SACRAMENTO — Dennis Gates, the calmest person in the arena, didn’t submit to emotion until he was out of sight. When the game ended with a 76-65 Missouri triumph, you couldn’t tell whether Gates had captured his first NCAA tournament victory as a head coach or just finished folding some laundry. An ice cube would be jealous of his chill.
However, inside the Mizzou locker room at Golden 1 Center, Gates couldn’t stroll past his feelings anymore. He cried. For a rare moment, he was overwhelmed. He sobbed about more than winning. He shed those tears because the breakthrough happened in front of people who represented more than two decades of the 43-year-old’s life in basketball. His college coach at California, Ben Braun, was in attendance, as were several of his former teammates. Friends and family stood among the crowd, applauding.
Gates always dreamed success would look like this. He saw dozens and dozens of loved ones, providing affirmation of how much his genuineness matters. He takes nothing — and no one — for granted. Even when he is serious, he has a cool and engaging way about him. In a sport grudgingly changing with the times, he is emerging as a leader in a new wave of men’s college basketball coaches who have fresh ideas about how to motivate and teach younger generations of players. More than that, he has an innate feel for building community through basketball.
“He treats everybody he meets like they’re going to die at midnight,” Missouri associate head coach Charlton Young said.
Gates connects. His sincere approach works. Over the past four seasons, no coach has been a better program builder. He became a head coach in 2019 at Cleveland State, taking over the shards of a team at the end of July. It was way too late for the spring recruiting cycle, and the roster was largely empty. Some people close to him considered the move career suicide. Young begged him not to take the job. But Gates saw the potential, and by his second season, Cleveland State was in the NCAA tournament.
A year ago, he inherited a 12-21 team at Missouri. In his first season, the Tigers are 25-9 and have their first tournament victory in 13 years. If they can beat Princeton on Saturday, Missouri will make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
If Gates continues his current pace, he may end up being the face of a new era in college basketball.
“The good thing about Dennis is, the best is yet to come,” said Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton, who started mentoring Gates in 2004 when he was a graduate assistant and later hired him for eight more years before Gates left for Cleveland State. “He’s just getting started. Not only will he win ballgames. He will take those teenagers and usher them into adulthood. He will never compromise his principles to win.
“He is the kind of guy that people will be emulating.”
Gates shares his eight core values as if reciting the alphabet.
“Friendship, love, accountability, trust, discipline, unselfishness, enthusiasm and toughness,” he says often.
He builds teams around those qualities. He lives by them, too. As a player, the Chicago native was a fiery leader so bold that, when college coaches recruited him, he would ask whether they allowed freshmen to be captains. Braun was open to it. So Gates went to Cal and had an impact much greater than his 3.8-point career scoring average. Every play and every day meant so much to him. He was intense. His teammates and coaches respected him. Braun’s wife, Jessica, worked in the athletic department then and met Gates when he arrived as a freshman for the school’s summer bridge program.
“You’ve got a special player coming in,” she told Braun.
“Oh, did you see him play?” the coach asked.
“No, I’m not talking about basketball,” she replied.
Gates graduated in three years and started working on a master’s degree, which he later earned at Florida State. He got into coaching and befriended Hall of Fame coach George Raveling while working at Michael Jordan’s youth camp. Raveling connected him with Hamilton. As a full-time assistant, Gates worked at Cal with Braun, and at Northern Illinois and Nevada before settling in at Florida State from 2011-’19.
As a coach, he has channeled all his passion and turned into a multifaceted teacher. He coaches hard without demeaning his players. He utilizes every tool available to gain an edge, from analytics to sports psychology. His team plays aggressive defense, often pressuring full court. On offense, they prefer a read-and-react style, which includes classic Princeton offense concepts that Pete Carril popularized, but in their fast-paced hybrid system, it’s quite subtle. Missouri is full of wrinkles, illustrating all the experiences Gates has had throughout his career.
“They play hard,” Braun said. “His team, if you ask who won the lunch pail award, his team almost always plays harder. It’s tough to get kids to sustain effort. He’s gotten the game down to a science. They fight you for every inch of the court. You’re going to have to beat his teams. They’re not ever going down quietly.”
During Missouri’s victory over Utah State on Thursday, Gates kept his emotions under control throughout the back-and-forth game. He saved the yelling for when his players couldn’t hear him. He made most of his points through nonverbal communication. With one hand in his pocket, he would lower the other to say, “Calm down.” He pointed to his head to tell them to play smarter. Once he has the team prepared to compete, he’s intentionally spare with his words.
“I played the game a certain way,” Gates said. “I was wired tight. I played as hard as I can. I would never coach how I played. But as a coach, what I’ve learned is the level of cerebral emotional intelligence that one has to have, but also the impact that you have with young people who do nothing but illustrate their life through what they see on Instagram, Twitter, everything else.
“I want to exude something in sight, in plain sight, when they first take a glance. They’re always watching. I want them to see a calming force about me. I want them to see confidence, not arrogance. I want them to see humility. I want them to see grace. I want them to see forgiveness.”
No question, the players see it.
“His first words to me was that if he’s not invited to my wedding by the time it’s all said and done and I’ve moved on from college, then he didn’t do his job,” said Missouri forward Kobe Brown, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding and has become a more efficient player since Gates arrived. “I knew then it was more than a business with him. I knew he wanted to build actual relationships. He cared more than just me putting the basketball in the hoop.”
After the win Thursday, Missouri athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois found Braun and his wife in the crowd. “Come with me,” she said. “Dennis would like to see you.”
Gates insisted Braun join him in the locker room.
“Guys, I want you to meet somebody very important who changed my life,” Gates told his Missouri players.
And that’s when he wept. Braun wept, too. The entire team embraced them. Braun told Gates and his team he was proud of them. Then the coach of the moment stepped forward and made a request.
“Where’s the radio?” Gates said. “Put the song on.”
The coaches, staff and players grooved to the Tupac Shakur classic “California Love.”
Braun retreated back into the hallway, but a few players walked up before exiting the arena. To a man, they shared the same sentiment.