Washington Post: Alabama’s secret weapon: Sign-stealing, note-passing graduate assistants

By Ben Golliver

Updated March 30, 2024 at 5:18 p.m. EDT


LOS ANGELES — Nate Oats has built Alabama into a men’s basketball power with a clear philosophy: be the “most prepared coach” who leads the “most prepared team.”


Moments after the Crimson Tide upset North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, Oats promised his team would enjoy a “short-lived celebration” — 30 minutes, tops — before turning its attention to Saturday’s Elite Eight showdown against Clemson. The 49-year-old coach, who played at Division III Maranatha Baptist and coached at the high school level in Michigan for more than a decade, said he would have a full game plan “together by breakfast time.” Sure enough, he arrived at Friday’s media availability looking a bit haggard, admitting it had been a “long night” with “not much sleep.” Such is life with Alabama one win away from its first Final Four.


There is perhaps no better example of Oats’s obsessive attention to detail and preparation than his heavy reliance upon an unheralded staff of graduate assistants, a handful of basketball devotees whose names don’t even appear on the team’s website.


Indeed, their work crunching tape, studying opponents and creating game plans is a thankless, anonymous grind. Because of the seating configuration at Crypto.com Arena during the Sweet 16 game against North Carolina, there wasn’t any room for several of Alabama’s graduate assistants to sit in the bench area, so they had to be relocated to the front row of a designated fan section directly across the court. The graduate assistants sat in a ticketed section, in front of ordinary fans, and were barred from joining Oats’s full-time staffers on the court during the game. Thankfully, they were at least granted temporary access credentials so they could enter the locker room at halftime and join Alabama’s celebration on the court after the buzzer.


Though they were physically separated from Oats and his full-time assistant coaches, the graduate assistants, dressed in matching black polo team shirts, kept up a loud chatter — read: they never shut up — throughout Alabama’s 89-87 victory. With curious media members seated courtside peeking back to see what all the fuss was about, Alabama’s graduate assistants hyped up their team, worked the referees, reinforced Oats’s points of emphasis and repeatedly stole North Carolina’s play calls throughout the nail-biter.


Oats sang the group’s praises Friday, noting they helped his full-time assistants prepare scouting reports and video breakdowns of upcoming opponents.


“We rely on our GAs a lot,” Oats said. “And they’re good. They’re working ahead because I’m not going to look at the next team until we are done playing the current team. But they are. They’re working ahead all the time. They’ve got everything ready to hand to the assistant in charge of it when they need to. [Their work covers] everything, trying to listen to the video with the sound up, trying to get play calls off the sound. And looking at hand signals to get play calls. They’ve got it all in their head. They try to teach it to everybody, but they know it pretty well.”


Sign stealing by players, coaches and staff members is common practice during college basketball and NBA games, though Alabama was afforded an unusual advantage Thursday. The Los Angeles venue hosted a doubleheader — Clemson beat Arizona before Alabama upset North Carolina — and the arena’s lower bowl was divided into four fan sections, one for each school. The higher-seeded teams, No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Arizona, had their fan sections directly behind their team benches. The lower-seeded teams, No. 4 Alabama and No. 6 Clemson, were pushed across the court to the opposite side.


As such, the Alabama graduate assistants, forced into the overflow section, enjoyed an unobstructed view of North Carolina’s bench from across the court. Once Tar Heels Coach Hubert Davis signaled to his team, the Crimson Tide’s graduate assistants set about deciphering the call. When that was complete, often within a second or two, they loudly shouted out the play in unison — “Floppy,” “Rebel,” or “Double” — to notify Alabama’s defense.


Meanwhile, the graduate assistants also painstakingly charted the game action. During timeouts, their notes were shuttled from their location in the fan section to Oats by player development coordinator Christian Pino. Though the unusual sight of paper flowing from the stands to the huddle raised eyebrows among media members and prompted some confusion for event staffers, NCAA rules only prohibit electronic communications to the bench during games.


Searching for possible in-game adjustments, Oats said his staff charts, by hand, everything from paint touches to hustle stats.


“In the course of the game, we chart a lot of things, offensive and defensive efficiency. They’re charting that,” Oats said. “I get an offensive sheet, a defensive sheet, a blue-collar sheet and the general stats. I’ve got four sheets of paper in my hand every timeout, and the [graduate assistants are] responsible for three of those four.”


Alabama’s victory over North Carolina wasn’t secured until the final seconds, and it was the type of tense March Madness classic that can swing on the slightest of margins. The graduate assistants left no stones unturned, encouraging shooters stationed in the right corner to be ready to let it fly and howling their disapproval when calls went against the Crimson Tide.


In some cases, their prep work was extraordinary. When referee John Gaffney overturned a call in Alabama’s favor, the graduate assistants clapped loudly. Then, one of them shouted some positive reinforcement with a personal touch: “John, you’re a handsome man.”


To reach the Final Four, Alabama must get revenge against Clemson, which scored an 85-77 victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 28. Fresh off a review of the previous meeting, Crimson Tide forward Grant Nelson said Friday his team had “fronted the post a little too much” against Tigers big men PJ Hall and Ian Schieffelin and “let their shooters get hot.”


Taking down Clemson will probably require Nelson to deliver another starlike performance as he had in posting 24 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks against North Carolina, and it wouldn’t hurt if guard Mark Sears topped 20 points for the ninth time in his past 10 games. But Oats’s Crimson Tide also will be counting on its row of enthusiastic, hyper-focused polo shirts to find weaknesses to expose and matchups to exploit.


“It’s cool that everybody’s super invested in wins and losses from your head coach down to your managers, to everybody in the program,” said Oats, who smiled when told about the ruckus his graduate assistants made Thursday and credited their efforts as “part of the reason” for Alabama’s success during his five-year tenure. “It’s nice you were able to sit by some of them that aren’t even on the bench, and they’re super invested in winning and losing.”

Nash Sanderson