By Mason Nesbitt
For The Signal
Mike Penberthy was running late for practice.
It did not matter that Penberthy was an All-American on a Master’s men’s basketball team headed to the NAIA national tournament. Nor did it matter that his arrival was only five minutes behind schedule.
Head coach Bill Oates said he’d see Penberthy at 6 a.m. the following morning when Oates went on his daily run.
“So we went for a jog for about 20 minutes,” Penberthy recalls more than two decades later, “and the whole time he’s talking and saying verses and he’s praying for me and asking about my classes and my girlfriend, ‘What’s going on with that?’ and saying, ‘Let’s pray about it.'”
The story is classic Oates, the legendary former men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Master’s who passed away last week at the age of 80. Oates was a disciplinarian who accepted nothing but the best from his players. But he also deeply cared for them, as athletes, as people and, most importantly, as Christians.
“He taught us how to really honor God through the simple game of basketball,” says James Mosley, a current member of TMU’s men’s basketball coaching staff and an All-American at Master’s in the 1990s when Oates put the program on the NAIA map and galvanized the team’s fan base.
The catalyst was unprecedented success.
After arriving at Master’s in 1993 as athletic director and men’s basketball coach, Oates led the Mustangs to seven consecutive 20-win seasons and a like number of NAIA national tournament appearances. He was named regional coach of the year six times, and he remains the winningest coach in program history, compiling 283 wins between 1993 and 2006.
How Oates came to Master’s, after a 30-year coaching career that included stops at Menlo College, NCAA Division 1 Saint Mary’s College and with Athletes in Action, is the stuff of legend.
Hall-of-fame UCLA coach John Wooden, a close friend of Oates’, called Dr. John MacArthur and recommended Oates for the position.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the call went like this: “I’m John Wooden, I used to be a basketball coach. I think Bill Oates is perfect for your opening. From the standpoint of preparation, and from the standpoint of being a strong Christian, I highly recommend Bill.”
After his hire, Oates told the Times he promised to bring a pressuring defense and an up-tempo offense to Newhall. He was thrilled for the opportunity to coach at a school that aligned with his convictions.
“It’s a great college and a Christian school with devoted Christians,” Oates said. “It’s just a great school.”
Oates installed Wooden’s high-post offense at Master’s, and his teams rehearsed the system every day as part of practices focused on repetition.
The result was a disciplined, organized squad that reached the NAIA quarterfinals twice – still the program’s deepest ventures into the playoffs. “We were like a machine when it came to execution,” Penberthy says. And the Mustangs’ fans couldn’t get enough.
“Especially the first seven or eight years he was here, (Oates) brought a new excitement about basketball to this campus,” says Dr. John Stead, currently TMU’s interim president and a member of the school’s faculty at the time. “We’d always sell out our games and have standing room only.”
Rich Gutwein, who served as Oates’ assistant from 1995 to 2005, says he was always struck by Oates’ preparation and by his ability to ask a lot of his players while giving them so much in return.
“He was a demanding coach in practices and he demanded a lot of his players and drove them,” Gutwein says. “But there was always the connection that he cared most about them and their spiritual growth and that it wasn’t just about wins and losses. He kept great perspective and the kids saw that.”
Of course, plenty of wins followed, too, in part because the Mustangs overflowed with talent. Six All-Americans played for Oates, including Penberthy, who went on to win an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Penberthy, now a Lakers assistant coach, says the principles Oates instilled in him continue to influence the way he does his job.
“The number one thing about Bill Oates is that I believed he loved me as a player,” Penberthy says. “He loved his players. So that translates for me in that I have that same affection in the right way. I want to see my players do great. I want to help them and I care about them, and that’s the way Bill Oates was.”
Penberthy felt cared for on that morning jog years ago. And he felt the same way when he dropped by the Mustang athletic offices one morning as a student and Oates asked him to sit down for an impromptu meeting. On a clipboard, Oates kept a daily list of 10 things he needed to accomplish. One item read: Pray for Mike.
“He said, ‘I already prayed for you, but let’s pray again,'” Penberthy says. “That’s how you knew he loved you.”
For more information on Master’s Athletics, visit GoMustangs.com.