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Leonard Hamilton

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

No black athlete had ever played basketball at Gaston (N.C.) Community College and Tennessee-Martin … until he did. No black coach had ever served on the basketball staff at Kentucky … until he did. Nobody in more than three decades had led Oklahoma State into the postseason in back-to-back years … until he did. Nobody could possibly win at Miami, a program with no conference affiliation, no on-campus arena and an average attendance of 2,094 … but he did. Nobody sleeps for only four hours a night … but he does. Go ahead and tell Hamilton he can’t win at Florida State. He’s already working very hard to prove you wrong. By Michelle Kaufman, Miami (FL) Herald
May 14,2002

The skeptics tell Leonard Hamilton that Florida State is a football school, that as long as Bobby Bowden is around, nobody will pay attention to anything Hamilton does.

 They tell him that no matter how hard he works to build basketball tradition, it will be very hard for the Seminoles to ever truly fit in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Maryland.

They should know better than to challenge Hamilton, the 53-year-old coach hired in March to replace Steve Robinson. Nothing lights Hamilton's fire like a challenge.

"I've been told I can't do things all my life," Hamilton said. "The very things that normally discourage people from taking jobs have a tendency to fire me up."

They told the Gastonia, N.C., native that no black player had ever made the basketball team at Gaston (N.C.) Community College. He became the first.

They told Hamilton that no black athlete had ever played basketball at Tennessee-Martin. He became the first, at the same time a young woman named Pat Summitt was playing at the school.

They told him that Kentucky doesn't hire black coaches. He became the first, a full-time assistant at age 26.

They told him he'd be nuts to move to Stillwater, Okla., and take over an Oklahoma State team that hadn't been to back-to-back postseasons in 32 years. Four years later, the Cowboys were headed to their second consecutive NIT appearance.

And then, on April 2, 1990, Hamilton really raised eyebrows when he accepted the job at Miami-Florida, a fledgling program with no conference affiliation, no on-campus arena and an average attendance of 2,094. Ten years later, the Hurricanes were thriving in the Big East, dancing in the Sweet 16 and recognized for having one of the most suffocating defenses in the nation. In 1997-98, the Hurricanes ranked No. 1 in the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 37.9 percent shooting.

NBA Results: Setback, Break

About the only time the skeptics were right was in May 2000, when they questioned Hamilton's move to the Washington Wizards of the NBA. Though the money (guaranteed $2 million a year) was certainly impressive, they asked: Why leave the cozy confines of Coral Gables, where college players revere you like a father and administrators pretty much stay out of your way? Why take on a lowly, overpaid Wizards team that many coaches wouldn't touch? Why join the cut-throat world of NBA coaching and enter a market where fans are questioning your credentials even before you arrive?

At the time, Hamilton said those questions made the job more alluring.

"People might not believe this, but the biggest reason I'm intrigued with this job is not the money or (then-Wizards general manager) Michael Jordan," Hamilton said. "The reason I'm intrigued is the challenge. When people tell me I can't do something, when I hear people question whether I can handle pro players, that makes me want to do it more."

In this case, his drive and tireless work ethic weren't enough. He realized almost immediately upon taking over the Wizards that there were obstacles beyond his control; that the idea of making a team feel like a family didn't necessarily work in the NBA; that multi-millionaires weren't as receptive to advice as college kids; and that fame and fortune are not really why he got into coaching.

Hamilton and the Wizards parted ways after a 19-63 season, and he took last season off "to re-charge my batteries."

He went into his hiatus with an open mind, thinking maybe he'd direct his energies to something other than coaching. Fat chance.

"That time off made me realize how much passion I have for coaching," he said. "As the season went on, I was getting more and more antsy. I was not able to enjoy watching games. I'd be coaching every possession, every play, it was torture. It became apparent to me and my wife (Claudette) that I was miserable. I missed not being involved with the kids, with the coaches, with the competitive nature of the job.

"There was no doubt I had to get back to being a ball coach."

Now he is back where he is comfortable, on the recruiting trail and on a college campus. And he excited about the prospect.

"FSU and Miami are similar situations in that both programs needed some fixing up, but they're different because I feel this program is a little further along as far as things like facilities, and they have some tradition," he said. "At least I know we're in the ACC. They have a fan base here that needs to be rekindled, but if we put a good product on the floor, I believe people will come.

"This is more of a college town than Miami, with FSU, FAMU and Tallahassee Community College, so it lends itself to more of a college atmosphere. If the football and baseball teams can be good here, why not basketball?"

Revisiting The Miami Method

Those who know him have no doubt he will turn things around at Florida State.

Former assistant coach Dwight Freeman, recently named head coach at Norfolk State, said of his former boss: "Leonard brought UM from conception to maturity. He went through the pain of pregnancy and labor and the pain of giving birth. And he was the one to nurture it and feed it along the way.

"He did it without the perks that other universities have. He did it without fans and without facilities and without tradition. Nothing but Leonard Hamilton. As assistants, we were selling Leonard more than the university."

The master recruiter wasted no time working living rooms once he accepted the five-year, $3.87 million contract from FSU on March 19. The Seminoles lost their three leading scorers – Monte Cummings, Delvon Arrington and Antwuan Dixon – and there was work to be done.

Though the timing of his hiring put him behind most other programs he was competing against, that didn't discourage him.

"We got in so late, everybody had already been dating, getting engagement rings and setting the date," Hamilton said. "We were trying to break up relationships.

"I was like the man standing in back of the church at a wedding when the preacher asks to speak now or forever hold your peace. I'm hoping the bride is having second thoughts about the commitment she's about to make. I've got the car running in front of the church, hoping she'll jump in."

Three days after landing the FSU job, Hamilton hosted a Miami reunion of sorts, hiring Stan Jones as associate head coach and Mike Jaskulski as an assistant. Jones, hired away from Mississippi State, spent five seasons under Hamilton with the Hurricanes and another with the Wizards. Jaskulski, the head coach at Towson for the past four years, also served five seasons on the Miami staff. Their break-through signee (in 1995) was top-25 Miami prep prospect Tim James, who became a first-round NBA draft pick and joined shooting legend Rick Barry as the only basketball Hurricanes to have their numbers retired.

Within a few weeks of Hamilton's hiring at FSU, the Seminoles snagged Benson Callier, a St. Petersburg, Fla., native, away from Auburn, Cincinnati and Xavier. Callier, primarily a street baller with only one year of organized basketball experience, is considered a diamond in the rough by the few recruiting experts who have seen him play. The new FSU staff also signed Al Thornton, a 6-8 prospect from Perry, Ga., who also was considering Cincinnati and Georgia, and second-team junior college All-American point guard Nate Johnson.

Hard Work Beats Hard Times

Hamilton, whose late father (Big John) was a truck driver and whose mother (Bennie Ruth) worked in a convalescent home, resurrects college basketball teams with sweat. Lots of sweat. He learned to work early, growing up the oldest son in a house with no running hot water in Gastonia, N.C. He cleaned pools and did other odd jobs to make money. As a player at Highland High, he stayed in shape by running hills with weights tied around his ankles.

The older he got, the more he worked.

This is a man who nearly was hospitalized for exhaustion after suffering nose bleeds, blurred vision and chest pains while an assistant at Austin Peay. This is a man who routinely calls assistant coaches between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

The coach, with the bulging Rolodex and a telephone permanently attached to his ear, rarely shows evidence of his four-hour-a-night sleep habits. He did slip up once, a few years ago. The Hurricanes were in a team meeting reviewing a game video. Hamilton had his finger on the fast-forward button and dozed off.

"All of a sudden, the whole tape is going fast-forward, and the kids are trying to figure out what's going on," former UM assistant Scott Howard said. "We turn around and Coach is sleeping, his finger on the fast-forward."

How driven is Hamilton? Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall said: "Leonard recruits for relaxation."

Hamilton says of himself: "Nobody will ever outwork me. Aggressive is a mild description of the passion I operate with."

Recruiting Passion Pays Off

How aggressive? He once coyly extended a recruiting trip at the Brooklyn home of James "Fly" Williams by setting back the living room clock every time Williams' mother, Annie, went into the kitchen, so she wouldn't realize how late it was getting. Fly was in upstate New York and wasn't due home until morning. Hamilton, 22 at the time, was determined to see the kid in person. So he schmoozed his way through the night and was still on the couch at 7 a.m. when Fly got home.

Williams was expected to choose between Houston and UCLA. After meeting Hamilton, he opted for Austin Peay. He led the nation in scoring as a freshman and led the team to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

In 1974, Hamilton was hired as a Kentucky assistant, the first black coach in the program's history. Though he says Hall never told him he was there to recruit black players, Hamilton understood he could play a key role in integrating a program that excluded blacks during the 42-year tenure of legendary coach Adolph Rupp.

"I came along at a time when integration was just picking up steam," Hamilton said. "But the transition was smooth for me, because I recognized the arena I was in and what I needed to do to contribute to what I considered a very important task – to help, in some small way, the improvement of a social problem we had in those days."

Hamilton quickly earned a reputation as one of the nation's top recruiters, and he was promoted to associate coach in 1980. During his 12 years there, the Wildcats won eight Southeastern Conference championships, went to three Final Fours and won the 1978 NCAA title.

Twenty-three of Hamilton's recruits were drafted by the NBA, including Mel Turpin, Kenny Walker and Winston Bennett, the first Louisville kid ever to flee to Lexington. Cardinals fans still haven't forgiven Hamilton for wooing Bennett to enemy territory.

"Nobody could hold a candle to Leonard when it came to recruiting," said Oscar Combs, the founder and long-time editor of The Cats Pause, a fan magazine. "He had a human side that appealed to the players. It's very difficult to be one of the guys and be a father figure, too, but Leonard did a great job of toeing that line."

Bumpy Road Offered Lessons

Hamilton was 26 when Hall hired him. He had been out of coaching for a week, after quitting Austin Peay in a huff when the president of the university couldn't assure him he would replace Lake Kelly as the next head coach. Hamilton was convinced the reason was that he was black, and he vowed never to coach again. He took a job as a salesman for Dow Chemical in Charlotte, N.C., but didn't last two weeks.

"I was impulsive and immature," Hamilton said, in retrospect. "I was young, and maybe reading into things too much as to why I wouldn't get the job. It didn't occur to me that I was 26 years old with no head coaching experience."

Not all of his days at Kentucky were happy ones. In October 1985, the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series that quoted 26 Kentucky players as saying they had received improper gifts from boosters. The NCAA investigated and scolded the university for not cooperating with the inquiry, but it didn't find enough evidence to penalize the program.

Though Hamilton was not mentioned in the NCAA findings, his name came up in the newspaper series. One former Wildcat said Hamilton encouraged him in 1977 to seek a specific booster if he had money problems. It is a subject the coach doesn't discuss, except to say it taught him a valuable lesson about the pressures of college sports and dealing with the media.

"I wasn't part of any wrongdoing," Hamilton told the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat. "I don't even like to respond to stuff like this because a response justifies the questioning. My life is an open book, but make sure you check your records."

Despite his busy schedule, Hamilton always has found time for church and family. He has rarely missed a Sunday service, and often loads up his car with his players on the way to church. He says if he weren't a basketball coach, he'd be a gospel singer.

Though he laments not spending more time with his wife, Claudette, and children, Lenny, 31, and Alison, 17, he always has taken good care of his loved ones.

As a 21-year-old graduate assistant at Austin Peay, Hamilton legally adopted his teenage brothers Willie and Barry, his sister Pam and his nephew Larry. His father had left the home, and Hamilton wanted his family to feel like there was somebody in charge.

He carries that same paternal instinct to his job, where he treats all of his players like sons, ensuring they grow as people and earn their degrees. According to information provided by Hamilton, 33 of the 40 players he recruited at Kentucky and Oklahoma State earned their degrees. In his 10 years at Miami, 26 of his 30 seniors graduated.

As he begins his tenure in Tallahassee, Hamilton realizes there will be bumps.

"Change isn't always easy," he said.

But for Hamilton, it's always fun, and worth the ride.

Michelle Kaufman, a sportswriter for the Miami (Fla.) Herald, covered Miami basketball during much of Hamilton's 10-year tenure with the Hurricanes.

For more facts and stats about Leonard Hamilton, click here.