FSU's Hamilton 'forever grateful' for former boss, mentor Joe B. Hall
Two days after hearing the news, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton was still coping with his emotions following the passing of former Kentucky head coach Joe B. Hall, who died Saturday at the age of 93.
Hall led Kentucky’s second storied run to prominence from 1972-1985, winning the 1978 NCAA championship, reaching three Final Fours and claiming eight SEC regular-season titles.
Hamilton, who joined Hall’s staff in 1974 at a pivotal moment in his career, remained at Kentucky until leaving to be the head coach at Oklahoma State in 1986 after Hall retired. The two remained close friends through the years, and during his meeting with local media Monday, Hamilton reminisced about the pair’s first interaction in ’74 and what Hall’s belief in him meant to his career.
“This was a tough weekend for me personally, obviously losing my friend Joe B. Hall," Hamilton said. “Joe Hall obviously was the guy who gave me that chance. I am forever grateful.”
Hamilton started his coaching career in 1971 at Austin Peay and was so successful as an assistant under Lake Kelly that he started hearing talk -- and reading reports in the newspaper -- that he would be the top candidate to replace Kelly whenever the time came.
But when he went in and talked to then-university President Joe Morgan about that possibility, Hamilton was devastated to hear that Morgan didn't think he would be able to handle the political pressure of hiring a black man to be the school's head men's basketball coach.
Hamilton was so upset that he decided to leave the business in 1974, and he accepted a position in sales for Dow Chemical.
“You don’t know what it's like going through that era, being raised in an environment where every available day in your life, you are trying to figure out how am I going to make it?" Hamilton recalled on Monday. "How am I going to overcome what appears to be obstacles, that it's hard to figure out how you are going to be successful.
“You can very easily accept the way things are and it kind of beats you down. I had a weak moment when I felt, ‘Why am I beating my head? Why am I working so hard?’ And it looked like I am not going to have the opportunity to be head coach. I don’t even know, at 26 years old, what made me think that I was ready. Where did that confidence come from? But I really felt that I was ready.”
Looking back on it now, nearly 50 years later, Hamilton admits that he probably had unrealistic expectations to be a head coach at his age. But he can't change how he felt at the time.
“In my mind, I didn’t look around the country and see there were very few black head coaches, period,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think there was anybody 26 years old being a head coach. But in my mind, I thought that I had earned it. But I also thought I was ready mentally. I was extremely confident.
“When I went in to to talk to President Morgan – and believe me, he was a wonderful man and I had a great relationship with him – and when he told me that he was retiring in two years, and he thought that politically he wasn’t strong enough for me to be the head coach ... that just hurt. I overreacted. It was like somebody stabbed me.
"Every time I think about it, I get emotional, because I thought that I was ready and I thought that I had earned it."
Thinking that his basketball coaching career was a dead end, Hamilton said, he was determined to become the No. 1 chemical salesman in the United States. He moved from Tennessee to Charlotte, N.C., and started work at Dow the next week.
“That was an emotional roller coaster I was in. I was hurt, disappointed. The pain was just unbearable," Hamilton said. "And I had grown up with that pain. I had watched my mother wash dishes at a restaurant I couldn’t go to and eat in. Drinking from the colored water fountains. Colored bathrooms. Riding in the back of the bus. Not being able to go to certain restaurants and eat.
"I just got to the point where it discouraged me and I lost my focus for a moment.”
That's when a phone call from Joe B. Hall changed everything.
One year earlier, Hall's Kentucky Wildcats had narrowly defeated Austin Peay in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 106-100. And Hall was very impressed by the team Hamilton helped put together and how that team was prepared and coached.
“When I look back at it, the stars were almost lining up,” Hamilton said. “It was like everything I was doing was pointing me to Kentucky, but I didn’t even know that that was my destiny."
It became clearer when Hall called the hotel Hamilton was staying at in Charlotte on a Monday.
“He wanted to know if I would be interested in considering an assistant position on his staff,” Hamilton said, explaining that Hall asked him he could be in Lexington for an interview by Wednesday.
Hamilton booked his own flight for later that day.
“Coach Hall said, ‘You don’t mess around, now do you?’” Hamilton recalled with a smile. “And I said, ‘No Coach, I try not to.’”
The two spoke for nearly three hours the next day, and Hamilton was offered the job less than a week later.
The opportunity not only changed Hamilton's life, but the lives of countless players who have been coached by him over the last 40-plus years.
On Monday morning, Hamilton again was moved by Hall's gesture. And he was eagerly waiting for details about services for his friend and mentor, with hopes that he would be able to pay his respects in person.
“I go from being emotional, trying to get out of coaching, to being at the No. 1 program in the history of college basketball," Hamilton said. "I just wanted to be judged by the merit of my work.”