, Gates added to the talent pool, including shooters such as guard D’Moi Hodge, who is averaging 10.5 points per game.
This season, Cleveland State opened with three straight losses. The second defeat came to Ohio University and included a stretch in which Cleveland State gave up a 40-point run to lose by 55. And the top-25 Ohio State Buckeyes were up next.
“I told the guys, ‘Look, I’m not embarrassed by this,’ ” Gates said of the 55-point loss. “ ‘I’m not embarrassed by you guys. We’re going to be better. A lesson is a one-time thing, and that was a lesson.’ ”
The first player Gates recruited to Cleveland State was Gomillion. After the Ohio loss, the guard texted his head coach: “Our team is not measured by the [expletive deleted] whooping we took. We’re going to be measured how we respond and how we get back up. I trust you, Coach.”
Six days later, Cleveland State played Ohio State close, losing 67-61. “That OU game, the game we lost by about 50, ended up being one of the best things that happened to us,” forward Jayson Woodrich said. “After that game, we knew we had to practice hard and the next game we showed out.”
Cleveland State went on a nine-game conference winning streak, thanks to the smothering “junkyard dog” defense Gates imported from Florida State. Overall, the team finished second in the conference in defense, giving up 70.6 points a game, and second in steals, turning opponents over nearly seven times a game.
“I think we all just play with a chip on our shoulders because none of us were really highly recruited,” said Patton, the team’s top scorer and rebounder and a first-team all-conference selection. “We’ve got a lot of juco guys, a lot of guys who feel like they’ve got a lot to prove, so everybody is just going out there with the mindset that they need to prove that they should be here and that they belong.”
In some respects, Cleveland State and Houston are similar, high-energy teams that create offense with their ball-hawking defenses. The Cougars rank second in the nation defensively, allowing only 57.9 points a game. And where the Vikings often generate offense by committee, the American Athletic Conference champion Cougars have a bona fide go-to option in 6-foot-5 guard Quentin Grimes, a transfer from Kansas, who puts up 18.0 points a game.
Former coach Mackey says Gates has created a special environment on the edge of downtown Cleveland. “They play hard, unselfish and smart, and that’s a good formula,” Mackey said. “Now you have to keep the recruiting wheel going, keep a good influx of talent coming in.”
Gates tells his players to play freely. He doesn’t want them looking over at him on the bench or at the scoreboard. He says he wants them playing their best and everything else will take care of itself.
“I can put expectations on these guys,” Gates said. “The trick is how I’m going to convince them that they can do the unthinkable and dream the undreamable.”