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Hamilton’s journey: Building a program, the hard way, his way

Leonard Hamilton was viewed as a program-builder. Oklahoma State had found little success in the 1960s and 70s before Hamilton had a pair of 17-win seasons from 1988-1990. Miami’s program was cut in 1971, brought back in 1985 and Hamilton took the Hurricanes to three NCAA Tournaments from 1997-2000.

Florida State’s program was in disarray. The Seminoles hired good coaches who produced winning records, from J.K. Kennedy to Hugh Durham, Joe Williams and Pat Kennedy. But Steve Robinson’s five years were a wreck as the 18 wins in year 1 of 1997-98 faded fast and he was out after a 64-86 mark in five seasons.

Hamilton was interested in FSU. And Dave Hart was interested in Hamilton.

“He was the target,” Hart told the Osceola last week. “I flew down to someplace in Florida, I don’t remember exactly where, I spent a day and a half with Leonard just talking basketball, just talking about Florida State, where the program was and where I thought it could go.”

Where Florida State’s basketball program could go was up, because it simply couldn’t get much worse. The rebuild took time but included NIT berths in the mid 2000s, finishing above .500 in 16 straight seasons and recording 12 seasons with 20 or more wins. Hart and FSU’s administration had patience and, in year 8, there was a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2009, the first of eight (not counting the 2020 cancellation) for the Seminoles under Hamilton. Fourth-seeded FSU opens play in the NCAA Tournament against UNC Greensboro on Saturday at 12:45 p.m.

The wins have added up, now at nearly 400 in his FSU career. There have been two frustrating misses this season as the Seminoles lost out on an ACC regular-season title and an ACC Tournament title. And it’s hard not to wonder what the 2019-20 team could have done if the pandemic hadn’t halted college basketball. Hamilton’s resume would only have been stronger with a potential Final Four trip or, as ESPN’s Dick Vitale wrote in his fictional account of the 2020 NCAA Tournament last summer, the feeling that the Seminoles could have won it all.

Hamilton would be viewed as a Hall of Famer while still coaching, especially in what is still the prime of his career.

“I’ve been personally disappointed in how long it has taken for the nation and the basketball communities to realize what a great job Leonard Hamilton has done and what a great coach he is,” Hart said. “He is a Hall of Famer. Without question. And he not only rebuilt the program to a competitive level but he rebuilt it to a championship level.”

Hamilton at some point became more than just a program-builder. He’s enjoying sustained success. He’s doing it his way, not by chasing just five-star one-and-done-to-the-NBA guys (although he has landed those, too). He’s doing it by emphasizing an unselfish we-over-me mindset, recruiting character and emphasizing academics.

‘My journey has been different’

To understand Hamilton’s success we have to grasp that many schools would not hire the Kentucky assistant despite his success there. He was passed over for countless jobs simply because he is black.

When Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner is interviewed before and after the ACC tournament title game, advocating that Hamilton is a Hall of Famer, it’s not coachspeak. In prior years, Pastner said FSU should have a statue in front of the Donald L. Tucker Center to honor not just what Hamilton has done but also how he gets players to buy in to reduced playing time in favor of what’s best for the team.

After a win over FSU in February in Chapel Hill, N.C., Roy Williams gushed: “He’s playing 10, 11 guys all the time. He is a Hall of Fame coach and I feel very honored and blessed to call him a friend.”

At the time, the Hall of Fame voters had not selected finalists (Hamilton later did not make the cut). But when an ACC writer asked Hamilton about Williams’ thoughts, he was reflective.

“My journey has been different than people who have different paths,” Hamilton said. “I’m sitting there one night in the middle of night in Lexington, Kentucky, like most coaches wanting to be a head coach at places that were already well established, who played in facilities with a lot of tradition. I was just dreaming about one day I would have an opportunity to get my own job. And then it’s almost like the Lord reached down from heaven and slapped me on both sides of my face and said, ‘Those well-established, traditional, successful problems with great facilities don’t need you. You need to go and be a part of building something that has been challenging for other people to build.’ And that’s been my attitude.”

But he’s really no longer a builder. He’s elevated FSU to among the ACC’s best teams year after year.

Hamilton joked that he never thought his name would be associated with the Hall of Fame unless it was someone leaving him a ticket at will call for the event. He said he was flattered by the attention, putting him up there with some of the best coaches in college basketball history. He begins to make a comment that feels like it will address wins or win-loss record before shifting gears.

“My number is not going to be the same because I haven’t had that luxury of being in programs that — and I’m not worried about,” Hamilton said. “I enjoy what I do working with youngsters trying to create the atmosphere that helps them prepare themselves for life after basketball. And that’s what I enjoy doing.”

Hamilton has always been drawn to the person, not just the athlete. And it is a different focus than what other coaches may have.

“Coach Hamilton is the most egoless leader I’ve ever been around in my life,” said Stan Jones, who has been an assistant with Hamilton at FSU and Miami. “The only thing coach Hamilton ever talks about is what’s next – what’s the next game, what’s the next practice, what’s the next recruit. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for him. … Internally he knows this has been a really terrific journey for him at Florida State.”

‘Academics is what we do’

Hamilton values the long-term relationships he has had with players. He met them as recruits and helped them through formative years in college as an athlete and a student. A big part of the journey is academics although in a prior interview with the Osceola, one where we focused on FSU’s graduation rate, he seemed surprised by the emphasis and felt it was an expectation for a program — not just at FSU but elsewhere.

Jones said only two players who have spent four years with the program have not graduated. That’s a stunning graduation rate. FSU’s current seniors are on track to graduate, same as the redshirt juniors (RaiQuan Gray, Anthony Polite and Wyatt Wilkes), said Charlie Hogan, who is the Senior Associate Director of Student-Athlete Academic Services for men’s basketball. The Green Squad is full of students working toward their master’s degrees.

Hamilton and the assistant coaches encourage former players to complete their degrees. Solomon Alabi did so in 2020. Hogan says Mfiondu Kabengele could graduate as early as December, and Dwayne Bacon is also taking classes.

“He talks about how getting a college degree can change a familiy’s trajectory,” Hogan said. “Not just the kid. He always talks about his family. He was the first college graduate. After he did it, his brother did it. The family shifted from high school was the end to now college is the expectation.”

Hogan tells another quick anecdote. The NCAA is allowing 34 people per team in the travel party within the “controlled environment” of Indianapolis. He knows many coaches have opted to leave academics staff at home. Hamilton was insistent that a learning specialist make the trip to help with study hall and proctor exams while coordinating with colleagues back on campus. Hogan said Hamilton told him “academics is what we do.”

“Every coach in recruiting talks about academics like it’s a priority but with him it’s reality,” Hogan said.

Building a culture of family

Hamilton has established a culture that isn’t unique but is fundamentally different from other programs. But it’s worthy of replicating, something another assistant, Dennis Gates, is trying to do at Cleveland State. The Vikings just won the Horizon League and played in the NCAA Tournament in Gates’ second season as head coach.

“What I miss most is taking my laptop, sitting in his office and just being a fly on the wall,” Gates said. “I miss those days, but I can still get them and gain them in retrospect with a call.”

FSU’s program has succeeded by embracing fundamentals. Players must be long, athletic and willing to put time into learning defensive principles. Hamilton is also looking for selfless players, those who assistant coach Charlton Young has often called “high character gym rats.”

“I think our coaches recruit unbelievable people before they look at what type of basketball player he is,” said Harrison Prieto, a graduate student and part of the Green Team. “I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why we’re so successful. There’s just good people that have been in this locker room the last five years.”

Young coined the phrase “New Bloods,” and it’s a saying FSU has run with — from players to coaches to social media branding. The term “New Bloods” is catchy and is Hamilton’s way of saying that FSU can’t match up with decades of history of the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Syracuse and others. 

While it’s worth mentioning FSU has had success against the blue bloods of the sport, recruits grow up watching the Seminoles and see it. To us, as media and fans, FSU is a new blood. 

To recruits, FSU coaches have consistently shown they are willing to develop players —Kabengele went from a redshirt season to the ACC’s Sixth Man to a first-round NBA pick — and this season’s team features two redshirt juniors, Gray and Polite, who have taken on significant roles. They have also landed prized five-stars — Patrick Williams said he came to FSU to learn defense to prepare him for the NBA, while Scottie Barnes is making the transition to point guard as he eventually begins his path to the NBA.

Regardless of whether they were a diamond in the rough of a high-end prospect, the coaches have been hands on with player development and can now boast having eight players in the NBA.

The complete package as well as a family atmosphere has created a feeling of home. 

“It’s the whole reason I came to Florida State is to play for somebody like coach Ham,” Gray said. “And obviously be around great guys like Stan Jones, CY, coach (Steve) Smith, and I appreciate coach Gates while he was here. They let you be you. They know what your strengths are, they know what your weaknesses are. They try to help you as much as possible in any way that they can off the court. As far as school-wise and family-wise, they make sure everything’s ok. That takes a load off you obviously … The relationship has gotten stronger, it’s going to continue to get stronger. I appreciate them.”

Culture is a term that is often thrown around in athletics. Easy to state, tougher to define, even tougher to create and sustain. Hamilton has done it at Florida State.

“Outside of basketball I think the most significant thing he has accomplished is the culture,” Hart said. “A lot of people want to talk about culture and some of them probably have to look up the word to define it. Leonard understands culture. They conduct themselves on and off the court with class, they set a great example of what a true student-athlete should be. 

“I just think he’s done a remarkable job, on and off the court, building that program with very little recognition or applause for the job he’s doing. That has finally taken place. And I’ve been so happy to see that take place. And I’m talking about the recognition nationally, what the program is all about.”