Dennis Gates’ visionary, culture-oriented mentality has Cleveland State thriving in a thunderous rebuild.

Dennis Gates deservedly receives credit as the tactician behind college basketball’s quickest recent turnaround.

The wins, headlines and accolades since July 2019’s introductory presser instead act as colorful petals sprouted from cultivated roots — further growth is imminent and the foundation is sturdy.

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Cleveland State has already set its all-time conference wins record with four remaining regular-season contests this season. The Horizon’s first-place team was in complete disarray just 19 months ago and is thriving in an obstacle-filled campaign.

Dennis Felton’s two-year, 44-loss tenure marred with a series of recruiting and academic violations left Gates — a former Florida State assistant under Leonard Hamilton — with a remarkably bare cupboard during the 2019 coaching transition.

“At the time, we had three guys on our roster altogether,” Gates said on Heat Check on All-Access Media. “I was able to re-recruit the guys who chose Cleveland State as a destination to begin with. They recommitted and they obviously began to lock arms with us and build a culture.”

In Year 1, the Vikings rose from a last-place preseason projection to a seventh-place tie in the final standings, a feat so impressive that Gates earned the conference’s coach of the year hardware.

The momentum spilled into 2020-21 where Cleveland State routinely sets program firsts and assembles lengthy winning streaks. Gates’ squad will enter the Friday/Saturday Detroit series as winners of 14 of its last 16 games.

Most recently appearing in the NCAA Tournament in 2009, the Vikings are smashing prior program barriers and changing the narrative entirely. By any estimation, Gates, 41, is wildly ahead of schedule.

“Whatever people thought of Cleveland State, I didn’t want it to be convoluted with what my dream was to become a head coach at a tradition-rich place,” Gates said.

Gates’ coaching inspiration

Guiding CSU to prominence means more to Gates than trophies or bonuses. The Chicago native now strolls the same sidelines where his idol, John McLendon, etched his name into history at Cleveland State, becoming the first African American basketball head coach at a predominantly White university in 1967.

“When I first got the (Cleveland State) phone call, (McLendon) is what popped into my head — not a record or the state of the program.”

Enshrined three separate times into the Naismith Hall of Fame, McLendon left an everlasting footprint on college basketball. While Gates continues to push the CSU program forward, he simultaneously makes a concerted effort to pay respects to the game’s pioneer.

“Each year, I make it a point since I got here to visit his gravesite — that’s the first thing that I’ve done. The second thing I did was put up something in our office that commemorates John McLendon beyond. As soon as someone walks into our office, they know John McLendon coached here — that’s my mission, job and responsibility that his legacy doesn’t get forgotten.”

Finding overlooked, undervalued contributors

A 14-2 conference mark doesn’t happen by accident. Gates’ staff has an eye for unique talent and understands how to make the puzzle pieces fit.

Leading scorer and rebounder Torrey Patton — formerly of Akron and Indian Hills C.C. — is enjoying a career year. The 6-5, 195-pound forward is one of just 25 players nationally averaging 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists and a steal per game. After playing sparingly at Akron, Patton went to the JUCO ranks to develop his skill set and was named an NJCAA All-American honorable mention at powerhouse Indian Hills.

Fellow double-figure scorer D’Moi Hodge is a product of the British Virgin Islands and also came over from the junior-college level. Hodge, like Patton, has carried over his JUCO success from State College of Florida to CSU where he’s one of three Vikings tallying over nine points and one steal a night.

“Some refer to them as junior-college kids, but I refer to them as non-traditional junior-college students,” Gates said. “The majority of those guys didn’t have to go JUCO out of high school, they went there because they were under-recruited and under-evaluated. I always took a liking to guys who had a story to tell in addition to their talent.”

Speaking success into existence

This year’s team has plenty of stories to tell, and it’s all a byproduct of Gates’ planning, preaching and practicing. One of Gates’ first moves as head coach was to bring in Dr. Joe Carr, a highly regarded sports psychologist who works with many D-I basketball programs.

“When I was an undergraduate player at Cal, I told (Carr) at the age of 21, ‘When I become a head coach, I want you to come work with my team,'” Gates said.

Surely enough, Carr remembered the conversation nearly two decades prior and assisted Gates’ staff and their players during the rebuild. The meticulous, detail-oriented approach that Gates employs is more of a marathon than the 19-month sprint that the nation sees externally.

It’s one thing to set lofty goals years in advance, it’s another thing to actually accomplish exactly what was planned. Following several challenging, distraction-filled seasons, Gates is pumping new life into the Cleveland State program by talking the talk and walking the walk. The job is hardly finished yet, though, and for all we know, Gates probably has the next 20 years already mapped out in his notebook.

Eli Boettger
Eli Boettger

Heat Check CBB founder, editor