By Bill Vilona,
Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal
November 11, 2002 TALLAHASSEE His office on this day was decorated with balloons, ribbons and placard greetings, which added more glitter to Leonard Hamilton's workplace inside Florida State's palatial new basketball facility. Hamilton seemed oblivious.
It was early August. Another birthday had passed him by. Hamilton had no time for cakes, candles or celebrations, so his secretary and support staff ensured the coach was reminded. Appropriately attired in a warmup suit, Hamilton already was dialed into a season that was three months from starting.
If we are to get where I want, then I've got to approach things this way, he said. I'm totally committed. Totally focused. I know what it's going to take. This is who I am. I spent a year away from it all, but I realized how much I missed it. I realized I'm just a basketball coach.
The Seminoles, of course, are hoping he is much more. No, check that. It's more like pleading, praying for him to weave the magic they hope can surge this bedraggled program from the basement to the luxury suites.
This is like the Renaissance period, because it's like we've been born again, junior forward Michael Joiner said. It's like night and day. I walk around town, go to class, and people are actually coming up to me saying how excited they are for basketball season. Those are words I've never heard before here.
After nearly a decade of doldrums at FSU, earmarked by empty hopes, empty seats and hollow perceptions, the 53-year-old Hamilton is suddenly the biggest man on campus. He was hired March 19, while the NCAA Tournament was in full swing, to revive a comatose program that was never more removed from a postseason experience under Steve Robinson.
The other teams and fans in the ACC knew it well. They saw it with the library crowds, talent deficiencies and embarrassing defeats. Florida State had become the team you loved to play, whether at home or on the road.
We're going to change that, Joiner said. I really believe we're going to surprise people this season. I've never felt better about this team.
After four losing seasons, and bottom-rung finishes in the ACC, the Seminoles are in a trench. They will begin the season Nov. 24 (Savannah State) without their top four scorers from last year.
Three of those starters, point guard Delvon Arrington, wing guard Antwuan Dixon and small forward Monte Cummings, were seniors who used their eligibility. The fourth player, center Nigel Dixon, was encouraged to leave after he requested a redshirt season.
The 6-10, 350-pound Dixon never could have gone through the fast-paced practices Hamilton has installed, or the motion offense he wants to run. Instead, the Seminoles hope lean seniors Mike Mathews and Trevor Harvey can handle the post area. They also hope freshman Todd Galloway, the lone early signee from Robinson last year, and junior college transfer Nate Johnson, lured by Hamilton, can run the offense at point guard. These are the two biggest position issues Hamilton faces.
Look for Joiner to return to the form of his freshman season, when he played with confidence and was among the league's top newcomers. Anthony Richardson, the only McDonald's All-American ever signed by Robinson, also could blossom this year.
There have been moments in practice where guys have made enough plays to give me an idea of what their potential will be, Hamilton said. We have only 10 players on scholarship (plus five walk-ons). We have very little room for error. In order for us to win games, we've got to win them by committee. I think we have enough pieces that if it's in-sync and working together, it could be more effective than what people might think.
Hamilton has no illusions. He knows the Seminoles must get better talent before they can compete every night in the ACC.
We haven't done anything yet. We're still ranked the ninth-best team in a nine-team league, Hamilton said. We think we can be a little better than some people think we're going to be, but that's where we are now. We have a chance to go out and earn respect. You don't have to be concerned with where you are predicted or what people say.
Hamilton is used to beating the odds. He was born and raised in Gastonia, N.C. He came from humble surroundings. But don't think he's just glad to be coaching in the ACC. Don't think it's his dream come true.
He won't be kissing the floor at the Dean Smith Center or gushing with reverence at every stop on Tobacco Road. He'll readily tell you the Big East, Big 12 or SEC the three other major conferences in which he's worked are just as basketball-passionate and talent-filled as the ACC. He said he never had a favorite ACC team, but followed the league's heartbeat through radio and occasionally attending some games.
I guess I grew up more as a complete fan of college basketball, Hamilton said. I enjoyed going to games at Catawba and High Point College as much as I did watching North Carolina, (N.C.) State or Duke. I just loved all of college basketball.
After a failed season as coach of the Washington Wizards (19-63), he realized how much he missed it. He spent last year in Miami, recharging his passion, following his amicable dismissal from the Wizards in 2001.
This summer, Hamilton and his new staff moved into a three-story, $10-million practice and training facility, which houses both the men's and women's programs. It's adjacent to the Leon County Civic Center, which is going to get some cosmetic changes to further enhance FSU's presence as the primary tenant.
The practice facility with state-of-the-art electronic and video resources, a massive weight room, oak-wood lockers and two parquet floors built with shock-absorbing materials underneath has been declared the finest of its kind. Former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian took a tour and said he had never seen anything like it, even at the NBA level.
Hamilton likes it, too. It's just one of the many reasons he looks at the success Florida State enjoyed under Pat Kennedy and Hugh Durham and knows it can happen again.
I believe we just need to rekindle the fire, Hamilton said. I'm not real sure we have to cut the tree down, dry the wood and start a fire. I think we just have to rekindle it. There is a lot of rich tradition that exists in our community, and a lot of basketball fans here in Tallahassee.
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