Tonight could have been life-changing for Leonard Hamilton, as his team had a real shot at being the last one shown during “One Shining Moment.”
But, we’ll never know.
This year’s version of National Championship Monday just feels like…a Monday.
Atlanta was supposed to be bustling as college basketball’s newest champion was crowned inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Who knows, with this weather they might have even opened the roof. Confetti colored Florida State’s Garnet and Gold could have been blown up-and-down Northside Drive.
The 2019-2020 season will be a year of “What ifs” for many in the sports world, but especially for FSU’s Hamilton — the winningest coach in program history — as this year’s team gave him arguably his best chance to be added to the history books.
“That’s what our plan was,” Hamilton recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We felt from the beginning – and from the end of last year – that we had a team coming back that could compete for the national title.”
At 71, Hamilton won the ACC’s Coach of The Year Award, an honor he took home in 2009 and 2012, as well as in 1995 and 1999 when he was in the Big East. This year he led the No. 4 Seminoles to the ACC regular-season title. They were a lock for at least a No. 2 seed in the tournament, and had a chance of being a No. 1. Hamilton was also a finalist for the Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year award. It wound up going to Dayton’s Anthony Grant, another black coach.
If Hamilton’s Seminoles would have made it to tonight’s game, and won, he would have become the first black coach to win a national title since UConn’s Kevin Ollie did it in 2014. That short list also includes John Thompson (Georgetown, 1984), Nolan Richardson (Arkansas, 1994) and Tubby Smith (Kentucky, 1998).
That matters, especially when you think about the fact that at the beginning of the season there were only 14 black head coaches (18.7 percent) of the 75 programs in college basketball’s six major conferences. And if you only take the Power Five conferences into account, that number drops to 13.8 percent, given that the Big East has five black head coaches. Now compare that to the fact that almost 80% (78.9%) of major-conference scholarship basketball players are black, and you start to understand why coaches like Hamilton, and their accomplishments, are such a big deal.
“When I hang up my whistle, I want to look back and see what kind of neighbors, husbands, fathers, citizens these guys have become,” Hamilton told the Tampa Bay Times. “What are they doing with their lives? Yes, I want to win basketball games, but if that’s all we have done then how are we going to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel we have fulfilled our obligation as coaches?
“I just hope and pray we win enough games along the way that I can continue doing what I love.”
To date, Hamilton has 582 career wins, and that’s not taking into account the 22 that were vacated in 2006-07 due to an academic fraud case against the school.
But as we all know, COVID-19 has become a brutal reminder that tomorrow isn’t promised, in life or in sports. And while Hamilton doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, it is interesting that he and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (73) are two of the oldest coaches in the game that would have had legitimate shots at winning it all tonight.
“They have a program here. They don’t have a team,” Krzyzewski said of Hamilton last season. “The program is built on values, and Leonard is one of the top coaches in America. His teams are always together and they play hard defense. They are unselfish and they’re talented.
“He and I are really good friends, and I admire what he’s done here.”
Like others in the sports world, for Hamilton, this season is a riddle without an answer. The possibilities are endless, yet inconclusive.