The Waters Way

We watched last March as Cleveland State made its first trip to the NCAA basketball tournament since Kevin Mackey and ‘Mouse’ McFadden in 1986. We cheered as the Vikings completed an impossible first-round upset of Wake Forest. But unless you
Gary Waters barely has enough energy left to smile, but now that he does, the gap-toothed grin takes over his whole face.

The stagger in his step underscores the coach’s exhaustion. Right now, all he wants is to sit down. It’s been a few hours since he has been able to take a deep breath, and now that he does, the air is thick with celebration. Waters finds a courtside seat, takes a load off and absorbs the scene in front of him.

There is an inordinate amount of energy all around Indianapolis’ Hinkle Fieldhouse — young men are racing up and down, jumping around amid peals of emotion. There’s J’Nathan Bullock with his linebacker shoulders and dreadlocks pulled back by a green sweatband; and Cedric Jackson, the tournament MVP and transfer from St. John’s; and Chris Moore, the scrappy St. Edward High School product who came home from UC-Santa Barbara to play for the Vikings. They’re hugging, kissing their trophy, raising their fists toward the rafters.

The scoreboard still shows the outcome: The upstart challengers from Cleveland have dethroned Butler, the hometown defending champs, 57-54, taking the Horizon League Championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament as their booty. There on the table is the proof: a gaudy championship trophy and basketball nets that have been cut down in victory.

An assistant coach, exhausted as well, wanders over, plops himself down next to Waters. As he sits, Larry DeSimpelare turns to look at his friend, mentor, boss. “Coach,” he says, looking out at the celebration, “this surely is something.”

Waters, sporting a striped green tie on a soft-lime shirt, knows his friend isn’t finished and waits.

“But this is nothing compared to what you gave those young men before the game,” DeSimpelare continues. “At some point in every one of those lives, that will stick. That is the truest value of what we just did.”

DeSimpelare isn’t talking about the championship, bringing a trophy home to a school that hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 1986 and just a few years ago had little business even daring to hope for it. He isn’t talking about winning four games in seven days on the way to the title. What he’s talking about has nothing to do with any banner or trophy or green-and-white uniform.

DeSimpelare is referring to what had happened about four hours before in the Vikings’ visitor locker room.

But first, you have to understand what a master of storytelling Gary Waters is. (“A miniseries will be a mega blockbuster by the time Gary’s done telling,” says Bernadette, his wife.) And the scriptural story of the Walls of Jericho doesn’t need that kind of help. After the Israelites had run around the walls seven times, they heard the horn sound, and the walls fell. The Israelites had known that they would because they had believed.

So, on this night, by the time Waters had finished telling his players about the Israelites, about the seven times, about the horn and the falling walls, they too believed — oh yes, they did. They followed the tapeline that had been put on the floor of the locker room: out the door and back in, seven times, marching. And when on the seventh time around Waters blew into a small child’s megaphone, blew the horn, … well, Butler was coming down.

“Nearly every time Butler played us, they beat us. They have beaten us six out of seven times,” the coach boomed. “Butler never loses in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Always wins. But not this time. Not this time.

“This time, like the Walls of Jericho … Butler. Is. Coming. Down.”

There was yelling and shouting, which the coach encouraged because that’s what the scriptures say happened. A security guard came by to see if everything was OK.

DeSimpelare smiles at the memory now.

“He could have told those kids to get on all fours and bark like a dog, and they would have done it. That was something. But what he did right there? Now those kids know about faith and belief. That lasts forever.”

• • •

In the third year of his plan at CSU, Gary Waters and the Vikings upset Butler (above) to achieve what few others thought possible: a league championship (top) and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
GARY WATERS LOVES EVERYTHING about being a basketball coach. Bernadette calls it “his hobby, his occupation, his vocation, and any of those other words that mean that.”

He loves it because it allows him to give young men what was given to him nearly 40 years ago by a man named Joseph White, who coached a summer league team in Detroit that Waters, an honorable mention high school All-American, desperately wanted to be a part of.

“It was a very good team,” Waters remembers. “And he said, ‘I want you to play on this team, and there’s one thing you have to do to be here. You have to go to my church on Sunday.’ ” Waters, who was in a rebellious stage at the time, said, “Whoa, I don’t want to go to anybody’s church.” But White insisted. “If you want to play on this team, you’ve got do it.”

Basketball won out. Eventually, Waters thought, What will it hurt to go to church? My parents want me to go anyway. Once there, the words and lessons began to sink in: “You can be a very good basketball player and also show thanks for the reason why you have that talent in the first place,” he says. “That made sense to me.”

He’s been teaching that lesson for 35 years, using his inherent basketball skills, his three business degrees and his understanding of sometimes-troubled young men.

Since 1974, Waters has been on a basketball bench, including 13 years as the head man at Kent State, Rutgers and Cleveland State. In his 35 seasons, the 58-year-old has helped teams to the NCAA tournament nine times and to the NIT six times. Of those 15 postseason appearances, nine of them have gone beyond the first round.

As a head coach, he’s earned a reputation as a program-rebuilder. The Kent State Golden Flashes made three postseason appearances in his five years there. The senior class he left there went to the Elite Eight while he was in his first year at Rutgers. At Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights made three NIT appearances in five years, but contract snags and broken trust made Waters seek higher ground elsewhere.

As it happened, CSU athletics director Lee Reed was looking for a coach at that same time. “God will lead you down many trails. He gives you things,” is all Waters will say about the fortuitous timing.

He recalls watching a game played in Cleveland two years before Reed called him. They must be playing at The Q, Waters thought, until the announcer mentioned that the telecast was coming from the campus of Cleveland State University.

“Wow,” Waters said out loud that day. “Cleveland State’s got an arena that looks like that?”

Now when he thinks back on that day, he says, “I didn’t say I, but I did say, ‘If they could get someone there, get those Ohio players, do some things, that could be a pretty special place.’ ”

It is becoming that special place. And it has everything to do with Waters’ plan, which is laid out in a white binder he carries. For three years now, players have watched the steps detailed on those pages come true on the court.

It’s eerie.

In his first season, Waters kept things very simple. He wanted to start building a winning tradition, and he set before his players a goal to win the Senior Day game, which the team hadn’t done in years. “They needed something, and to lose on Senior Day, man, that’s tough.” By winning that game, they’d have something of their own to take from their Cleveland State experience. “We set that goal, and they earned that victory,” Waters says of the 68-55 upset of Youngstown State. “That was theirs.”

His second season, the first official season in the four-year plan, was more ambitious: He wanted to compete for the early-season Daytona Beach Classic tournament championship and postseason Horizon League Championship, and establish a 20-win benchmark and home court dominance.

The results: The Vikings beat Florida State and South Florida on the way to a 3-1 record in the Daytona Beach Classic; the Vikings were 12-2 at the Wolstein Center and 21-12 overall, second in the regular season and in the Horizon League tournament.

His third season, Waters wanted to compete in a European national tournament (CSU went 3-1 against foreign professionals in Spain), to go undefeated at home (the Vikings went 13-2 at the Wolstein Center), to increase the win total to 20-plus (try 26-11), to win the Horizon League Championship (done), and to receive an NCAA tournament bid (the Vikings advanced to the second round with a stunning upset of Wake Forest).

This year’s plan is, to everyone but those in the Viking program, still a secret.

“It’s right there on the page, every single one of those things has come true,” says Cedric Jackson, who graduated last year and is now trying to stick in an NBA training camp. “Why wouldn’t somebody come here after seeing that?”

• • •

WATERS EATS BREAKFAST with his players every day at 8 a.m. in the cafeteria on the Cleveland State campus.

Every player is required to be there, to bring the planner Waters gave him on Day One and to tell what their responsibilities are for the day. Then comes simple food and fellowship.

“For us to get somebody like Gary Waters, who many people thought was one of the best coaches in the entire country, and now for us to have him here to help rebuild our program, that’s a home run,” Reed says.

“You’re always hoping it will turn out, but it’s hard to say you knew this would happen,” he continues. “I’m a little bit surprised by how fast Coach Waters has turned it around. What we’ve been able to do in three years is unheard of.”

In addition to the morning breakfast gatherings, Waters brings his team together once a week for Success Class, a course he designed and teaches. He chooses the textbook based on what the players need.

In his first season, he taught The Pyramid of Success by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. He followed up with Talent is Never Enough by business author John Maxwell, and last year the class used former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy’s Quiet Strength.

This season the textbook is Maxwell’s The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player. “Some of these kids don’t yet know how to be a teammate,” Waters explains. “Being a good teammate is about committing to the other players, and that’s what I’m trying to teach. I want them to start looking out for each other. I think they’re beginning to get it.”

Held in a Wolstein Center room (dubbed the “focus room” by Waters) that features theater-style seating, the class immediately precedes a track workout. Waters writes on the chalkboard,
“T-E-A-M” and “W-O-R-K” in parallel vertical lines.

“Now, everybody, ‘What about TEAM?’ ”

Fourteen voices rise as one: “Together Everyone Achieves More.”

“And what do we say about WORK?” Waters prompts.

“While Others Rather Kick it.”

He chuckles a tiny bit derisively. “Others out there might be kicking it somewhere, but what are we doing? We’re working hard. That’s right. Let’s value this.”

After a moment: “Today, we’re talking about collaboration. Not cooperation, that’s a different thing. We’re talking about collaboration. Understand this now. You feeling me?”

To keep the lesson useful and personal, Waters asks junior guard Lance James about the upcoming conditioning session.

“I guess I’m having trouble with the track workouts,” James mumbles.

“You guess?” Waters challenges. “You having trouble with the workouts or not?”

“I’m having trouble with the conditioning,” James says quietly.

“Speak up, son, so your teammates can hear you. Say it loud so they know.”

“I’m having trouble with the conditioning workouts,” James says, clearly this time.

“Are you going to use your teammates to help you with that?”

“Yes, sir.”

Then to the class, Waters says, “How are you going to help your teammate get through that? How can you help him?”

Answers come from all corners of the classroom: “Encourage him.” “Work with him.” “Get behind him.”

“That’s right,” the coach says. “Let’s all compete at the same level. Not his. Let’s bring him up to ours.”

After a silent beat during which that point sinks in, Waters says firmly: “Let’s move on.”

Later, at the track workout, players slap hands, pat backs, shout encouragement to one another. “C’mon, baby, give us a little more!” Then, “Way to finish, man. You digging deep.”

Coaches are just as vocal and encouraging. A common refrain at Viking workouts: “What E are you at, son? Where’s your E?”

If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, you’re “empty.” If you’re doing the bare minimum, you’re “even.” If you want more and expect more, you have to put in “extra.”

• • •

IT DOESN'T MATTER when Waters leaves one place for another; his kids are his kids forever. He knows it, and they know it. He will be at their graduation, no matter where he’s coaching. He never lets them go.

A year after he left Kent State for Rutgers, Waters picked up a newspaper and noticed that his former Kent State team had lost a game it should have won. Early in the season, that team, which had seven seniors, was flirting with a .500 record. Waters knew they were starting to slip.

So he made seven phone calls. “Stop being a baby,” Waters said, or something like it. “What’s happening to you? Get back on board, listen to your coach. Time to stop being childish and grow up. Go apologize to your coach for what you’re doing.”

And all of them did. One even called Waters to report how hard it was to do: “But you told me to do it, so I did.” From that point forward, Kent State won a MAC-record 21 consecutive games. That Kent State senior class, which included Trevor Huffman, Andrew Mitchell, Demetric Shaw and Eric Thomas, graduated as the all-time winningest class in MAC history.

Most basketball observers thought Waters was outright crazy to leave Kent State. But Waters doesn’t answer to those observers. He felt a calling to the young men at Rutgers. “God said, ‘Come and heal this program,’ ” Waters says now. “So I went. And it was the best thing for everybody.”

Trying to explain that concept to brash New York City radio hosts Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo was interesting at the least. When Kent State was making waves that season, eventually heading for the Elite Eight, Waters was a guest on WFAN’s Mike and the Mad Dog show.

“You must be thinking, Man, those are my guys, I deserve the credit for that team.”

Waters, affable and calm, said: “Well, I used to think I was called to Rutgers for the Rutgers players. But now I think maybe I was called to Rutgers for the Kent State players, too, because maybe they needed that. Maybe those guys needed a change to have that kind of success. Maybe that’s why God sent me to Rutgers, for those Kent guys.”

“Are you for real?” the radio host asked. “Oh man! Gary, you don’t belong in New York City. I can’t believe that.”

DeSimpelare believed it because he knew Gary Waters. But still, he says, “I was so impressed and so moved by that.

“It’s an ego-filled profession, for sure,” he continues. “But Gary really cares about the young men. It’s not about him. It’s about them.”

• • •

BERNADETTE WATERS LOVES May and August. Forget July.

“July is the most hateful month of the year,” she says, then quickly asks forgiveness for even using the word “hateful” in a sentence. “He’s gone almost all month for recruiting. It’s hard.

“But in May when they’re not recruiting and in August just before the kids come back, those are really nice times when we can spend some good time together. Then, we try to make family vacations a priority.”

Not that Bernadette Waters is a basketball widow. Neither of them will have any of that. That’s why Friday is date night. Has been for 37 years now. Every week. If it doesn’t happen on Friday because of a game commitment, it comes on Saturday … dinner and a movie, a real date.

“It never gets past the weekend without our having date night,” Bernadette says. “I threaten him with [running drills] if he misses date night, and he doesn’t. That’s how we keep our marriage together.”

It’s only one of the ways. Their relationship is built on humor, awareness, shared faith. “The first time I saw him in 11th grade,” Bernadette says, “Spirit whispered to me, ‘That’s your husband,’ and I knew that was right.”

Since then, they’ve done everything together for 40 years.

“We are committed to this, these kids, together,” Bernadette says. “I feel like I have sons all over the country. Gary and I take time for each other and for our family [they have two grown children and four grandchildren], but we also share in our passion that these young men have been entrusted to us. We take that seriously.”

• • •

LEE REED FELT something when he met Gary Waters for the first time, too. “He has the complete package as it relates to character, personality, charisma and obviously his knowledge of the game,” Reed says. “You know you’re going to learn something when you’re around him all the time.”

Warm and engaging, Waters makes you feel like the only person in a room, even when you’re not. This, of course, helps when Waters visits a recruit’s home.

He makes two promises to parents, and neither of them has anything to do with basketball: “One, I will love him like my own son,” Waters says. “Two, he’s going to leave this place with a degree.”

He won’t promise that Junior will be on the floor every minute or that he will play in most games. That’s because those things are not nearly the most important ones he can deliver.

“The commitment I make to your son is way beyond basketball,” he’ll say. “I will make your son a man, help finalize his manhood. It’s not about these four years; it’s about the next 50 in his life.”

That’s not to say that the next four won’t be exciting. Vikings basketball is making a name for itself. If Waters won’t yet admit that Cleveland State has arrived, he knows the Vikings are pulling into the driveway.

“We’re in the middle, I’d say. We’ve established our foundation now, and people are starting to notice,” he admits. “That just means everybody will bring their A game to us now. We have to be ready.”

This year’s theme is “Protect This House.” Every Vikings player is reminded of it every day because it is printed on the binder he carries with him. Establishing some sense of national exposure is one of the things printed on the first page of Waters’ Program Vision, and like most other things on the page, it’s coming true. The Vikings are now considered for the prestigious tournaments and can enter a season knowing they will compete for a league championship.

“This is not about me, it’s about the school,” Waters says. “I try to put CSU in a light where everybody can see it. Now with tournament exposure and playing certain schools, CSU is out there.”

And it’s right here, too.

Just ask J’Nathan Bullock, now graduated, who helped cut down the nets in Indianapolis. He says that his whole life has changed for being a Viking.

“My lowest time was definitely my freshman year [under Coach Mike Garland],” Bullock says. Bullock was a starter but got benched.

“He said it looked like I was losing my passion for the game,” Bullock recalls. “And he was exactly right because the energy around you is contagious, and all we did was lose. That was affecting me.”

Then Waters arrived, another coach promising, like they all do, better times ahead. “I was stubborn,” Bullock says. “It took a year and a half for me to trust that what he was saying was true.”

That first season was still a struggle. But there were signs, including that senior day victory. “The next year I gave in, and we took off like a rocket,” Bullock says.

Bullock was impressed by the time that Waters invested in him. “He really stands by his word. He said he was going to change the program and that I would be a staple. He said he’d turn me into a leader and into a more respectful person.”

Now Bullock takes off his hat inside a building, opens doors for others, speaks respectfully, even admits somewhat sheepishly that he’ll help someone across the street if they need it. “I’m a kinder person,” he says. “And I can show the younger kids in my area that they can be kind and be champions, too.”

It’s Waters’ lesson: You can be a very good basketball player and show thanks for having that talent in the first place.

“Coach Waters taught me never to go backwards,” he says. “If I go back to my old ways now, what kind of person am I?”

After a moment’s pause to think about that question, Bullock finishes his thought. “I’m not that kind of person anymore. I’m different now. He made me different.

“I owe a lot to Coach Waters. I’m a better man.”
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