Spring 2021 Magazine

Coach Leonard Hamilton builds Florida State basketball program, seeks God in Gospel music

Syracuse forward Elijah Hughes’s 25-footer clanged off the rim as time expired, allowing Florida State to escape with an 80-77 home ACC basketball victory on Saturday afternoon.

>> Subscribe to Sports Spectrum Magazine for more stories where sports and faith connect <<

The win improved the Seminoles’ record to 21-4 on the season and put them a game behind Duke for first place in the ACC. Florida State is ranked No. 8 in the country with six games remaining, and earlier in January the team cracked the top five for the first time in nearly 50 years. This 2019-20 Seminoles team is one of the best in school history.

For years, FSU has been known for its trademark defense, toughness and length on the interior. And for years, the Seminoles have been directed from the sidelines by coach Leonard Hamilton.

Hamilton, now 71, took over as head coach for Steve Robinson in 2002 after a stint in the NBA with the Washington Wizards. Florida State was coming off four consecutive losing seasons, yet Hamilton slowly righted the ship and built the program into a national power. FSU has qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments — including each of the past three seasons — since Hamilton reached his first with the Seminoles in 2009. It is all but certain that the current team will extend its postseason streak to four this March.

If Hamilton returns for a 19th year in 2021, he will be the longest-tenured coach in Florida State basketball history. He is already considered by many to be the most successful. He is the winningest coach in program history and the first Florida State head coach to win an ACC Tournament (2012). Twice he has earned ACC Coach of the Year (2009, 2012) to add to the two Big East Coach of the Year awards he won in 1995 and 1999 as the coach at Miami. He was on the Kentucky coaching staff that won a national championship in 1978.

As a head coach now, Hamilton’s success in the regular season has translated to the postseason. FSU has won at least one game in each of the last three NCAA tournaments, including advancing to the Elite Eight in 2018 and the Sweet 16 last year.

A program often overlooked before Hamilton arrived is now one to be reckoned with. With his quiet consistency and calm sideline demeanor, Hamilton has become synonymous with Florida State basketball. He has left a mark on the program that will be felt for years to come.

Hamilton has successfully navigated the many stresses of big-time college basketball, and on those rare opportunities when he does have a moment to relax, he turns to Gospel music. He even has a small record label to promote his hobby.

“It’s not as much an income producer for me as to try and provide people with access to opportunity and hopefully help them do what I feel like is important to them — spreading the Word, spreading the Gospel,” Hamilton said in a 2018 press conference before the Sweet 16. “Having an opportunity to express themselves in song has always been a part of my life, and I always try to work hard to encourage other people who want to do that.”

Hamilton said his faith in Christ developed at an early age in Gastonia, N.C. His family ensured that he stayed involved in church activities.

“I grew up in the Church,” Hamilton said during the press conference. “That was kind of a way of life for us. Sunday school, BTU, vacation Bible school, choir practice, Easter programs, Christmas programs, Easter egg hunts, all those things were part of who we were and what I’ve become as an individual. So the Church has always been a very important part of my life. Going to church and worshiping has been a very important part of my life.”

Hamilton and his 21-4 Seminoles will next take the court on Tuesday at home against Pittsburgh at 8 p.m. ET.

RELATED STORIES:
Baylor coach Scott Drew focused on faith as team remains No. 1
Temple College coach Kirby Johnson merging faith into basketball
Marquette’s Howard sets Big East career scoring record, playing for purpose
MAGAZINE: Florida State baseball coach Mike Martin is seminal skipper
NEW PODCAST: Kelsey Plum – Las Vegas Aces WNBA Player