Conversations with Leaders: Anthony "Tony" Bates
Governors State University (GSU) Athletic Director Anthony “Tony” Bates, fresh off a historic men's basketball championship season, insists his work on the court is not about sports.
“My vision is for student-athletes to come here and have a great experience, but ultimately I want to see them graduate,” said Bates, also the university's Head Coach for its first men's basketball team.
A former insurance agency owner who earned a business degree from Trinity Christian College, Bates arrived at GSU in 2013 with a literal plan—a 16-page proposal that envisioned a four-year school that offered athletics.
Bates had stumbled across GSU in 2011 looking for tennis courts, and he spent the next two years proposing an athletics department at GSU, which at the time was still an upper division school with no such program.
At the time Bates was associate men’s basketball coach at St. Xavier University, and before that he had spent 15 years coaching high school boys. Both were part-time positions. Now, Bates saw a full-scale opportunity at GSU.
His bound proposal, its pages now tinged yellow, called out the “sleeping giant” at the university, already well known as an upper division institution with a great existing location and facilities, and relationships with other junior colleges in the area. Converting the university to a four year school with sports just made sense.
Ironically, when Bates presented his ideas to GSU’s Aurelio Valente, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, and Gebe Ejigu, then executive vice president and chief of staff, he had no way of knowing leaders two weeks prior had submitted a white paper to the Board of Trustees on the same topic.
Luckily, Bates’s vision aligned with that of the transformation architects, he said. “About 80 percent of what you see today is in my plan, too,” he said.
Today, Bates leads seven teams at GSU—men’s and women’s basketball, cross country, golf, and women’s volleyball—and is planning to add men’s and women’s soccer. More importantly, he counts 17 graduates since the Jaguars were born in 2014.
Some would say persistence met opportunity to create space for Bates to hold court at GSU, but he sees it differently. “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance: the 5P Rule. That’s what we live by. In this case, I was prepared.”
GSU’s would be the second program Bates molded from nothing.
At just 19 years of age, Bates helped create a team at the tiny Tabernacle Christian Academy on the South Side of Chicago. At its most populous the school had about 125 high school students. Still, in 15 seasons Bates led the Mighty Eagles to a 385-93 record—despite having no home gymnasium or athletic budget—and won five straight championships. The school closed for lack of enrollment in the late ’90s.
“Of the kids I have for four years, 90 percent go on to a college or university,” Bates told the Chicago Tribune, which profiled Tabernacle’s unlikely victors in 1995. “That's the thing I'm most proud of—not winning or losing basketball games.”
At GSU, he moved quickly from concept to execution, scouring the world—one athlete came from Ethiopia—to hand pick a team. Successful players would be those who wanted to be pioneers. “So many people want to follow,” Bates said. “We didn't have anything to follow. I was looking for leaders. I was looking for someone to put down their footprint.”
Four players who made deep impressions in 2018 were Jalen Miller, a 2017 GSU graduate now studying business, and juniors Shane Maple, Robbie Brooks, and Nathan Skrobot.
During the 2017-18 regular season, the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) named Miller Player of the Year. Following the regular season, Miller earned All-CCAC First Team and NAIA All-America Second Team honors, Maple All-CCAC Second Team, Brooks All-CCAC Honorable Mention, and Skrobot was honored as GSU's recipient of the NAIA Champions of Character Individual Student Award.
In that same ceremony, Bates was named Co-Coach of the year. Ever the consummate coach, Bates praised his team. “These young men have helped change the culture at GSU, and we’re so proud of them.”
Launching the Athletic Department to change the GSU culture, infusing more excitement in and around the school, was part of the plan he presented back in 2013.
In 2016, Stephanie Clarkson was the first GSU student to compete in a national championship, competing against 300 of the best runners in the NAIA Cross Country competition.
2017 saw the women’s golf team recognized as an Academic National Champion by the Golf Coaches Association of America for a team GPA of 3.73.
And in 2018, the men’s basketball team competing in the 27th Annual NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship was a slam dunk for the plan, Bates said.
“The run the team made this year really puts GSU on the map from an athletics standpoint … Now my phone is ringing,’’ he said. “And, my other teams are inspired.”
However, these high points had been preceded by some very dark ones. By the end of the Jaguars’ first season, two recruits and a former player had been lost to gun violence. Saieed Ivey was part of GSU’s Club Team in 2014. After his first year, Ivey went to California to play when he met an untimely death.
Bates said he was “devastated” by the loss, an eerie reminder of his days growing up in a gang-infested area now known as Bucktown.
The area was tough, but Bates’s parents were tougher. They instilled high discipline and academic achievement in him and his six siblings. Though his own basketball skills took him overseas to play, he took classes during the off season to finish his undergraduate degree—a promise he made to his parents. He also holds a master’s degree in athletics administration from Northcentral University (Arizona).
Bates thinks about his parents’ push now as he engages his players to excel both on the court and in the classroom.
“The ultimate goal, the ultimate championship, is graduation day. When Jalen walks across the stage with my other four seniors—that's a championship for me.”