A man with a plan

By Allen Moff Record-Courier staff writer Published:

At 7 p.m. Monday night, in the midst of cramming for his Kent State men's basketball team's eagerly anticipated NCAA Tournament battle with Indiana that would take place a mere three days later, Gary Waters was perched at his desk tending to an irksome chore that probably every other coach in the 'Big Dance' simply blew off.

Returning phone calls.

Most of them from people he didn't even know.

"Hello ... um, give me a second. I've got so many phone calls to return here I forgot who I was calling," said Waters, while shuffling through a huge stack of message papers. "Oh yeah, is Brian available?"

Waters proceeded to engage in a five-minute conversation with this mystery Brian, who probably now feels like he has a new best friend.

That's Gary Waters, in a nutshell.

Kind, considerate, modest, more like your next-door neighbor than the highly successful, hot commodity college basketball coach that he is.

But most of all, Waters is genuine.

And that's why his Golden Flashes respect him so deeply that they'd run through a wall for him if so ordered.

"When coach tells you to do something, you know it's for a good reason," said Kent State junior Mike Perry, a local recruit from Barberton who has blossomed under Waters. "We know he cares about us as people. He says when we hurt he hurts, and he means it. How many other coaches are really like that?"

If Waters is one thing when compared to his coaching contemporaries, he's different.

While most of today's mentors teach by throwing verbal tantrums, especially during the heat of battle, Waters himself isn't much of a yeller. Truth is, he doesn't have the voice for it. When he attempts to scream he instead shrieks, producing a piercing sound that bothers your ears but doesn't exactly strike fear into your heart.

"When he speaks, he gets his point across," said smiling senior Kyrem Massey, a member of Waters' first recruiting class in 1996. "It's like when a parent yells at you and it makes you mad, but you know he's only doing it because he loves you and he wants what's best for you. That's coach."

The art of screaming is overrated according to Waters.

"I don't yell at my players 24 hours a day," he said, "so when I do get on them, they know it's real. That's also why I only recruit players from winning programs that respect authority, because they are willing to listen and learn. Winners win, and losers lose and make excuses."

Waters is also a deeply religious man, who spreads his faith to his players. He holds team prayers before and after every practice and game, and even opens every postgame press conference by "giving honor to God, who's first in my life."

That particular gesture rubs some people the wrong way, but Waters only says it because he believes it.

"Coach is a God-fearing man," said Massey. "His beliefs make him confident and strong, and that seeps over into his players and assistant coaches. It helps bring us together."

Togetherness, that's Waters' motto.

No single coach in the country places more emphasis on fostering a family atmosphere than Waters, who makes sure his players and assistant coaches constantly bond by spending as much time together off the court as they do on it.

"Our coaches spend time with each other's families, and that creates a relationship that's personal, not just professional," said Waters. "We treat our players that same way. We have a higher purpose that we all strive for, together as one."

The product of Waters' emphasis on family is a tight-knit group of Golden Flashes that consistently overachieves.

This year's squad has earned a school-record 23 victories for the third consecutive season, but the first two teams were more talented. Last Saturday Kent State captured its second MAC Tournament title in three years, with a bench that included three freshmen and without a true center in the starting lineup.

Obviously, the nation is beginning to take notice of Waters' handiwork.

The Detroit native is already being mentioned as a candidate for the Michigan job. Last year Waters was a finalist for positions at Miami of Florida, Houston and Northwestern, and his name will without doubt be mentioned in connection with several major Division I college openings this offseason.

Athletic directors will offer cash, cars and whatever else they think may lure Waters away from Kent State. But if anyone can turn his back on such tempting offers, it's Waters.

"Coach is so down to earth," said Perry. "He's not concerned about money and he doesn't act like he's a better person than anyone else, even though he could. That's what makes him a good person, someone you want to listen to because you know you're going to learn something."

Waters doesn't believe he's earned the right to brag anyhow, at least not yet.

"We've done a good job of getting this program on its feet," said Waters. "We've earned some respect in the MAC and we've done it the right way, by not cutting any corners.

"Have we arrived yet? No. We still have a long way to go."

Thursday, there's an NCAA Tournament game to win.

But first, there are phone calls to return.

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