FSU assistant Young talks Hamilton's program, legacy, respect, validation
It was the best story I never wrote.
About four years ago, shortly after the Florida State men's basketball team signed one of the best recruiting classes in school history, I sat down for interviews with every member of the Seminoles' coaching staff -- and a few members of the support staff -- to chronicle what appeared to be an amazing turnaround.
At the time, Leonard Hamilton's program had missed three straight NCAA tournaments, so there were some frustrations growing in the fan base. Yet there also was a great deal of excitement because Hamilton and his staff had just landed an extraordinary recruiting class -- headlined by future NBA draft picks Dwayne Bacon, Malik Beasley and Terance Mann -- and they had a future NBA lottery pick, Jonathan Isaac, already committed to come one year later.
So what I hoped to do was gain some insight into how they pulled off that impressive run in recruiting, and also provide readers with a behind-the-scenes look at Hamilton's entire program. And sure enough, the interviews were all outstanding.
Associate head coach Stan Jones shared the story of how Leonard Hamilton hired him away from a high school in Mississippi when Hamilton had an opening on his staff at the University of Miami. (Jones later recounted that story and others during an interview with Warchant last May.)
Assistant coach Dennis Gates opened up about wanting to be a head coach and appreciating the way Hamilton prepares his assistants to lead their own programs by allowing them to take ownership in every aspect of the program -- from evaluating prospects during recruiting to preparing scouting reports and game plans. (Gates has since left to become head coach at Cleveland State, but before he took that job, we wrote about the way Hamilton groomed him for that position.)
Of all the interviews, the most indelible to me was the conversation I had with assistant coach Charlton "C.Y." Young. We talked about growing up in Miami, about him nearly playing for Hamilton with the Hurricanes, about his decades-long relationships with Stan Jones and Dennis Gates, and some of his philosophies about life and sports. One of Young's most interesting comments that day was how convinced he was that Hamilton was going to one day lead Florida State to a national championship.
It came following an observation I made about seeing former player Terrance Shannon in the basketball offices a few weeks earlier. Shannon, if you recall, had left FSU following the 2013 season, with one year of eligibility remaining. He transferred to Virginia Commonwealth for his final season, which left a significant hole in the Seminoles' frontcourt -- the 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward would have been a fifth-year senior, and he possessed a good deal of starting experience.
So it wasn't exactly an amicable divorce. FSU wanted him to stay, and he chose to leave. Which is why I was surprised to see him back on campus just a couple years later.
But during our conversation, Young explained that not only did Hamilton welcome Shannon back, but he even worked to help him apply to grad school and to find a job. Hamilton refused to turn his back on his former player, even though one could make the case that Shannon turned his back on him.
“He’s one of my babies. We’re going to take care of him," Young remembered Hamilton saying, when others asked about Shannon being around the program.
Young continued: "Any other coach in America if Terrance Shannon transfers, you know what they’re going to say when he shows back up? Take your (butt) back to VCU. But that is why J. Leonard Hamilton is eventually going to win a national championship. That’s why he’s going to win it all.”
Young believes that is really what separates Hamilton from just about every other coach in America. Yes, he's a great recruiter. Yes, he's got a great basketball mind (more on that later). Yes, he is resourceful and taps into decades' worth of relationships across this country and beyond. But what makes Hamilton truly special, according to Young, is that he possesses all of those traits AND he is in coaching for all the right reasons.
Because he treats everyone in the program -- from star players to equipment managers -- as if they are members of his family. It's why parents want their sons to come play for him. It's why players and staff members buy wholeheartedly into his vision. It's why guys like Bacon, Beasley, Mann and Isaac were signing with FSU in spite of the program's recent struggles.
After Young explained why he was so confident FSU would win a national championship, I brought the topic up to each of the other coaches on staff. And none of them backed down from that talk. They all said they believed FSU could win it all.
Now, granted, every coaching staff is going to say their goal is to win a championship. But I was surprised by how strongly the Seminoles' coaches believed it. Especially when you consider they hadn't made it to the NCAA Tournament in three straight years.
So after conducting those interviews, as excited as I was by how insightful they were, I decided to hold off on the story for a little bit. I didn't want to write it right at the start of the season because I figured many fans would have rolled their eyes at the audacity of it, considering the program's recent struggles. I decided to wait until the 'Noles picked up some wins and early season momentum -- and buzz started to circulate around their talented freshman class.
Unfortunately, that never happened. The team experienced chemistry issues right off the bat, with older players struggling to take a lesser role behind Bacon and Beasley, and the Seminoles would lose two of their first six games. Then after reeling off some non-conference wins in December, they started ACC play at 0-3.
FSU would finish that regular season with a disappointing mark of 18-12 overall and 8-10 in the ACC. The 'Noles would fail to make the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year, and I ended up never writing that story. It just never felt like the time was right.
I did find opportunities to revisit some of the material -- in the aforementioned interview last year with Stan Jones and in that feature on Dennis Gates. But I never really found the opportunity to revisit that interview with Charlton Young.
I thought about it two years ago when they made it to the Elite Eight and again last year when they went to the Sweet 16. But for one reason or another, it never happened.
Earlier this season, I sat down with Young after a Florida State victory inside the Tucker Center, and we talked about some of the same topics from earlier. But we also delved into how Hamilton is perceived by some fans and media, how the Seminoles' program has changed thanks to the success of the past few seasons, and why he believes FSU is positioning itself to not just win one national championship, but maybe multiple national championships.
While it still seems audacious to write something like that, is it really that unrealistic?Think about the success FSU has enjoyed over the last three seasons. They've made it to the Round of 32 once, the Sweet 16 once and the Elite Eight once.
Last season, they reached the championship game of the ACC Tournament by beating No. 1 seed -- and eventual national champion -- Virginia by 10 points in the ACC semifinals. The Seminoles were the last team to beat the Cavs that year, and one of only two to do it all season (the other was a Duke team featuring three of the top 10 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft).
Heading into this Wednesday's home game against Virginia, FSU is 14-2 on the season, 4-1 in the ACC and ranked No. 10 in the country. The Seminoles have already gone on the road twice and beaten top-10 opponents in their own gyms, both by double-digits.
Dating back to last season, the Seminoles have won 16 of their last 18 regular-season ACC games. And suddenly, national basketball analysts are suggesting that Florida State is one of maybe three teams in the ACC that have a legitimate chance to win the regular-season conference title.
But as you'll get a sense from this interview, the mission is nowhere near complete.
For all of Florida State's success under Hamilton, Young still believes the Seminoles' head coach deserves much more recognition than he gets. He points to the fact that FSU started this season unranked as just one more sign that the Seminoles aren't afforded the respect given to other teams who have accomplished less in recent years. And he explains why he wants so badly for J. Leonard Hamilton (yes, he almost always calls him J. Leonard Hamilton; the J. stands for James) to win a national championship and solidify his resume for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Without further adieu ... and about four years after the original interview ... here's my more recent conversation with Charlton Young.
Q: I wanted to go back to when you joined the Florida State staff in 2013. You had been head coach at your alma mater, Georgia Southern, for four years and were kind of fired abruptly -- one year after being named conference coach of the year. (Young led GSU to a 12-6 record in the Southern Conference in 2012, but was let go after going 7-11 one year later, shortly after a new athletics director came on board.) How did you wind up on Leonard Hamilton's radar?
A: Our relationship goes back to when I was 19 years old. You know, when I was a player, I almost left Georgia Southern and transferred to the University of Miami. He got the job there the year after I signed, and I was the rookie of the year in our conference. So I was home playing in the Goya League in the summer, and people around town were all telling me, "You need to come home and play for this new guy. He's unbelievable!" But the U was terrible back then. They had no arena. They played their games in the James L. Knight Center, where Cameo (and other musical groups) played.
I went to Georgia Southern, and at the time, they had Jeff Sanders and Mike Curry -- two pros. (Sanders was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, and Curry went on to play more than a decade in the NBA.) I went and played pick-up with them, and they had better players than Miami. So I signed there. My schools were South Florida, Colorado State, Tulane, Miami and Georgia Southern. But if J. Leonard Hamilton had been at Miami in '88-'89 instead of '90-'91, I would've signed with him.
So he knew me when I was 19 and heard about me from the summer league. And when I first got into coaching, he would always mentor me, and I would help him whenever I could with players. I was working for him before I was even working for him (laughing). He talked to me about coming when I was at Georgia Tech, and he told me not to take the Georgia Southern job. He told me, "Wait, and I'll be able to pay you more as an assistant here." But I wanted to get HC on my name so bad.
But God works in mysterious ways. It didn't work out for me, but I love everybody there. I'm not mad at anybody. I love Georgia Southern University still. And if I ever get rich, I'm going to give them a whole lot of money. I love them -- that's my university. I've got blood, sweat and tears on that floor. I can't get rid of them, and they can't get rid of me. But then getting the opportunity to come to Florida State was huge for me, and I have a tremendous amount of pride in seeing where we have gone to during these last seven years.
Q: Back before you guys went to the Elite Eight and did what you did last year, you already thought Florida State could be a national championship contender. You've been ranked in the Top 10 each of the last two years -- and three of the last four -- so it doesn't seem so crazy now. But where did you get that vision back then? And how were you guys able to sell that to players?
A: I always thought that J. Leonard Hamilton had the blueprint for elite-level basketball. Defend, rebound, run the ball down people's throats, and depth -- wear people down with depth. I just believed so much in our defensive principles. When I came here, I had been doing this for 26 years, and I worked for the great Hugh Durham, who coached here. I worked for Cliff Ellis, who was at Auburn and Clemson and is now at Coastal Carolina. I was associate head coach for John Shulman at Chattanooga, and I worked for Rudy Keeling at Northeastern, and Paul Hewitt, who took Georgia Tech to the national championship game.
And I played (at Georgia Southern) for a guy who was well-respected in college basketball by the name of Frank Kerns. So I had seen six different ways of building a program and coaching a team, and all of those guys were really good. I've been blessed -- there were a couple of Hall of Famers in there. These guys aren't no slouches. These are high-level coaches. And I felt like among all those, the guy who was clearly the best and had the best feel was J. Leonard Hamilton.
All those guys might have been better in one certain area, but I'm talking about head coach, CEO, a man who stands for something. He's a guy who has principles -- defensive principles that we live by -- that make us a consistent winning program. So I just thought if we could add a little more talent -- just a little more -- to these principles, we could win it all. Because I knew what Coach Hamilton could do with his defensive principles.
For example, when I was at Georgia Tech, we played North Carolina and Tyler Hansbrough, and he had 40 against us. He came to Tallahassee and they held him to 8 points (in 2009). That was probably the worst performance he had in college basketball. Since I've been here, think about the guys that have come in here and left like that. Grayson Allen? Dennis Smith? Spida (Donovan) Mitchell, who is with the Utah Jazz? Jayson Tatum came in here ... just OK. So the stuff we are doing, it's for real. And if we buy into it, and we stick to our principles, and we add an influx of a little more talent, I knew we could get this rolling. (Claps hands) Then 2015 happened, and you're bringing in Bacon, Beasley, Mann, Koumadje, Isaac, Forrest ... these guys are bros.
Q: But not only did you guys start getting more talent, but you've kind of reinvented what Florida State basketball looks like on the offensive end.
A: That's all Coach Hamilton. He came in one day and said, "Fellas, the game has changed. The days of just having plodders out there are over. We need to recruit different. We need to play to it. Guys are more skilled. The floor is open." He wanted to evolve. He brought that to us, and it's been really really good.
Q: What does it say about him being able to adapt and change things so drastically on offense this late in his career?
A: He's a genius. We're playing so much faster. Before, we played slow. And you know, the knock against him in recruiting was, "If you go to Florida State, you're gonna win games in the 50s. The same thing happened to Tubby Smith at Kentucky. I know because when I was at Georgia Tech, I used to kill them with that. I called Thaddeus Young and said, "Tubby Smith is a great man. High character. He's gonna win. But if you want to be one-and-done, it's going to take you eight years to get to the league (laughing)." I said, "They've got Arkansas tonight. You're going to think I'm a psychic. It's going to be 58-54. And if you were hoopin,' you might score eight points." Thaddeus Young called me and said, "Hey Coach, they won (the game was in the 60s). Dang Coach, you're telling the truth." (Thaddeus Young signed with Young and Georgia Tech.)
So to be able to play the way we've played these last four or five years, we've been one of the top three scoring teams (in the conference). So now, there's no reason not to come here. They try to say, "Oh, they play too many people. Tou can't be one and done." Our sixth man (Mfiondu Kabengele) went 27th in the draft. He almost went between 12 and 14 -- came this close to being a lottery pick. He never started a game for us. So once you see that, you don't need to get emotional about it. Just read the data. We are the third-winningest program in the ACC, and we're putting guys in the league.
Malik Beasley, Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, Kabengele, Terrance Mann, Okaro White. That's not naming the other guys who are playing in Europe. So you can't argue with the system. So once we got guys like Bacon and Beasley and Isaac, now we got guys calling us. I told J. Leonard Hamilton, "Coach, we're not trying to win a national championship. We're trying to win multiple ones." If Florida can win back-to-back national championships in Gainesville, Fla., we can do it in Tallahassee, Fla. And we're close. See, two years ago, if we beat Michigan (in the Elite Eight), then we've got Loyola-Chicago in the next round. Coach, we're in the national championship game.
Q: And then last year you guys had such bad luck with Phil Cofer's father passing away during the tournament and David Nichols getting injured.
A: You can't tell me if everything doesn't happen with Phil's father, we're not getting to the Final Four. So our kids had to watch Virginia and Purdue go to the Final Four. Now the kids are like, "Coach, we should be there! We smacked both of them. We should be in the Final Four." So it's one thing for us to sell it. But when the kids see that these are the teams that are going -- and then Virginia wins it -- our kids are sick, because they know what we did against Virginia in the ACC Tournament. And that team won the national title.
So now they know: You've gotta get there, you've gotta get a little luck, and you've gotta handle yourself like an elite program. I told J. Leonard Hamilton, "You've been fighting your whole life. You're at the top of your career. Why would you quit any time soon? We've got this thing on automatic. We're getting bros, and we're going to keep getting them."
When Bill Belichick wins the Super Bowl, he goes right back to the office to work on going back next year. You want to be remembered for consistent success. You want to keep getting there. And that's the thing I'm most proud of. The last four years, we've been a legitimate Top 10 program. We were a No. 3 seed, Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen. The kids that are in the program now, their perception of Florida State Basketball is totally different than yours and mine. You and I know Florida State as being a roller coaster.
Trent Forrest, since he got here, all he knows is us being one of the best teams in the country. We been to the tournament every year of his career. So their perception is totally different -- just like the kids coming in behind them. Take Pat Williams. When we were recruiting him, he was like, "Coach, I got an offer from Florida State!" That's how he sees us. Now, we might not be a blue blood, but we're trying to make ourselves a new blood. Michigan State muscled their way in there. We feel like we can muscle our way in there. But we've got to get over the hump. And we're getting close.
Q: So the perception inside the program is totally different than it used to be?
A: Everybody here believes that we can do it here. "Chief" (Hamilton) believes it. Every coach believes it. We recruit like an elite program, we do skill-development like an elite-level program, we game plan like an elite-level program, and we expect to win like an elite-level program. Long gone are the days when Florida State is just trying to get in the tournament. We know we're going to the tournament.
When we lost to Pitt this year, we were like, "That's all right, we'll see you all in the tournament. We'll be there every year, just like Christmas. Don't worry about it." Everybody thought we were dead. Then we go to Gainesville, and we let them know that we're still here. We've got championship residue in the program.
Q: You've told me before that you want to win a national championship for Coach Hamilton. For his legacy.
A: We've got to do it for him. See, I'm hurt and pained by the narrative about him as a basketball coach. J. Leonard Hamilton is a great basketball mind. These people who write that he's a great recruiter but not a great coach, that's (B.S.). Do you realize we finished second in the ACC the last couple years? And do you realize we're playing in the best conference in the history of college basketball? The ACC was great back when I was at Georgia Tech, but then you add schools like Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse? This is the best league in the history of college basketball. So J. Leonard Hamilton has the third-winningest program in the greatest conference in the history of college basketball. ... Now, this isn't me getting emotional. I'm talking about the data. This ain't my opinion. These are facts.
Do you know how many games we won last year? 29 games. How can somebody win 29 games and finish second in the ACC and not be a great basketball coach? Can you help me understand that? How could you say that? How could you form your mouth to say that? Do you know who has coached in this league? All these guys that they say are great X's and O's coaches, but not J. Leonard Hamilton? It's wrong.
Somebody's gotta say that J. Leonard Hamilton is a great basketball coach. They've got to say that. Not because it's my opinion, but because the data says it. J. Leonard Hamilton would never say anything about it, but it drives me crazy. That's why we've got to get him a championship. So we can validate him. We've got to get him in the Hall of Fame.
Q: You've mentioned him getting in the Hall of Fame before. You don't think he'd get in unless he wins a national title?
A: I'm worried. Put him in the Hall of Fame? They don't even want to put us in the Top 25. Think about this right here: Last year, Marquette played Murray State in the tournament and got destroyed. We walk onto the same court a day and a half later and beat Murray State to death. We come back the next year, and Marquette has more votes (for the preseason Top 25) than we do. It's sad. That's why we've got to win it. We've got to win it all. And when we win it, we can't stop.
Q: Usually when a school like Florida State makes a run in the postseason, it's usually because they have one special group of players. When did you realize that you guys could do more than have just one big run?
A: Probably three years ago. The Elite Eight run changed all of us. It changed the kids, it changed the coaches, it changed the recruiting. I think it changed J. Leonard Hamilton.
Q: So how different is recruiting now, compared to earlier?
A: We couldn't even get in the door of some of the guys we were recruiting then, and now they're calling us. You talk about going into Charlotte, N.C., and getting Patrick Williams? But I'll tell you one thing we've also been really good at -- it's sticking to our formula when it comes to finding and developing players. And that's the other thing that makes me upset about how people talk about J. Leonard Hamilton. Look at how guys are improving. Nobody projected Kabengele and Terance Mann as going to the league. Somebody must've been coaching them. So now you've got big-time players seeing that guys get better when they go here. From a player development standpoint, Stan Jones, myself, Coach [Steve] Smith and Coach Gates before him, we're in the gym with these guys.
And we recruit a certain type of kid -- high-character gym rats. And we tell them, "You've got to get better. We know you're good, but you've got to have some humility. As soon as you come in in the summer, we've got to get you better." We're not as interested in the kids who think they're all that before they even get here.
Q: How good have these seven years been for you as a coach? For you individually as a professional?
A: I've learned so much. I've gotten so much better. If I would've come here first before being a head coach at Georgia Southern, I would've been better. Just because of the things I've learned. I would like to think that I've added a lot to the program too, but they have done a lot for me. I've become a much better basketball coach and learned to see things a different way. Learning Coach Hamilton's defensive system and defensive principles has really made me better.
Q: I know you've had opportunities to be a head coach again, but it seems like you're determined to stay here to help Coach get a title.
A: I told him it's like Earth, Wind And Fire. Earth, Wind and Fire never tried to go solo. They stay together. All those other groups, they fall by the wayside because they try to go solo. And Coach Hamilton says, "When the time is right, you'll know." He treats us just like head coaches. He probably gives us too much freedom at times, but he believes in us. And one thing I'll always respect about him is he doesn't want a "yes man." He'll fuss and fight with you, but he'll respect you for it. He won't agree with everything you say, but he'll make you stand on it.
But if you believe in something and you stand up to him, he'll listen. It's just a beautiful dynamic between Coach Hamilton and our staff. Everybody all the way down to the GAs and the managers. That's what makes him so special. He loves every one of us. He's more proud of the student managers that are now coaches and working in the NBA than he is of the NBA players. He takes pride in that. Because of his humility.
The first thing we learn in the Bible is the more you give, the more you receive. He will always be blessed. He will always win. Whether they talk bad about him or not. He is going to always win, just because of his giving spirit and his humility. And they can't do nothing about it. We're going to win the national title. When, I don't know. But we're going to keep knocking on that door until we get there. We are going to win the national title. We're close, and the key is believing. The coaches believe it, the players believe it, and we work like it every day.
Q: The things you were saying about perceptions of Coach Hamilton, do you sometimes feel like you fight the same perceptions? Where people talk about you as a great recruiter more than as a great coach?
A: No question. I've been fighting that my entire career. That's never been the truth about me, but perception becomes reality. But it's just one of those things in our profession that you've got to deal with. There are stereotypes. There are stereotypes in everything that you do. And one of those stereotypes is that African-American men are recruiters and Caucasian men are X's and O's guys. That's not true at all. I feel bad for Stan Jones at times because he's a great recruiter and some people might not realize how well he recruits. He is a well-rounded basketball coach -- a big-time well-rounded basketball coach. So is Coach Hamilton. So again, the only way you can answer the bell is to win it all. That's the only way you're ever going to knock that stigma down.