By Dave Glenn and staff
ACC Sports Journal
June 10, 2002 TALLAHASSEE Leonard Hamilton hasn't been in the hot seat for three months yet, and already he has changed the face of the Florida State basketball program.
That was no easy task, considering the Seminoles' gradual decline over the past four seasons, in which FSU went 46-72 and never came within eyesight of a postseason bid.
Understandably, fans' patience with Steve Robinson ran out after five seasons of mediocre-to-bad basketball. Their interest and loyalty toward Florida State hoops had approached an all-time low, which can happen after home losses to the likes of Western Carolina and American, and that's saying something at a school where hoops generally ranks fifth in interest behind football, spring football, football recruiting and baseball.
On the court, players were disappointed with the losses and the atmosphere, and their confidence appeared to be wavering. The team's offense wasn't just lacking firepower; it had become downright pathetic. The Seminoles reached another low last season when, after suffering the embarrassing defeats to the non-conference featherweights in Tallahassee, they failed to win a single ACC game on the road. Off the court, the coaching staff struggled mightily to lure top recruits, who often spoke of their respect and admiration for Robinson but rarely signed on the dotted line.
The Florida State program was in serious need of a facelift, and Hamilton has wasted no time in putting his new team under the knife. The new coach's dramatic alterations are quickly approaching a Michael Jackson level, and even the one-glove wonder took years to change his look. Hamilton is moving at a more frenetic pace. The most glaring changes in his first few months at FSU came in the recruiting game every aspect of the recruiting game, actually, starting with evaluation of the players already on hand.
"Steve looked at his roster every year and knew he was shorthanded relative to some other (ACC teams), but I never sensed any kind of urgency or despair on his part," one FSU source told the Sports Journal. "Maybe he would have been more concerned if he understood the bigger picture a little bit better. He tried to recruit the best players just like everyone else, but he was pretty selective and usually wasn't able to stay in the mix very long, especially when he was up against the more established coaches.
"But Steve would look at the roster every year and say, If this player develops and that player develops the way we think they can, we'll be OK.' And it just never worked out that way. In this league, it's not enough to have good coaching, a strong work ethic and a nice bunch of kids. When you don't have the players, it's never OK, and I don't know if Steve had a full appreciation of that.
"Leonard definitely understands. I don't think you'll see him making any critical remarks in public about his players, because he has to work with those kids every day, but Leonard definitely understands. He didn't look at the players and recruits he inherited and say, We'll be OK.' He looked and said, Holy cow, we really need some players.'"
Robinson spent his first three years in Tallahassee struggling to lock down talented high school seniors. In the end, he signed a longer list of forgettable, non-ACC caliber prospects. Who can forget Justin Mott, Emmanuel Mathis and David Anderson? (Yes. We can, too.) The 1998-2002 Seminoles, playing with rosters whose talent level ranked seventh, eighth or ninth in the conference, generally finished at that level in the standings.
Those FSU fans looking for a little contrast from Robinson to Hamilton have not been disappointed. Where Robinson walked, Hamilton is running. While Robinson often lacked close connections on the recruiting trail and in the coaching community, Hamilton thrives on them. In so many ways, the two coaches look at the world, and even the team one handed off to the other, through entirely different prisms.
Under Robinson, fall signee Todd Galloway was a key addition who as a true freshman was expected (out of necessity, if nothing else) to take over the point guard slot vacated by senior Delvon Arrington. Under Hamilton, Galloway was a second-tier prospect who might develop into a nice player some day but certainly shouldn't be expected to take over the most important position on the floor immediately upon his arrival. (Hamilton went out and signed a juco point guard.) Under Robinson, Ryan Lowery was an exceptional student and a hard-working backup point guard who would have been in the rotation last season were it not for a series of knee injuries. Under Hamilton, Lowery was a nice kid who was simply in over his head at the ACC level and shouldn't be expected to continue his career at FSU unless he could do so at full speed. (Lowery recently decided to end his playing career, citing medical reasons, and is considering an offer from Hamilton to remain involved with the program.) Under Robinson, massive center Nigel Dixon was an unheralded, high-risk signee who eventually became a media darling and a fan favorite, but also a relatively unproductive two-year starter. Under Hamilton, Dixon was a very poor fit for his up-tempo style and, eventually, a transfer. (Dixon, a rising fourth-year senior, said he was not run off but that he needed a program that could afford to allow him a redshirt season, an option he pursued unsuccessfully with Robinson and Hamilton.) Under Robinson, talented two-sport star Adrian McPherson was a footballer at heart who couldn't be given many minutes at the expense of others and eventually quit the team. Under Hamilton, there is a glimmer of hope. (McPherson said he looks forward to playing next season.) These are not minor differences of opinion.
"Some of this is speculation, of course, but look at next year's team if there was no coaching change," the FSU source said. "Maybe Nigel Dixon and Ryan Lowery are still here, and maybe (Galloway) is the starting point guard with who-knows-who as the backup. Maybe Steve would have added some good spring signees, maybe not. History suggests the latter.
"With Leonard, things changed pretty quickly. No Dixon. No Lowery. Galloway will probably be a backup, at best. Three more promising players are coming in, probably all of them to play right away, and they may even sign another one. McPherson wants to play basketball again.
"How many players is that (affected by the coaching change)? Seven? That's more than half your team right there, including the players who will make up maybe half the rotation next season. Don't tell me a new coach can't change things in a hurry. I'm not saying Leonard will be able to reverse the record in one year, but it's pretty obvious that he can change an awful lot of things in one year. He's already done it in a few months."
Many critics and fans doubted whether Hamilton would be able to deliver a solid recruiting class this season, in part because of his late (March 19) arrival. More than 90 percent of the nation's top high school seniors chose their destinations during the fall signing period, and most of the remaining prep and juco stars had long ago narrowed their lists of favorites to four or five schools. Plus, the 53-year-old coach had been away from the college game for more than two years.
The doubters obviously didn't know Hamilton very well.
"(Hamilton) is the greatest recruiter that's ever been," said Pat Smith, an assistant under Hamilton at Miami in 1997-98 and the current coach at Moberly (Mo.) Community College. "He is really good at building relationships with the players."
Many of Hamilton's predecessors in Tallahassee, including Robinson and Pat Kennedy, sometimes complained about the large shadow the Florida State football team cast over their respective squads. But Hamilton said he doesn't view the success that Bobby Bowden's clubs have enjoyed on the gridiron as a hindrance to the future of FSU basketball. To him, he said, it's more of an opportunity.
"I think football can be used as an asset," Hamilton said. "They have kids they have brought in from all over the country, and I think we can do the same."
Hamilton took that same brash attitude to the recruiting trail, showing more aggressiveness in his first three weeks on the job than Robinson displayed in his first three years in Tallahassee. Instead of continuing to pursue players Robinson and his staff had worked on during the season (e.g. FSU commitment Rodney Tucker, who signed with Auburn), Hamilton spent his first few weeks on the job traveling around the country in search of talent. He offered scholarships to the most promising prospects he could find, from NBA hopefuls and juco transfers to late bloomers, academic risks, questionable characters, long-lost prep stars and foreign stars.
In the end, he was able to dig up two potential steals in forward Al Thornton and guard Benson Callier both were recruited heavily by Cincinnati, among others plus the solid, experienced point guard he desperately coveted. Second-team juco All-American Nate Johnson chose the Seminoles over Creighton, Evansville and Northern Iowa.
Thornton and Callier, two prospects who were not heavily recruited until late in their senior seasons, are the prototype of what Hamilton looks for on the recruiting trail: raw, multi-dimensional athletes with lots of energy and loads of potential. That's the type of young talent he molded into a quality team at Miami. Heralded local products Tim James (Big East player of the year) and Steven Edwards became stars for the hometown Hurricanes, and prospects (many less heralded) such as Mario Bland, Johnny Hemsley, Kevin Norris, Vernon Jennings, John Salmons and big man Constantin Popa also developed into outstanding contributors under Hamilton.
Among the FSU newcomers, Callier is the only Sunshine State product, and he's about as raw as they come. The St. Petersburg native has played only one full year of organized basketball, but it was a rather impressive one. He had a fabulous season in 2001-02, starring for George Junior Republic (GJR) in Pennsylvania. After spending three years in and out of schools and struggling academically, Callier found a home at the all-boys school that specializes in handling juvenile delinquents.
Callier's season was highlighted by GJR's 58-57 win over recent Sports Illustrated cover boy LeBron James and St.Vincent-St. Mary High School in Ohio. Callier had 14 points and 11 rebounds in the contest, which was played in front of more than 7,000 fans. He also blocked two shots from James, the rising high school senior and future NBA star.
"LeBron James is the best player in the country," GJR coach Bob McConnell said, "but when it comes to pure athleticism, Benson is just as athletic as LeBron."
Acting on a tip from brothers Anthony and Pat Lawrence, former Florida prep stars who played for Hamilton at Miami and helped Callier get his high school career back on track last year, the new FSU staff viewed some tape of Callier's performances and offered him a scholarship immediately. Callier, who will turn 20 in January, signed without even taking a campus visit.
"I don't think there is any question that Coach Hamilton was the biggest reason Benson chose FSU," GJR coach Bob McConnell said.
Thornton, a 6-8 scorer from Perry High in Georgia, represents that rare player who can hurt opponents inside and outside. The lanky forward creates matchup problems with his ability to nail the outside shot. He was named MVP of the Georgia North-South and Georgia-Tennessee all-star games.
Also courted by Kentucky and Georgia, Thornton has been called the best-kept secret in the Peach State, and his talents aren't limited to the hardwood. The rangy athlete also was a top receiver at Perry High, and he still talks occasionally of wearing the pads for the Seminoles some day. One caveat: Thornton still needs to post a qualifying score on the SAT or ACT before he can play any sport at FSU this fall.
In addition to signing a pair of top-notch athletes, Hamilton focused his attention on the Seminoles' most glaring need: point guard. With Arrington's eligibility finally exhausted, the position demanded a quick solution. The new FSU staff reportedly offered scholarships to Daryll Hill (St. John's) and Ricky Clemons (Missouri), two more players with checkered pasts, but both decided to go elsewhere. Then Johnson, who spent last year playing for Hamilton's pal Smith at Moberly Community College, decided to sport the garnet and gold next season.
"He's an all-around player and extremely unselfish," Smith said. "I think he will do well in the ACC."
Especially if Thornton qualifies, Hamilton will deserve a lot of credit for somehow pulling together a solid recruiting class, something many thought was impossible this year and an achievement that eluded Robinson in his first three seasons at FSU.
A lack of in-state recruiting success certainly affected Robinson's eventual demise. Operating just a couple of hours down the road from Tallahassee, Billy Donovan snatched up several of the Sunshine State's top prospects (Ted Dupay, Udonis Haslem, etc.), then used them to beat the Seminoles in each of the past four seasons by an average margin of more than 20 points.
Unlike Robinson, Hamilton already possesses strong recruiting connections in Florida, probably one of the reasons he jumped at the FSU job and turned down other opportunities. (He reportedly was contacted about the Wake Forest job, among others, last year.) Dating back to his days at Miami, Hamilton has formed relationships with high school coaches up and down Florida's coasts.
Hamilton also has assembled a recruiting-savvy coaching staff, in hopes of competing against Donovan and others for Florida's top seniors. Only three days after taking the FSU job, he hired assistant Tony Sheals, who once coached in basketball-rich Polk County. A number of talented players reside in the county, including soon-to-be NBA first-round pick Amare Stoudemire.
Hamilton also will have the advantage of showing off a brand-new $10 million practice facility, scheduled to open this summer, to future recruits. The facility, similar to the one Florida opened two years ago, stands alongside the Leon County Civic Center. It's far away from the old practice court, which was located beneath Doak Campbell Stadium.
As Kennedy did with some success years ago, Hamilton is selling an up-and-down, fast-paced, high-scoring brand of ball. It's similar to the type of game Donovan has used to lure players to Gainesville. In the past, many top prospects were turned off by Robinson's old-school style of offense, which produced the league's lowest scoring averages in each of the past two seasons. In 2001-02, FSU failed to score more than 50 points on four separate occasions.
So far, Hamilton's approach seems to be paying off. Many of the top juniors in the nation, including several from Florida, suddenly are listing FSU as a possible landing spot.
Akini Adkins, a 6-9 power forward from Tallahassee who is ranked among the top 75 prospects in the Class of 2003, is interested in the Seminoles. So is Adkins' AAU teammate, Chris Richard, a 6-9, 240-pound post prospect from Kathleen High School in Lakeland. (Sheals coached there from 1984-90.) Richard recently took an unofficial visit to Tallahassee. Another talented in-state big man, 6-9 Wesley Green of Eustis High, witnessed the Seminoles' 77-76 upset of No. 1 Duke on Jan. 6 and continues to mention FSU prominently.
Importantly, the returning Seminoles also seem excited about playing for Hamilton. When a program is struggling, sometimes the news of a coaching change alone is enough to initially restore some excitement back into the team. When that coach has legitimate NBA experience, well-documented college success and was once hand-picked by Michael Jordan (for the NBA's Washington Wizards) himself, it can have an even more significant effect. Accordingly, the news of Hamilton's hiring on March 19 renewed interest and instilled hope in the faltering program almost overnight.
"To get a guy with NBA experience," forward Anthony Richardson said, "right away that gets everybody's attention."
Hamilton reportedly was even able to convince all of the returning players to remain in Tallahassee over the summer, something that never occurred during the Robinson era.
In less than three months, then, Hamilton has laid the groundwork to land strong recruiting classes in coming years and signed three players who could significantly contribute this season. His players seem to have re-committed themselves, and FSU basketball fans actually are looking forward to the upcoming season.
It's still early, but things definitely appear to be turning around in Tallahassee.
Correspondent Andrew Skwara also contributed to this report