By Ben Hercik
Back on July 12, Dennis Felton and his staff were relieved of their duties. After a short coaching search, it was announced on July 26 that Dennis Gates became the 16th head coach in Cleveland State University’s history.
Gates, who has spent the past 19 seasons as an assistant coach, comes to Cleveland State for his first head coaching job. After graduating from the University of California in 2002, Gates started his coaching career on the staff of the Los Angeles Clippers as a skills development coach.
After his tenure there, Gates returned to the college ranks as an assistant coach at several different universities that included Marquette University, a return to Cal, Northern Illinois University and Nevada University before landing at Florida State University where he spent the past eight seasons. Gates wanted to follow this in order to learn from high quality coaches in different regions of the country.
“I’ve been very intentional in my career,” Gates said. “I wanted to work for some unbelievable guys who have had different paths in different parts of the country.”
During his long career as an assistant coach, Gates was able to learn from coaches like Tom Creane at Marquette, Alvin Gentry with the Clippers, Leonrard Hamilton at Florida State and many other coaches that he has worked under. One specific job that was very influential was his time with the Clippers.
Gates joked that some of the players initially thought he was another player. While with the Clippers, Gates remembers the other coaches and players empowering him wanting to prove that he wanted to be a coach and not try to be a player.
“They empowered me, and I was younger than them,” Gates said. “I was 21 going on 22 years old, proving that I wanted to be a coach. So, on one hand I got to prove to the coaching staff that I don’t want to be a player or look at myself as an NBA Player, and on the other, I had to prove to the players that I wanted to be a coach.”
Gates inherits a team here at Cleveland State that had a lot of changes in the offseason in addition to a change at the top of the program. An entirely new coaching staff is in place, and only four players from last year return. At one point in the offseason, there were 10 players in the transfer protocol, which gives the athletes the option to leave the university they are currently at. Of those 10 players, only senior Jaalam Hill and sophomore Deante Johnson decided to stay at Cleveland State, with all other players opting to leave. Despite the departures, Gates thinks that they have the right team in place.
“We’ve returned the right guys, and rightfully so, those guys are gonna stick with us, and they’re going to experience what life’s like with our staff here under my leadership,” Gates said. “I’m excited to coach them.”
Even with the departures, there are a lot of new and incoming players for Gates’ first season. There are six players that decided to transfer into Cleveland State, as well as two incoming freshmen for this season. One of the things that Gates was known for in his time at Florida State was being a great recruiter, having brought nine top 100 recruits in his time there. One of the focuses for Gates isn’t going to be targeting five star recruits, rather putting lower level recruits into a great system and turning them into great college players.
“Being able to evaluate and not just recruit five-star guys. Rather recruit one-star recruits, put them in a great and right environment, and get them better and have them turn into five-star college players.”
Another goal that Gates has is creating relationships with the high schools in Northeast Ohio and getting them more involved with the university.
“The first thing I want to do here is establish a relationship with the coaches in the greater Cleveland area,” Gates said. “We want our doors to be open. We want them to be a part of our coaches clinic, our summer camps and our fan base.”
One question that is always asked whenever a new coach comes in to run a new team is: why? Why did they leave their current job for a different position? After a late firing, and already having a job with a men’s basketball program in a very prominent basketball conference, why come to Cleveland State?
Gates cites the ability to create something special with President Harlan Sands and Athletic Director Scott Garrett.
“You never have all three align at the same time being very new,” Gates said. “President Sands has been here for just over a year, with his first president’s job. Garrett has been here for under a year in his first athletic director job. When I look at that, that gives you the same energy, the same focus, it gives you three people that can build something together. We can build this thing together and lock arms, and I’m excited about that.”
Gates takes over a team that has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2009 and a postseason tournament since the 2015 Collegeinsider.com tournament.
By comparison, in his 16 seasons of being an assistant coach at the college level, Gates has been to the NCAA tournament five of those seasons and the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) five times as well. Gates has also found success in those tournaments, reaching the round of 16 on two different occasions and the round of eight during the 2017-2018 season.
Gates has also been to the NIT semifinals back in the 2013-14 season. This is not the only postseason success that Gates has found. In the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) postseason tournament, winning the conference championship during the 2011-2012 season and finishing as a runner up in the 2016-2017 season. By comparison, the last conference championship win, and NCAA tournament trip for Cleveland State was in the 2008-2009 season.