Five years ago, when Nate Oats arrived as the top assistant at UB, he hardly knew what to tell recruits. He had barely gotten to know the town himself.
"Listen, when I got here I couldn't sell Buffalo," Oats said Wednesday. "I had to sell Bobby Hurley. Buffalo had literally no brand name, no national identity. I'd go back to Detroit, which is only four hours away. Kids had no idea what Buffalo was. They'd say, 'Is that Division I?'
"I literally had to educate myself on Buffalo so I could sell it a little bit."
Oats has a lot more to sell now. The UB men have won the MAC tourney title and an NCAA Tournament berth three of the last four years, two since Oats became head coach. They truly burst into the national hoop consciousness in mid-March when they blew out Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tourney in Boise, Idaho.
Eight weeks later, Oats is still aglow about the Bulls' run. He said he missed the excitement, the give-and-take with the media, seeing his players rise in the big moment and win over the media with their engaging personalities.
Oats was in Rome, Ga., this week for a marriage retreat sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He and his wife, Crystal, were among about 50 couples from the basketball world who gathered for a seminar on matters such as financial planning and communication in relationships.
"To be honest, I'm writing down notes I can apply to the communication side with the team," Oats said with a laugh. "Learn how to shut up more and listen. Listen for understanding, ask more questions. I think it's tough. It applies. Your marriage relationship needs to be stronger. It applies in any relationship, really."
Communication is the key to getting players, which is vital to any college coach's success. As the national media discovered in March, Oats is a natural communicator who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Players like that, which is one thing that makes him such a good recruiter.
This year's incoming class has been called Oats' best yet, which is saying a lot. Oats planned to visit Ronaldo "Rondo" Segu, a freshman point guard from Orlando, Fla., after the seminar in Georgia concluded on Thursday. Jeenathan Williams, a freshman forward from Rochester, was rated one of the top 100 recruits in the nation, a first for the program.
Recruiting is currently in an NCAA "quiet period," where you can't visit players who will be in high school next season. But you can talk to recruits, and he found time during the marriage retreat to get in touch with some of the targeted players from the 2019 high school class.
"I talked to one earlier today," he said. "I talked to a few last night. We can sell Buffalo basketball now. Everybody knows Buffalo. It makes your initial calls a whole lot easier than they used to be. You don't have to convince the kid that Buffalo's got a chance to be good.
"Usually, I introduce myself and ask them, 'Are you a college basketball fan?'. If they say yeah, I'll ask if they watched the NCAA Tournament. Right away, it'll be 'Yeah, I saw you guys beat Arizona'."
Most high school kids like to play a swift, aggressive style. UB's tempo was among the fastest in the land. They were among the national scoring leaders. Kids had to be intrigued to see them score 89 points against mighty Arizona.
"Shoot, a lot of them talk about the interview at halftime," Oats said with a laugh. "Some of them know what I said. They know we play with a lot of confidence; we think we're pretty damn good."
UB went to halftime with a 40-38 lead in the NCAA first round. Oats wasn't thrilled with their nine turnovers. When Lisa Byington grabbed him for a quick interview, Oats said he wasn't surprised to be ahead. He said UB was the better team. He said if they didn't turn it over in the second half, they'd take care of business.
They won going away, by 21 points. The magic ride ended in the second round against Kentucky. Oats, who created a stir by accusing John Calipari of whining before the matchup, said if he had it to do over again, "I might not try to rouse the sleeping giant."
"But," Oats said, roaring at the memory, "that was a fun time!"
He got people's attention. Oats was contacted about the open Pittsburgh job and admitted he was open to any "life-changing offer." But he didn't actively pursue the Pitt job, which eventually went to Jeff Capel, and didn't go after any other open jobs.
Oats was reluctant to abandon his UB team after building one of the top mid-major programs in the country, one that would beat many teams from major conferences. During the season, he said this year's squad was better than his first NCAA team. He was right. Now he says next year's group could be even better.
"Yeah, I think it will be," he said. "Provided our culture stays like it's been. If you let your pride get ahead of your work ethic, then you're not going to have as good a year as you should."
He said it was actually a relief when he stayed in Buffalo. Sure, a high-major salary would be tough to turn down. But the five-year, $3 million deal he signed during the MAC Tournament was fairly life-changing, too.
Oats said he still lives in the Grand Island home that he bought when he was an assistant. He and Crystal have done some house-shopping, but he said they'll be picky. They want to stay on Grand Island, where their three daughters – ages 14, 9 and 6 – are established in school.
Life is good. Crystal, whose battle with cancer was an inspiring part of the 2016 title run, had another clean scan last month. Oats is comfortable with what he's built at UB. He believes they can keep winning, be a mid-major power.
That Arizona game is compelling evidence, the best recruiting film a coach could ask for. Oats still hasn't watched it all the way through. He said Crystal, who is known for waving signs in the stands, wants them to watch it together.
"Yeah, that'll be good, after the marriage seminar," he said. "That'll be a good date night, right?"