CLEVELAND — Nate Oats could have gambled on himself. Oats could have held off on signing a new contract with UB and waited to see if his team won a second MAC championship in three years here on Saturday night — and the Bulls' third in four years if you go back to his time as Bobby Hurley's top assistant.
But evidently, UB's administration knew they had to make a strong play for their rising men's basketball coach. So on Thursday, shortly after Oats led the Bulls into the MAC semifinals and within two wins of another NCAA bid, the university got his signature on a lucrative five-year contract extension.
A UB source confirmed that the extension is in the range of $550,000-$600,000 per season, which puts him near the top of the MAC men's salary structure. Oats was the sixth-highest paid coach in the league this season at $350,000. Kathy Twist, interim athletic director, said last month that UB intended to elevate Oats to one of the three top-paid coaches in the league. The extension should achieve that.
"I know some stuff was written about whether the school was going to do what they needed," Oats said Friday morning at the team hotel. "They really stepped up big. I appreciate the fact that Kathy went to bat for this thing and wanted to keep this going the direction we've got it going.
"President Tripathi showed he's going to support athletics," Oats added. "I think they're showing what they want to do here. We've got this rolling in the right direction, and we're going to keep it going in the right direction."
Oats had said he wanted to stay in Buffalo to see it through, and this decision confirms it. He has the most talented team in the MAC this season, deeper and more athletic than the two that made the NCAA Tournament. And his incoming recruiting class might be the highest-rated in program history.
So the university had motivation to get this done quickly, too. Oats has established himself as one of the best coaches in mid-major hoops, a great recruiter who has to be on the radar of some major programs. He's only in his third year as a head coach, so he doesn't have the clout of, say, Mark Schmidt at St. Bonaventure. But a third NCAA bid in four years would have made him a hotter commodity.
Oats, never one to shy away from a tough question, smiled when I asked if UB had incentive to get this done now, rather than wait for him to win another MAC title and enhance his bargaining power.
"Yeah. I think," he said. "They told me they wanted it done before we went to Cleveland. It was almost done before we went to Cleveland. There was just a few minor things we had to work out. I don't know what their incentives were but I like the contract and I think they showed they really want us here and I want to be here."
There are generally buyouts in these contracts, giving the coach an out if an elite school comes calling. The buyout in previous contracts for Hurley and Oats was half the base salary for the life of the deal. Arizona State paid $525,000 to lure Hurley to the desert. Buying out Oats in the first two years would be exorbitant, even for a top school. So he'll be sticking around for the immediate future.
That's great for UB. The men's program is the most successful of any Big 4 school in the modern era. Two years ago, the Bulls became the first team to make back-to-back NCAA tournaments since Canisius in the mid-1950s. With Oats, UB could become one of the nation's elite mid-major programs, a perennial NCAA contender, and make Alumni Arena a local basketball destination.
"It's a great place to be," Oats said. "The city doesn't have an NBA team. They used to have an NBA team. Hopefully we can be the basketball team of Buffalo. The sports fans are great. Shoot, the Sabres lose a lot and they still support them like crazy. It was great when the Bills made the playoffs finally the whole city wanted to go down to Jacksonville.
"It's a big sports city," he said. "And it's been good for us. The crowds have been great this year. So it's a great place to be."
He said his wife, Crystal, is happy to stay. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer before Nate's first season as head coach and talked her doctors into allowing her to be in Cleveland for the MAC tourney title. She is now cancer free.
"She's obviously been in the discussion the whole time," Oats said. "She's been great. She really likes it in Buffalo. Roswell Park obviously has done a great job with all of her stuff. She has another CAT scan next week. It's great we can stay here and they can keep taking care of her like they have the last couple of years."
It's comforting for Oats to know his wife is in good hands. Fans of UB men's basketball can say the same thing about their team.