When his Florida State Seminoles face top-ranked Duke on Jan. 12, Leonard Hamilton will have a chance to win his 541st game. He's lucky to have won one. A brilliant career that will likely end up with his enshrinement in the College Basketball Hall of Fame almost never happened.
The Beginning It all started when a young Hamilton left his poor North Carolina neighborhood for the University of Tennessee-Martin. He was the university's first black men's basketball player in 1969. His outgoing personality and high level of confidence helped him in his efforts as a player at UT-Martin. When he had finished his four years, Hamilton's plan was to join the Marines Corps.
His career took a different path when he was offered an assistant coaching job at Austin Peay. Young, married, and with one child; Hamilton took the job. It would be the second chapter of his life in basketball.
The Big Question Hamilton had helped Austin Peay head coach Luke Kelly take the Governors to two straight NCAA tournament appearances in 1973 and '74. Because of the success, Kelly began to attract some attention from some bigger programs around the nation. Hamilton, who was now 26 years old, decided that he had a question for the university president.
Hamilton walked into the office of Joe Morgan, president of Austin Peay, and asked him the big question. “If Kelly leaves, will I be the next head coach at Austin Peay?” It was a bold move, but the type of thing that Hamilton did all the time. Unfortunately, Morgan told Hamilton that he was retiring soon and making him the first black head coach in the Ohio Valley Conference was something he simply couldn't do.
Chapter Three When Hamilton learned that there was no way he would be the next head coach at Austin Peay, he decided to quit. He took a job as a salesman for Dow Chemical and was prepared for a career as a businessman. He probably would have been pretty good at that too, but a phone call changed that as well.
Kelly called an old friend – Joe B. Hall, the Kentucky head coach – and told him that Hamilton was too good of a coach to let walk away from the game. Hall called Hamilton and interviewed him on the phone. He offered Hamilton a job as an assistant at Kentucky immediately. Hamilton left the job at Dow Chemical and the rest is history.
A Winner His stint in Kentucky got him the head coaching job at Oklahoma State in 1986. In four years, he turned the Cowboys into a winner and took them to two NIT appearances. That led Hamilton to Miami, a program that didn't even exist in the 1980s. It took a few more years, but the late 1990s Hamilton had built an NCAA tournament contender. His last Hurricane team tied for the Big East crown and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
Hamilton has been at Florida State since 2002 and has won 62 percent of his games. His Seminole team last year went 23-12 overall and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. It's the closest Hamilton has come to a Final Four and a national title.
This year's Seminoles are off to a 13-2 start and Hamilton's team is ranked No. 13 in the latest AP poll. A win over Duke would help Hamilton make a statement in 2019. Hamilton has actually made plenty of statements throughout his 30-plus-year career. He'll likely continue making them too, and to think it all could have ended if not for a single phone call.