Matt Gatens and Bruce Pearl go way back. All the way to the beginning of Gatens’ life.
When Gatens arrived in the world on June 13, 1989, Pearl was one of the first visitors to his Iowa City hospital room, cradling a baby who now calls him “boss.”
Pearl was then an assistant coach for the Iowa men’s basketball team who had developed a friendship with Matt’s father, Mike. Mike Gatens played for the Hawkeyes in the 1970s. Matt grew up to be a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who starred at Iowa from 2008-12.
Pearl moved on from Iowa to head coaching jobs at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee, Tennessee and now Auburn, racking up 506 victories in the process. He also stayed in touch with the Gatens family, and when he was in the market for a graduate assistant coach this spring, it was Matt who got the job.
“I always thought I wanted to give coaching a try when I was done playing,” Matt Gatens said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Auburn, Ala. “Bruce was one of the first guys I contacted, and he was very open to the opportunity here and really wanted me.”
Gatens has been on the job for two weeks, working out Auburn players and helping set up the team’s summer camps. And he’s rekindled that bond from long ago with Pearl, a coach known for his exuberance and showmanship.
“He treats everyone like family and he’s very open to anyone’s ideas. I know I’m lower on the totem pole, but we’re already talking about workouts and plays and practices — he wants my input,” Gatens said. “I’m younger and can relate to the guys.”
Gatens scored 1,635 points in his Hawkeye career then played professionally in France, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine. He returned stateside last year intending to play for the Iowa Energy in the NBA Development League, but he suffered a torn ACL just five quarters into the season, after scoring a grand total of six points.
Gatens spent much of his winter rehabbing in Iowa City, attending most Hawkeye home games and getting to know the current players. He enjoyed that. He also had time to think about his future, and he came to the conclusion that it was the right time to take a stab at coaching.
Gatens interviewed with Pearl during the Final Four, then brought his wife Erin to the Auburn campus for a second meeting. They both felt that it was a good fit. Gatens said Auburn has a similar feel to Iowa City.
“I think we’ll miss playing overseas, but it’s a little different now with the baby (16-month-old son Nash),” Gatens said. “There’s times I still miss playing, but I’m still involved with basketball. I’m happy with the decision. I’ve got some closure.”
Gatens is still recovering after knee surgery and looks forward to actually getting on the court with a young Auburn team coming off an 18-14 season. He’s also pursuing a master’s degree in adult education, trying to get back into the swing of being a student again.
He’s finding that there’s a great deal of excitement about Auburn basketball, typically an afterthought in a football-mad state. The Tigers haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2003, but averaged 7,833 fans at their home games last winter. Their top four scorers were all freshmen. Gatens said it reminded him of Iowa’s 2016-17 squad, which also was heavy on rookies.
Gatens thinks his multitude of experiences can help Auburn’s players improve. He was known in college for his shooting and defense, before being exposed to several coaches and leagues in the professional ranks. He said he will draw on all of that as a coach.
“Just bringing a little toughness on defense and different drills with shooting. I think I’ve always had a good mind for X’s and O’s. I enjoyed soaking everything up from those guys (former coaches) and knowing I could take it forward for the next days of my life,” Gatens said.
“This is going to be a good experience, a chance to see a different conference in the SEC. It will help me with networking, which is a big key in this profession. It will either point me in the direction of being a college coach, or go to a different level, like the NBA or high school. I’m open to all of that.”