March Madness (the annual NCAA Championship basketball tournament) has always been a delight to me. I played basketball (and football) at tiny Maranatha Baptist Bible College (now Maranatha Baptist University… I like to chide my brother-in-law who is the current president at Maranatha that when they went to university status, they threw out the Bible and kept the Baptist in the name…he does not think that is funny 😊).
Well as you know, I am a die-hard University of Michigan fan. I became aware of Michigan football on the day of the “upset of the century” when Michigan defeated reigning national champion and then current #1 in the country Ohio State. That was in November of 1969. I was 14 years old. Been a fan ever since.
This year, Michigan’s basketball team is having a banner season. They won the Big Ten outright and gained a #1 seed in the East Regional of the NCAA tourney. The University of Alabama was seeded #2 in the same region. What that means is that if both #1 and #2 won their games leading up to the regional final, they would play each other for the regional championship that would thrust the winner into the Final Four competing for the National Championship. Many of us around here were not only rooting for Michigan to make the regional final, but we were also rooting for Alabama to win all their games and make it to the regional final against Michigan. Why? Because Alabama’s coach Nate Oates.
Nate Oates graduated from Maranatha Baptist University. He played basketball there. His father has been on the faculty there for well over 45 years and is long time academic dean. When Nate graduated, after stints as an assistant coach at both Maranatha and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he came to Romulus, Michigan to teach math and coach the boys’ basketball team at Romulus High School. While he was there, he took the team to 5 state championship semi-finals and won the state championship in 2013.
While Nate and Chrystal were at Romulus, they were members here at Berean. Many Bereans got to know them, as I did as a sweet and dedicated Christian couple and family. Having graduated from the same school (his dad was my Hebrew professor), Nate was aware of me pastoring here in Livonia. As I got to know Nate, I found a sweet spirited, humble man, who loved the Lord and loved what he was doing to mentor young men, especially young African American men as they made up the majority of his teams. At least one young man lived with the Oats’ one year because he had a terrible home situation. They brought him to church with them every Sunday they were here.
Eventually, Nate’s talent got him noticed for college positions. From Romulus he went to the University of Buffalo, first as an assistant coach, then taking over as the head coach when then head coach, Bobby Hurly, went to Arizona State. Under his guidance, the program at Buffalo took off to heights they had never attained in their history. Nate took them to the NCAA March Madness for the first time in school history.
Nate became the hottest young coaching commodity in the spring of 2019 when Alabama came knocking. They signed him to a multi-year contract at a school known for the top football program in the country but where basketball was never nearly as successful. In his second year, Nate led them to the SEC regular season conference title, the Conference Tournament title, and a second seed in the NCAA tournament where, heartbreakingly to all of us who know him at Berean, they lost in overtime to UCLA in the semi-final on Sunday, March 28th.
Thus, the hope of Michigan meeting Alabama in the regional final was not to be. But if that matchup had occurred, I could not have lost. If Michigan won, I would have been happy as a die-hard Wolverine fan. But had Alabama won, I would have been just as happy as a Nate Oats fan.
As a graduate of Maranatha, I’m proud to have Nate represent the school. On a side note, tiny Maranatha now has Nate at Alabama heading a Division 1 basketball program, and another Maranatha graduate, Tom Allen, is the head coach of the Division 1 University of Indiana’s football team, which last season had their best year in program history. Not only that, but Maranatha has produced two Olympic gold medal winning wrestlers, Ben Peterson and Mike Houk. Whoda thunk it, right?
But not only am I proud of Nate as a fellow graduate of Maranatha and a former member at Berean, I’m proud of the way he has represented Christ and maintained a Christian testimony, especially now in the harsh light of the publicity and notoriety he is attaining at Alabama. His is an example of how we should represent our Lord in a public square that is increasingly hostile to Christians who hold to biblical positions. Thanks, Nate and Crystal…from all your friends at Berean Baptist Church.