Coach Leonard Hamilton: ‘The Worse the Program, the More I Became Interested’

Coach Leonard Hamilton: ‘The Worse the Program, the More I Became Interested’

Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

You quit coaching when you were told Austin Peay would not hire a Black head coach, right?

It wasn’t quite like that. I went to talk to the university president when I thought Coach (Lake) Kelly might leave to see if there was a chance I could replace him. He said he was retiring in a couple years and nothing would make him happier than for me to be the coach at Austin Peay. Politically, he said he didn’t know if he was strong enough to get it done. He was being honest with me, but that cut my guts out.

So you quit?

I got a job at Dow Chemicals. My first day on the job, I got a call from Joe Hall (the Kentucky coach), who had become aware of me because we almost beat them. Near the end of my interview, I said, “I’m going to tell you four things: I’ll be loyal to you, nobody will outwork me, you’ll have players, and I won’t get you in trouble. But if you’re not going to offer me the job, I’m going to go back to Charlotte and be the No. 1 chemicals salesman in the country.”

You spent 12 years as an assistant at Kentucky (winning the 1978 championship with the team), but your head coaching jobs have been at places that were not exactly blue bloods. Oklahoma State hadn’t won an N.C.A.A. tournament game in more than two decades; Miami had recently resurrected its program 15 years after dropping it; and Florida State had always been a football school. Is that a coincidence?

As an assistant coach, like most young coaches, I was dreaming. I wanted to be somewhere that had good facilities, was in the vicinity of good players and that had won. I wanted to find one of those good, cushy jobs where I could really go to work. But then it’s almost like God slapped me on both sides of my face and said, “Those programs don’t need you.” It was almost like a vision — if you’re going to make a name in this business, you’re going to have to go somewhere that is extremely challenging. The worse the program, the more I became interested. That would be a way for me to earn my stripes.

How much did your upbringing in Gastonia, N.C., prepare you for that, having to make do with less?

There were eight of us living in a two-bedroom house. Our bathroom was on the back porch, there was no hot and cold running water. I took my bath in a tin tub. Everybody in our neighborhood lived that way. This was an era when we were still drinking out of a colored water fountain, using a colored bathroom, sitting in the back of the bus. We lived 30 or 40 yards from my church — Mount Zion Baptist, at the corner of Allison and Morris, where everybody is somebody and Christ is all. I could hear the piano from our back porch, and if the doors were open, we were there. It gave me a moral compass. All of those circumstances, even the negative part of segregation, prepared me mentally. It gave me a toughness, a desire, a will to fight and a determination to try to overcome challenges.

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