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Joe Hall’s intervention led Hamilton back to coaching

Leonard Hamilton was 26 and ready to retire as a college basketball coach. He indeed turned in his resignation and had moved on from Austin Peay with the goal of getting into sales.

Hamilton is reflective in sharing a deeply personal story on Monday morning. On Saturday, Hamilton lost his friend and mentor in Joe Hall, who hired him to be an assistant coach at Kentucky in 1974. It was a phone call and an interview that changed Hamilton’s life and gave him a second chance to coach the sport, one that just days earlier he had left behind.

“Joe Hall rescued me from a mistake, an emotional mistake,” Hamilton recalled. “You have to have emotional intelligence. And I was emotionally ignorant at that moment in time. It could have cost me my coaching career. I go from being discouraged to the top. And that’s divine intervention.”

Now 20 years into his career as Florida State’s head coach, the pain is still real as Hamilton is at times choked up and at others explains in detail how he grew up but also how he was denied an opportunity. And how he reacted to it.

Hamilton was a very good basketball player at Gastona College and Tennessee Martin before becoming an assistant coach for Austin Peay. He recalled helping to take over a program that finished last and captured two conference titles in three seasons. When the head coach, Lake Kelly, took another job, Hamilton thought he was ready to step in to that role.

The president of Austin Peay, Joe Morgan, a man Hamilton knew well and respected, told the young coach he was retiring in two years and that politically he could not hire a black man to lead the men’s basketball program. Emotions came roaring back.

“It was like somebody stabbed me,” Hamilton said. “Every time I think about I get emotional because I thought that I was ready. I thought that I had earned it.”

Hamilton may have thought he had earned it but instead he wouldn’t even get the chance to interview. It felt too familiar of how he grew up, seeing his parents work hard, his neighbors work hard but not having a chance for a better life. “I grew up with that pain,” Hamilton said. 

He soon resigned from Austin Peay and intended to move to another city in another state and leave the profession entirely.

“I had watched my mother wash dishes at this restaurant that I couldn’t eat in and drinking at the colored water fountain and the colored bathroom, riding in the back of the bus, sitting up in the balcony, not being able to sit in certain restaurants,” Hamilton recalled of growing up in Gastonia, N.C. “I just got to the point where it discouraged me. And I lost my focus for a moment. But the stars were lined up.”

Hamilton recalls the days: The conversation with Morgan on Wednesday, resigning Thursday, moving out Friday, going to work at Dow Chemical in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday. Coaching was briefly behind him and Hamilton was determined to achieve success in his new career.

“I just felt that going and selling chemicals, something that people needed, that I would just work my butt off and use the same principles I’ve grown up with that I would be measured by direct consistency of my productivity,” Hamilton said. “And that’s what I wanted, I wanted to be judged by how well I succeeded. And if I could not be a coach, then I would be the best chemical salesman.”

While he was staying at a hotel in Charlotte, not even having the chance to find an apartment, Hamilton checked in with the hotel and his wife and learned that Hall had left messages. Hall wanted to meet Tuesday afternoon. It was Monday afternoon. Hamilton booked a flight for Lexington, Ky., that evening and met with Hall the next day.

When both men wrapped up their discussion, Hamilton asked if Hall had anything else he wanted to discuss. Hall said no. Hamilton then delivered a final message.

“Nobody will outwork me, I’ll be loyal, I won’t ever get you in trouble and you have players. But if you’re not going to offer me this job, I want to go back to Charlotte, and I want to be the No. 1 chemical salesman in the country,” Hamilton said. “And I went back to Charlotte with the intentions of being a chemical salesman for the rest of my life.”

Hamilton might have been good in sales. But his heart was in coaching. Hall made the call a few days later, extending a job offer to Hamilton. In his excitement, Hamilton offered one of the more hilarious resignations to a Dow executive.

“I was so excited I couldn’t remember my boss’ name,” Hamilton explains of the note he left on a desk. “I said, ‘To whom this may concern. I resign my position effective immediately. Thank you very much for the opportunity, Leonard Hamilton.”

Hamilton was back in the car, headed to meet his wife and get to Kentucky. And then back on the road to recruit. In 12 seasons, the Wildcats went to three Final Fours and won a national title in 1978. Hamilton later went on to become the head coach at Oklahoma State, Miami and the NBA’s Washington Wizards before landing at FSU.

But the path began with some emotional conversations, a wrong turn and then discussions that changed Hamilton’s life as well as those of his family and hundreds of his players through the years.

“I was supposed to be at Kentucky,” Hamilton said. “That’s where the stars lined up. And I had a great, great relationship with Joe Hall. So I go from being emotional and trying to get out of coaching to the No. 1 winningest program in the history of college basketball. Joe Hall, obviously, was the guy who gave me that chance.”