One of the first things a new coach has to do when he takes over a job is assemble his coaching staff. It took Fred Hoiberg just under two weeks from the day he accepted the job at Nebraska to finalize his staff, and I’d say he did a pretty darn good job.
Hoiberg has assembled an incredibly diverse staff, from the long-time coaching veteran in special assistant Bobby Lutz to the recruiting ace in Matt Abdelmassih to the defensive mastermind in Doc Sadler to the “Energizer Bunny” in Armon Gates. Hoiberg has assembled a strong group of coaches with diffrent backgrounds and experience levels that complement what Hoiberg himself does well.
“It’s one of the most important things that you do is to hire the right staff that not only can help you get players but have great energy with skill development and can help you prepare for games,” Hoiberg said during his appearance on Sports Nightly on Thursday. “I think we've got as good as anybody.”
Abdelmassih, Sadler and Lutz weren’t terribly surprising hires considering their history with Hoiberg. Gates, on the other hand, had no ties whatsoever to Nebraska’s new coach, which makes Hoiberg’s decision to retain him even more impressive to me.
It was the right move.
Oftentimes in college basketball, the firing of a head coach signals an end to his assistants’ time at that school as well. The new guy usually wants to bring his own coaches that he’s comfortable with, or else he looks at the market in the hopes of hiring the most qualified coach available that fits the school. The assistants often have deeper ties to the fired head coach than the university, which might make for an awkward situation if any of the assistants were to stick around.
However, Gates was a different situation. He spent just one season under Miles as opposed to Jim Molinari who was part of Miles’ staff his entire tenure or Michael Lewis who was on the staff for the past three seasons.
When Hoiberg took over in Lincoln, Miles offered him an evaluation of his staff’s strengths and weaknesses and afterward Hoiberg met with those assistants. Something about Gates apparently stuck out to him because he asked the Chicago native to stick around and even offered him a nearly $50,000 raise.
Gates brings a little something different to the table than anyone else on the staff.
“If you look at this staff, we have a couple veterans for sure year-wise,” Gates said. “Those guys have been head coaches. So what I can bring to the table — that I’ve talked to with Fred — is bringing energy, definitely relating to the guys, definitely hitting the road recruiting and also just being a voice when needed. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason and I’m definitely going to use my two ears to learn from these guys, these veterans, because of course they’ve been where I want to be, and that’s a head coach.”
With six seasons in the Big Ten under his belt (five at Northwestern and one at Nebraska), Gates has a good feel for the conference and can help get the rest of the staff up to speed. Gates is a strong recruiter with ties throughout the Big Ten footprint who is looking forward to tag-teaming with Abdelmassih to get top talent to Lincoln.
But perhaps Gates’ biggest strength is his personality. Based on what I’ve seen, he is incredibly energetic whether he’s on the practice court leading the team through drills or simply walking around the basketball offices. My impression was backed up but the fact that Hoiberg has mentioned his energy every time he’s spoken about Gates publicly since hiring him.
“Me being myself, I carry a little nickname — the Energizer Bunny,” Gates said. “I love getting out there with the guys and building relationships the right way with these guys. Once you do that, these guys will run through a brick wall for you. Just being myself, energetic, getting out there and defending those guys and talking a little trash with them. Brady Heiman, he was one of my projects last year and he got a little trash talking to his game. I can imagine we’ll get some more of those types of guys that probably have some of that in them and I’ll have to tone them down a little bit. But it’s exciting. This staff, I believe in us 100 percent. I just think we’re going to get a lot of good things done.”
A little continuity in a time of massive change doesn’t hurt either, and Gates’ presence has likely had a big impact on the core of the team remaining intact to this point. Thomas Allen Jr. and Nana Akenten have decided to transfer out of the program, but those are the only two departures we’ve seen to this point and neither one was particularly surprising. Compare that to some of the other programs that have had to hire new coaches like UNLV and St. John’s and others who have been left with almost a completely depleted roster.
Gates has also played a big role in retaining two of Nebraska’s 2019 recruits. Prior to even signing his contract to stick around, Gates accompanied Hoiberg and Abdelmassih on the trips to meet with Western Nebraska Community College guard Jervay Green and Omaha Creighton Prep forward Akol Arop, and both players have since decided to stick with their commitment to Nebraska.
Another smart move by Hoiberg was appointing Gates as the lead in-state recruiter, a job that Michael Lewis took over recently and did very well with.
“Since I’ve been a part of the staff already and am pretty familiar with those guys, I’m pretty much going to kind of re-recruit those guys and make sure they stay on board and kind of take it from there,” Gates said. “This state obviously has players that are good enough, especially in the future — these ’20 and ’21 classes, there are players that can play at this high-major level. We’re not going to slow it down recruiting the state of Nebraska at all.”
Nebraska has already received a commitment from 2020 Lincoln North Star guard Donovan Williams — who unfortunately tore his ACL last weekend — and has offered 2021 Millard North wing Hunter Sallis and 2021 Bellevue West point guard Chucky Hepburn.
Lewis was the one who built up strong relationships with the in-state recruits, but any players that have been around the program should be familiar with Gates — he’s hard to miss. Arop mentioned how Gates always has a smile on his face when I spoke with him following Hoiberg’s in-house visit. Gates is the kind of guy who makes an impression, and that’s what you need in recruiting. Gates seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about taking on this new role.
“You have to take care of home, so we’re going to definitely do that,” Gates said. “We’re going to definitely do that, especially with the kids that we’ve been on already. Coach Lewis did a great job so hopefully I can step up to the same standard that he approached the in-state recruiting with and also don’t lose sight to go out and find different guys, either transfers or high school kids everywhere.”
Matt Abdelmassih was Hoiberg’s first hire and will draw the largest check among the assistants for a reason and there are obviously storylines aplenty with Doc Sadler returning to Lincoln, but retaining Armon Gates was as good of a move as Fred Hoiberg has made at Nebraska.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.