Jan. 1, 2007
Do you remember when you first heard the term “student-athlete?” The term, “student-athlete” was invented by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to remind the public that college athletes were students first. The NCAA felt it was necessary to remind the public that notwithstanding hundred million dollar television contracts, revenues from bowl games and NCAA basketball appearances and the sale of team jerseys, college athletics were just amateurs competing on the athletic fields when their studies allowed. Sure, and ESPN’s “College Game-Day” annually televises graduation ceremonies throughout the country.
Coach Leonard Hamilton, however, has made a career of winning college basketball games and graduating his players at a rate that far exceeds the national average. During his time at the University of Miami from 1990-2000, Coach Hamilton oversaw 28 of his 31 seniors earn their degree. And since Coach Hamilton arrived in Tallahassee, 19 of 19 Seminole basketball seniors have earned their diplomas. When the national graduation rate of college basketball players is under 60% according to the NCAA, it is no accident that Hamilton’s players regularly earn their degrees. “Our philosophy is to have the highest academic integrity so youngsters do no lose sight of the goal,” says Hamilton. “Our players are 17-22 years old and their time at Florida State will probably shape their future lives as citizens, good fathers and good husbands. The goal is for our youngsters to represent the community and university in an upstanding way.”
Hamilton is quick to give credit to the universities where he has coached. “I have been fortunate to coach at schools that have a strong academic foundation and have supported my philosophy,” said Hamilton. “I have never felt pressured by any university to sacrifice academics or place winning over academics.” Hamilton’s philosophy has not gone unnoticed. In 2000, Hamilton was honored as one of four finalists for the 2000 Coach Wooden “Keys to Life” Award. The award is given annually to a coach who best exemplifies Coach John Wooden’s philosophy of emphasizing the fact that impacting the life of a student is more significant than any winning percentage.
But don’t think that because Hamilton’s philosophy emphasizes academics and character that his teams are not competitive on the court. To the contrary, Hamilton has a reputation of taking over struggling basketball teams and catapulting those teams into post-season play. And it starts with Hamilton teaching his players how to reach their fullest potential. “If we can coach minds, maturity, spirit, and intangibles that are developing our youngsters, the physical body and talent and will follow,” Hamilton says. “Fundamentals are absorbed easier when their minds are working and they are unselfish.” Hamilton’s results are a testament to his proven philosophy.
From Stillwater (Oklahoma State) to Coral Gables (Miami) and now in Tallahassee, Hamilton has consistently led his teams to the top of most every defensive category in the country. As the team defense improved, the wins followed and so did the post-season appearances. In only four years at Oklahoma State (1986-1990), Coach Hamilton took the Cowboys from an 8-20 season to two consecutive NIT appearances.
In 1990, Hamilton left Oklahoma State to take over Hurricane program that was on life support. At Miami, Coach Hamilton’s defensive oriented teams took the Canes to three consecutive NCAA and two NIT appearances in a ten year period from 1990-2000 while being named the United Press International Coach of the Year in 1995 and the Big East Conference Coach of the Year in 1995 and 2000.
And how did Hamilton lead Miami to five postseason appearances when the Canes only participated in postseason play on four occasions in the 40 years prior to Hamilton’s arrival? Fundamentally sound basketball and a suffocating defense. Under Hamilton, Miami was the top-ranked team in the country in field goal percentage defense in 1997-98 holding opponents to only 39.7 percent shooting and the sixth-ranked team in the 1996-97 season as he led the Canes to basketball heights they had never experienced in their history. Indeed, the Hurricanes just recently recognized Hamilton’s successes by inducting him into the University of Miami’s Hall of Fame on May 8, 2006.
Similar to his previous head coaching positions, Hamilton inherited a Seminole basketball team that was mostly occupying the ACC’s cellar. In his first season, Florida State’s defense leaped to the nation’s seventh best team in field goal percentage and to No. 16 in the country in steals per game. The next year FSU led the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in scoring defense and finished 21st in the country in field goal percentage defense. Most importantly to Seminole fans, Hamilton led the Noles to two postseason appearances in the past three years.
The 2006-07 FSU basketball season is complete with promise as many national publications have predicted that FSU will follow-up last year’s NIT appearance with a trip to the NCAA tournament. But nothing comes easy in the ACC. “This year the ACC will be as it always has been,” said Hamilton. “So many games last year were decided by five points or less. The league is so competitive from top to bottom that if you’re not emotionally prepared to play each game, you’re going to have your hat handed to you.”
Although Hamilton’s success as a head coach at the university level is well documented, Hamilton’s legacy extends well beyond OSU, Miami and Tallahassee. Hamilton immediately started to make his presence felt at Gaston (NC) Community College where he was a team captain and scored 54 points in a game setting a school record. Hamilton then went on to the University of Tennessee-Martin where he was also a team captain. He is a charter member of the University of Tennessee-Martin’s Hall of Fame and received the team’s Most Valuable Player Award his senior season. Of course, Hamilton was the team’s recipient of the Best Defensive Player Award, too.
With his playing days behind him, Hamilton began his coaching career at Austin Peay State University where he served as a graduate assistant from 1971-73 and then as a full time assistant from 1973-1974. While at Austin Peay, the Governors won back-to-back Ohio Valley Championships in Hamilton’s last two seasons, including an appearance in the NCAA tournament in 1973.
Following his successful stint at Austin Peay, Hamilton entered college basketball’s big time by serving as an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky. From 1974-1980, he served as an assistant coach, and in 1980 he was honored by being named the first associate head coach in Kentucky basketball history. During his 12 seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats registered a 296-83 (.781) record, won eight Southeastern Conference regular season championships, went to three Final Fours and won the national title in 1978.
Another honor a head coach experiences is witnessing the promotions of his assistant coaches. As such, Hamilton has received many such honors as seven of his former assistant coaches have moved on to become head coaches at the Division 1 level. Included on the list are Tim Carter (Texas San Antonio/current FSU assistant coach), Dwight Freeman (Norfolk State), Randy Lee (Maine Machias), Dickey Nutt (Arkansas State), John Phillips (Tulsa), Bill Self (Kansas) and Pat Smith (Bemidji State).
While Hamilton has certainly been a mentor and inspiration to countless players and coaches, Hamilton is thankful for the people who have helped shape his character over the years. In fact, so many people have influenced Hamilton that he won’t even try to mention them by name for fear of leaving some folks off the list. “I’m a product of my parents and my environment,” says Hamilton. “Like many people, I have been positively affected by people at churches, schools and recreation centers. Since I began coaching, many basketball guys have reached out to help me coach and teach.”
For now, Seminole fans should be thankful that Hamilton has landed at Florida State where FSU hasn’t made an NCAA tournament appearance since the 1997-98 season. Hamilton is also very happy to be in Tallahassee. “Tallahassee is a great college town, the university is supportive and the atmosphere is comfortable, impressive and appealing to youngsters.”
Hamilton’s philosophy has caught on in Tallahassee. Winning basketball and a perfect graduation rate is a slam dunk with Florida State fans.
By Marc Harris