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March 9, 2012

After 10 years, Hamilton has FSU among league's elite

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Toting a level of consistent success that's never been seen around these parts before, Leonard Hamilton leans back and laughs about his program's new distinction.

Well outside the beltway of basketball-crazed Tobacco Road and the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference, with an archaic arena at a university where hoops has long been considered a distraction between football and spring football, Hamilton has turned Florida State into the third strongest program in the league.

A decade into his tenure in Tallahassee, Hamilton, who stands as the second-longest tenured coach in the conference, has greatly changed the trajectory of the program. This season, Florida State won 12 ACC games, tying for the most ever. The Seminoles will make a fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Only the league's torchbearers, Duke and North Carolina, have won more ACC games than FSU (70) in the past seven seasons. Hamilton was even named the ACC Coach of the Year on Tuesday, the second time he's won the award.

But even with all of the new territory, the distinction, being No. 3, isn't one that Hamilton is ready to accept.

"If we as a staff would just be happy with going to the NCAA Tournament and developing enthusiasm - we're just foolish enough to think, why can't we be No. 1?" said Hamilton, the only coach in history to win coach of the year honors in the Big East and ACC. "Why do we just have to be happy with competing?

"So we won 10 games four years in a row and we're going to the NCAA for the fourth time, but if that's all we want, I guess we can start enjoying it. But I haven't taken time to reflect on those accomplishments because the cake is still in the oven."

Hamilton has cooked up a winner in 10 seasons, taking a dismal program with no semblance of success to what you see today, a Big Dance regular that will be a No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament in Atlanta for the second straight season. It will take on the winner of the Miami-Georgia Tech winner game at Philips Arena on Friday night.

"They're legitimately one of the top teams in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said last month. "Florida State, I'll just tell you they are good as anyone we play."

The Rebuilder

FSU Athletics Director Dave Hart fired Steve Robinson after the 2001-02 season and went looking for a proven program rebuilder. Florida State had lost all life from a strong run in the early 1990s, only winning a combined 46 games from 1997-2002 and sporting an awful 22-55 record in ACC play.

Enter Hamilton, who had previously reconstructed at Miami (1991-2000), leading it to three NCAA Tournaments and its first NCAA bid since 1960, and Oklahoma State (1986-90) before one dismal season as head coach of the NBA's Washington Wizards in 2001.

To Hart, Hamilton seemed like the perfect fit.

"I liked very much his passion, his energy and ability to recruit, and specifically, he had proven he could rebuild a program," said Hart, now the athletic director at Tennessee. "Leonard's work ethic is terrific, and he's very, very methodical in the way he goes about his task. He's a bulldog when it comes to his desire to get it done and get it done right."

Hamilton had to see past the program's many shortcomings. The team sat at the bottom of the cutthroat ACC, where the program was being outspent by institutions that coveted hoops. Attendance was scarce. And recruiting would be no easy task - not only are you battling proven, prestigious ACC teams for quality talent, but North Florida is hardly considered fertile territory for high school prospects.

And while he fielded inquiries from healthier programs with more support, better recruiting areas and ones that were structured for quicker growth, Hamilton said he took only one phone call.

"Of all the jobs that we're available, this is the only call I accepted. And if they had not offered me the job, I would have waited another year (for the right fit)," Hamilton said. "I felt that this was a challenge that I felt was important to me. We like to be in situations that have not been consistently where they need to be. That's what I find motivating, stimulating and appealing. That's what we do.

"It might have been easier and maybe more fun to go somewhere where they had the brand new arena or located somewhere in close proximity with a lot of different players, but that's not what motivates us."

Stan Jones, Hamilton's longtime top assistant, says it's Hamilton's upbringing through the game that shaped his affinty for program restorations.

"He's always had to be a guy that has proven himself. He's not been a guy who has made it because of his bloodlines as a player or because some coach was looking out for him," said Jones, who has been Hamilton's assistant at Miami (1995-2000) and for all 10 years at FSU. "He's always been a guy that has realized that if I don't get it done, no one is going to help me get it done. He's always been driven by challenges. Challenge is something that motivates him, drives him, fuels his energy."

A tough road

Rebuilds rarely come easy, and the road here wasn't smooth for Hamilton and his program. Things like injuries, a plague of narrow defeats and surprising early entries to the NBA draft have hiccuped Hamilton's plans before and they did again in Tallahassee.

Florida State was on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and missed three straight times from 2006-08, losing 11 ACC games by three points or less or in overtime in that span. He had players like Von Wafer and Alexander Johnson leave prematurely for the pro game. His team suffered through untimely injuries.

With that, Hamilton says he was discouraged only once in a decade at FSU. The moment came in 2006 when Florida State, on the brink of making the NCAA Tournament in Hamilton's fourth year, lost a controversial overtime game at Duke 97-96. Blown calls by the officiating crew - most notably a technical foul on the 6-foot-10 Johnson, which ejected him from the game early in the second half - were bad enough that the league suspended the crew for three games.

But suspending officials did nothing for Florida State's tournament resume. A ticket surely punched with a road win at Duke turned into the first of three straight NIT trips. FSU's 9-7 league record wasn't enough.

"I thought we were sneaking up on people (in 2005-06)," Hamilton said. "That's one of those basketball demons that raised their ugly head that you can't really do a whole lot about. That probably was the one single thing that discouraged me or disappointed me more than anything that we had to overcome.

"Going to the NCAA Tournament in Year 4 and winning at Duke would have opened up a lot of eyes and it would have put us a little ahead of schedule and I thought we were a little ahead of schedule with that."

The schedule didn't change. Johnson left early from a team that seemed destined to break through, an after back-to-back 7-9 ACC records the next two years, it became three straight NIT invites and no NCAA's for the first six seasons under Hamilton. At that point, many fans and boosters were calling for Hamilton's job.

"I had people express their disappointment, saying Leonard has been here six years and hadn't been to the tournament and they ask me if I thought it was time for a change," Hart said. "When you evaluate coaches, you have to understand what they inherited. I think every coach understands, you've got to make progress between the lines of competition, they understand that. The question is, what is that timeframe? What Hamilton inherited was going to take some time to rebuild."

Former FSU guard Ralph Mims, who played on all three NIT teams, remembers hearing whispers of Hamilton on the hot seat while finishing out his college career in 2007-08.

"We're going to games hearing everybody talking about trying to get rid of Coach Ham. We didn't listen to any of that," Mims said. "It was very hard to grasp and understand. Every time we felt like we knew we needed a win or needed to win by a certain margin, to prove something to the NCAA to prove we were contenders, we did our best to try and prove that. What kept us going year after year, was that we were this close."

"To me, I'm experienced at not allowing any of those types of comments or questions or doubt that people have to deter me. That's part of the process," said Hamilton. "(The hotseat talk) never bothered me at all whatsoever, because I knew we were doing all of the right things. The truth of the matter is that when you're building programs, we all want to win, the coaches, the players and I felt like the kids were giving us effort and all of the above. Through all of that we kept focus."

'Time to turn it up a notch'

Florida State would stick with Hamilton and the program would turn the corner, going 10-6 in ACC play in 2009 and making the first of what will be four NCAA tournaments once the 2012 bracket is released this Sunday.

Florida State, which couldn't sniff postseason play a decade ago, is coming off a Sweet 16 season in 2010-11 and is now in position for at least a top five seed in next week's NCAA Tournament. Hamilton fueled success through recruiting first, having eight players drafted by NBA teams since 2004. Only Duke and UNC has provided more draftees in that time.

"(Hamilton) is going to turn over every rock and try to find a guy who's going to help us win, whether that's a McDonald's All-American or a guy in the military," Jones said. "He's a grinder who is going to look over here, look under there until we find someone to help us be competitive in this league. That's been the whole story in his career, you've got to find a way.

"It's easier to get people to at least answer the door now."

Florida State is also winning the close games compared to its bubbly past. It went 4-1 in ACC games decided by a possession or less this season.

Players are also graduating; all six seniors will earn undergraduate or graduate degrees after this season.

Staying the course is now paying off.

"A lot of progress was being made for us to be knocking down the door before finally Leonard and his staff kicked the door down. And they haven't looked back since," Hart said. "Once he burst through that wall, we felt that there would be some really good times ahead and that's basically what's transpired.

"I don't think Leonard gets enough credit."

"By us going through all of that adversity, I think it has brought Florida State basketball to where it is now," Mims said. "We still have the same coach, the same staff, the same old gym and complex, but we have guys who are buying in. Ham is an underdog coach. It feels good to be the underdog and overcome the obstacles."

Junior guard Michael Snaer, who has hit two game-winning shots to win ACC games this season, has known nothing but success since he was recruited out of California.

"Just watching the talent that he had and was bringing in and listening to the things he wanted to I could see where he was taking this program and you could see the culture changing in front of your eyes. Now (Hamilton) has proven it," Snaer said. "I felt like I could win with this type of team and not only that but do something special that nobody has been done.

"North Carolina has won plenty of national championships. Florida State doesn't have one. Who wouldn't want to be part of that history? That's what the coaches sell to us and who wouldn't be part of that?"

The string of success is unprecedented, but its sustainability won't come without more impediments.

According to Equity in Athletics data from the 2009-10 season, the FSU men's basketball program took in an ACC-worst $5.76 million in revenue. Florida State spent $5.16 million on its basketball program, ranking fifth in the league and paling in comparison to ACC-leading Duke's $12.3 million war chest. Despite a Sweet 16 run last season, FSU reported only $5.1 million in men's basketball revenue.

Florida State also lacks in facilities. The 11 other arenas in the ACC have either been built or undergone major renovations since the Donald L. Tucker Center was constructed in 1978, giving the Seminoles the oldest facility in the league. The men's team also shares a practice facility with the women's team, an almost extinct practice in the arms race of ACC basketball.

Then of course there's the brute strength of Duke and North Carolina, programs that profited almost three times more money in 2009-10 than FSU spent.

Those issues will only make it more difficult for Florida State to push the elite aside in the ACC. But when times have been tough, Hamilton continues to make no excuses. He maintains focus on the cake that's still in the oven - bringing his team to the top of the league.

His team can get a taste of the top in Atlanta this week.

"Now it's not time to start taking bows, it's time to turn it up a notch," Hamilton said. "To not let anything distract you. To see how far we can build this with what we've got. And we didn't allow ourselves to be distracted when we were not where we wanted to be, the worst thing we could do is allow ourselves to be distracted now that we're getting close to where we want to be.

"We'll take our bows when we accomplish something. Getting better is not what we're here for. We want to be the best."



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