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Cleveland State University Rewards Coach Dennis Gates With a Generous New Contract After Just Two Years

photo of Dennis Gates with his team
Cleveland State Athletics
Cleveland State men's basketball coach Dennis Gates celebrates with his team.

Cleveland State University men’s basketball coach Dennis Gates has new contract. Just two years into his five- year contract, he has a new six-year deal that starts at $500,000 a year before all of the incentives.

Gates is 39 years old. This is his first head coaching gig. Gates has had a good run in his two years at Cleveland State. Our sports commentator, Terry Pluto, said Gates actually took a pay cut to come here. He was actually making a little bit more, $300,000 a year, as an assistant coach at Florida State. The base salary as head coach at Cleveland State was $285,000.

“He had interviewed for head coaching jobs three times before this and had been turned down," Pluto said. "And his dream [was] going back to his early days at Cal-Berkley; he played four years there. He was dreaming of being a coach in college at that point.”

Pluto said Cleveland State had just fired coach Dennis Felton in July 2019. He called the move by CSU Athletic Director Scott Garrett to hire Gates a “sort of desperation half-court shot,” bringing someone in that close to the start of a new season. According to Pluto, no one expected the team to be back in the NCAA tournament anytime soon. He said expectations were so low that Gates’ original contract included an incentive if he won just half of the games during the season.

Cleveland State University
Sports Commentator Terry Pluto says Gates brings "the full package" with his emphasis on coaching, academics and being a good role model for his players.

The new contract

Pluto said there’s a lot of elements in this contract that are fairly standard, but one thing that stands out (as well as in Gates' first contract) is an emphasis on academics.

“There are all sorts of incentives for academic performance. Guys making the Dean’s List. Guys making the Horizon League Honor Role, that thing called APR, Academic Progress Report,” he said.

Pluto said the team GPA since Gates came in is 3.35.

Gates has recruited a lot of junior college players so far, but Pluto said they’re “nontraditional junior college players.” He said that has nothing to do with academic shortcomings. He said these are players that were simply “missed," “underdog players.”

Too good to be true?

In his second year as coach, Gates took Cleveland State to a 19-7 record, a victory in the Horizon League championship game and a trip to the NCAA tournament. (They lost in the first round to Houston.) The players are doing well academically. As part of his contract negotiations, he managed to get raises for this assistant coaches. Pluto says he’s talked to former University of Akron coach and former high school coach of Lebron James Keith Dambrot about Gates. Dambrot has known him for 15-20 years. He tells Pluto that’s really how Gates is.

“This is the full package of what you would want from a Division l mid-major basketball coach.”
Terry Pluto

In observing Gates, Pluto said the coach is very cognizant of being a role model for his players. One example he points to is the last season during the pandemic when many coaches switched to wearing sweatsuits during games. Gates “was out there in his best ‘game’ suit, and all his assistants did. And it took me about a half-year to realize he was the only one doing it. So I asked him, ‘What is that about?’ and he said, ‘Well, when I was back at Cal-Berkley, I pictured myself as a college coach. I was going to dress well for the games in a suit. When I got my job, I vowed that I would.’” Gates told Pluto you have to dress well when you are interviewing for a job or anywhere else.

Coach Gates cuts the basketball net
Gates cuts the net following the team's victory in the 2020 Horizon League championship game.

How long will Gates stay?

If Gates leaves early, he or somebody will have to buy out his contract. Pluto says that’s pretty standard for contracts for coaches, particularly for mid-majors. He says Gates is unlikely to spend his entire career at Cleveland State. He believes the coach will move up. What Pluto finds interesting in the new contract is that if either athletic director Scott Garrett or university President Harlan Sands leave, those buy-outs go away.

Worth the new contract

Pluto comes back to what Gates has accomplished in his first two years at Cleveland State. The team made its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2009. It has had nine players on the Horizon League Honor Roll, eight on the dean’s list, and seven have graduated.

“This is the full package of what you would want from a Division l mid-major basketball coach,” Pluto said.

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Andrew joined WKSU News in 2014. He oversees the daily operations of the WKSU news department and its reporters and hosts, coordinates daily coverage, and serves as editor. His commitment is to help foster reporting that marks the best of what public radio has to offer: a mix of first-rate journalism with great storytelling. His responsibilities also include long-term strategic planning for news coverage in Northeast Ohio that serves WKSU’s audience via on-air, online, by social media and through emerging technologies. Andrew also serves as a back-up local host for Morning Edition, Here and Now and All Things Considered.