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Small Steps Create Hamilton Security

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

March 25, 2005

TALLAHASSEE — Florida State basketball coach Leonard Hamilton's seemingly firm grip on his job, despite six seasons without leading the Seminoles to an NCAA Tournament berth, is perhaps the best example that perception is not always reality.

FSU president T.K. Wetherell publicly maintained his support of Hamilton throughout the 2007-08 season, backing up the two-year extension he offered the veteran coach in November. While the status of that contract — which was not executed properly because of a clerical error — remains in question, Hamilton's immediate future does not.

He will be back for the 2008-09 campaign, welcoming six newcomers from yet another top-10 recruiting class. That will come on the heels of a third consecutive NIT appearance, the fourth under his six-season watch.

Make no mistake, the Seminoles have made progress since Hamilton succeeded Steve Robinson. Over the past three seasons, FSU has compiled a 61-38 record, including 23-25 in ACC play. That's an upgrade from his first three seasons, when the Seminoles went 45-48, 14-34 in conference action.

But in this era, when anything short of making the NCAA Tournament threatens to render a program irrelevant, how long can Hamilton keep his job?

Since the NCAA field was expanded to 40 teams in 1979, no other ACC coach has survived more than five seasons without leading his team to the tournament. Heading into his seventh year, Hamilton is in rarified air, not only in the conference but nationally.

FSU is the only program in the ACC that has failed to get to the NCAA Tournament in the last six seasons. Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami, which had struggled comparably, all have been to the tournament once in that time.

Comparing FSU's drought nationally does not reflect well on Hamilton, either. Of the six major conferences, only eight of the other 72 schools have failed to get to the NCAA Tournament in that span.

So why has Hamilton, despite the protests of a fan base that could best be described as tepid, been able to press on? There are several reasons:

* FSU has flirted with tournament berths in each of the past three seasons, only to be undone by injuries (Toney Douglas in 2007, Isaiah Swann and Solomon Alabi in 2008), a rash of narrow defeats, and an outright snub in 2006 despite a 9-7 league mark.

* Hamilton runs a tight ship. His players have graduated or are on track to do so, they stay out of trouble off the floor, and they conduct themselves in a manner that keeps the administration happy. Those who don't conform to his demands have regularly been shown the door.

* While many of Hamilton's loudest critics have suggested that he does a poor job on game days, there is little doubt about his and his staff's strength in player development. They helped transform Al Thornton from a lightly recruited, raw athlete into an NBA lottery pick. Graduating seniors Jason Rich and Ralph Mims turned in career-best seasons while bearing the burden of an undermanned squad.

One of Hamilton's greatest strengths, however, is his ability to sell his vision for the program he called a "fixer-upper" when former FSU athletic director Dave Hart plucked him from the unemployment line after an ill-fated, one-year stint with the NBA's Washington Wizards.

Hamilton has impressed the boosters with the way he's worked with his players off the court. It's not uncommon for him to put those players in front of booster groups in social settings, where they have been taught to look people in the eye, speak up and engage them in conversation.

Building character is no small accomplishment, especially when you're at the helm of a program with a modest pedigree.

Hamilton's savvy is undeniable. In athletic director Randy Spetman's first month on the job, Hamilton invited him on a recruiting trip to a nearby junior college, where he is monitoring one-time signee Jon Kreft. Remember, Kreft is the 7-0 center whose scholarship was rescinded following his arrest for cocaine possession. If nothing else, Hamilton earned chutzpah points for getting Spetman to join him for the 45-minute drive to see Kreft play.

For the record, Spetman has said that he will take his time when it comes to evaluating the FSU coaching staffs.

Clearly, there is a statute of limitations on the goodwill Hamilton has built. He knows it, and he said as much after the Seminoles were bounced by Akron at home — before 2,380 fans — in the opening round of the NIT.

"We don't have the luxury of bringing these freshmen along slowly," Hamilton said, discussing his incoming class.

So how long does Hamilton get? Miami stood by him before he delivered the Hurricanes their first NCAA berth in year eight.

The educated guess is that he might get that long in Tallahassee, as well. After all, it's hard to imagine a get-to-the-tournament-or-else ultimatum next season, when he's turning over nearly 50 percent of his roster and must put the ball in the hands of any one of three first-year point guards.

Hamilton, who is approaching his 60th birthday, is intent on making FSU his last coaching stop. He's worked tirelessly to build the program in the wake of Robinson, who served as a change-agent but failed to bring in enough talent to compete nightly in the ACC.

These Seminoles compete on a relatively even plane with their ACC brethren, and privately Hamilton hopes that an influx of players with talent and improved basketball IQs will help the team clear the final hurdle.

The clock is running. But it's clear that FSU's administrators operate at a different pace, and with greater patience, than some of their contemporaries.


Fifth-year senior quarterback Drew Weatherford has some work to do this spring to hold off challengers for the starting job.

FSU offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher made that abundantly clear with his words and actions as spring practice got under way.

Weatherford split first-team repetitions with rising sophomore Christian Ponder in the first mini-scrimmage, but it was Ponder who produced the only two offensive touchdowns.

Afterward, Fisher praised both QBs but added that he intends to get additional reps for third-teamer D'Vontrey Richardson, who is taking part in his first spring practice. Richardson, the most athletic of the trio, spent last season playing baseball for the Seminoles.

"I want the competition," Fisher said. "(Ponder has) practiced well, he's done well, he's ready to play, he knows what's going on. I think he's ready to compete and to play in a game."

Ponder, whose eyes are on the prize, understands that this is the spring when he must make his move. Heralded recruit E.J. Manuel, Fisher's handpicked successor to the throne, will arrive on campus this summer.

"Drew has all the experience," Ponder said. "I have to do things on my own to overcome that. I have to play within my abilities, the strengths that I have. I need to get in the film room and do all that stuff. That's all I can do right now."

The first-team reps have bolstered the confidence of Ponder, whose lone appearance last season came in a one-sided loss at Virginia Tech after Weatherford was knocked out.

"If I didn't get with the (first-team), it doesn't come across as it being open," Ponder said. "It's helpful."