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FSU assistant Gates receives 'unbelievable' coaching opportunity

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Assistant coach Dennis Gates offers input during a game to FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton.
Gene Williams/Warchant

For most players and coaches on the Florida State men’s basketball team, it was a time for reflection.

The Seminoles had just seen their stunning postseason run come to an end in the Elite Eight of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and they were coping with a flood of emotions. There was the pride for all they had accomplished, knocking off several higher seeds and coming within just a few points of earning a trip to the Final Four, and the disappointment of failing to accomplish their ultimate goal -- winning the school’s first national championship.

For assistant coach Dennis Gates, it was another opportunity to learn.

Once head coach Leonard Hamilton finished speaking with his players and headed to the post-game press conference inside the Los Angeles Staples Center, Gates followed closely behind. The 38-year-old assistant coach stood alone in the corner of the cavernous room and took mental notes.

He watched the way Hamilton answered tough questions about the game’s final minutes. How he deflected criticism of his players and offered praise to the Michigan team that defeated them.

Gates listened to each of Hamilton's words and observed his body language.

“I’m a lifelong learner, and I’ve always been that way,” Gates would explain later. “You either get better or you get worse. … I’m a strong believer in professional development. We ask our players to continue to improve, and I know that I have to continue to improve -- especially to give more to Coach Hamilton and to our players. But also continue to pursue my aspirations to get better and become a head coach.”

Gates, a former Cal point guard who is entering his eighth season on FSU’s staff, is continually on the lookout for these learning moments. He frequently attends practices and games of other Seminole programs, keeping a constant lookout for better methods for teaching and communicating.

One day, he’s watching veteran assistant football coach Odell Haggins lead his players through drills. On another, he’s attending a soccer match or softball game and keeping a close eye on the sidelines.

“On our campus, you have a strong contingent of respected coaches that can give a young coach like myself professional development,” Gates said. “Whether it’s my boss, Leonard Hamilton, or Sue Semrau, Mike Martin, Coach [Mark] Krikorian over at soccer, or Chris Poole at volleyball. I go support our other teams to give support to the student-athletes, but also to watch other coaches and their craft.”

Gates recently received a much more formal opportunity to grow.

He was one of 10 Division-I assistant coaches selected to participate in the NCAA’s Champion Forum in Indianapolis. The program, which is designed to prepare up-and-coming assistants for future head coaching opportunities, featured three days of intense learning and development.

The participants heard directly from current athletic directors, university presidents and search firm leaders about what they’re looking for in head coaching candidates. They also spoke with current head coaches about how they prepared themselves for the interviewing process.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” Gates said. “It was an honor to be even thought about in that manner.”

Sitting alongside some of the nation’s top assistant coaches, including Tommy Lloyd, who is the head coach-in-waiting at Gonzaga, Gates was exposed to panel discussions about business topics, such as branding, messaging and ethics. They also researched a case study on the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, which went from a struggling franchise to one of the most successful teams in all of professional sports.

For Gates, those lessons dovetailed perfectly with the skills he picks up daily from longtime mentor Leonard Hamilton.

“What I’ve learned from Coach Hamilton is that being a basketball coach, especially in today’s environment, is that you’re a CEO,” Gates said. “You have to operate it like a business. There are so many moving parts. You’re in charge of hiring. You’re in charge of morale. You’re in charge of everything. And the smallest issue can create a bigger problem. So you have to get ahead of things and see it before it happens.”

Gates offered high praise for every aspect of the Champion Forum, which on the football side has seen alumni like James Franklin (Penn State) and David Shaw (Stanford) go on to take prestigious head coaching positions. Current FSU defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett is a recent participant as well.

If he had to choose the most helpful session, Gates would likely single out the mock interviews led by former University of Virginia senior administrator Jon Oliver. He said Oliver, who now works as a consultant, was particularly effective at grilling the coaching candidates and teaching them how to handle difficult questions.

“You can only get better at interviewing by being interviewed,” said Gates, who has already been linked to some head coaching searches, including one at his alma mater, Cal, in 2017.

“The right job will come. I’m not one who looks for places, because I have a great job right now. I love the city of Tallahassee, and I have a great job. So I’m not out there actively looking. But I have had inquiries about head coaching opportunities and the interviewing process, and I have gone through some of those.”

Hamilton, who has seen numerous assistant coaches go on to become head coaches, believes all three of his assistants -- Gates, Stan Jones and Charlton Young -- would do a great job of running their own programs. (Young previously was a head coach at Georgia Southern before joining FSU's staff in 2013.)

Hamilton takes great pride in delegating responsibilities to each of them when it comes to scouting, devising practice plans, game preparation and other areas, so that they are well-prepared when their opportunity comes.

Hamilton was particularly excited when Gates told him he had been selected for the Champion Forum.

“Those types of opportunities are very worthwhile,” the veteran head coach said. “It exposes you to people who have been in the industry and can give you information that will help you in your career. Those are unique and special opportunities, and I always encourage our guys to pursue them. It gives you an opportunity to be better prepared when any of those opportunities arise.”

While saying repeatedly that he’s happy as an assistant coach, Gates also acknowledges it’s in his nature to be out in front. As the oldest of three brothers in a single-parent household, Gates felt like he had to be the “man of the house” by the age of 10.

He still remembers the looks on the faces of college recruiters when he asked them during home visits whether they would consider a freshman to be captain of their teams.

“Most schools were like, ‘Why is he asking that?’” Gates said with a smile. “But that’s how I saw myself. I always saw myself as a leader of a team. I’ve always wanted to be in leadership roles.”

Gates, of course, went on to become a floor general for the Cal Golden Bears, helping them reach the NCAA Tournament in 2001 and ’02. Then once his playing career was over, he turned his attention to coaching -- first as a graduate assistant at Marquette and Florida State, then for more than a decade as a full-time assistant.

The Chicago native doesn’t know when his transition to head coach will come, but he’s determined to keep learning while preparing for the opportunity. It’s what he has done during his time at Florida State, during his plays at Cal, and even as a teen-aged boy leading his younger siblings.

“I didn’t know at the time I was honing my skills to become a coach and lead other young men,” Gates said, “but that’s exactly what I was doing.”

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