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Perspective | Leonard Hamilton was a trailblazer, but in the new ACC, he fits right in

Perspective | Leonard Hamilton was a trailblazer, but in the new ACC, he fits right in

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

There is plenty not to like about what conference tournaments have evolved into, with their bloated five-day schedules. Who among us would want to miss the 12-vs.-13 games played on Tuesday or Wednesday of conference tournament week?

Apparently, most people have no problem missing those games, based on early-week attendance here in D.C., where the ACC men’s tournament has returned — while former ACC stalwart Maryland is playing in the Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis (in, yes, a 12-vs.-13 game).

The ACC tournament is a shadow of what it once was when it was played in Greensboro, N.C., and there was no public sale of tickets. Unless you were a booster, you watched on TV. Parking cost 50 cents. (Swear to God).

Tuesday’s attendance at Capital One Arena was 7,523, with the two upper decks virtually empty. It hasn’t been much better in Greensboro since the league expanded to 15 teams to bring in as many mediocre football schools as possible.

There’s plenty more to criticize, but there is one vitally important area in which ACC men’s basketball takes a back seat to no one: It’s the number of Black head coaches.

The ACC this season had nine Black coaches — 60 percent of the available jobs. No other power conference had more than five. The Big East had five (of 11), the Big 12 had five (of 14), and the Big Ten and SEC each had three (of 14). In its final season, the Pac-12 had zero Black head coaches.

“It’s a very big deal,” ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said Wednesday. “I’m really proud of it. It’s incredible how far we’ve come.”

Basketball has always been considerably ahead of football in this regard. As far back as 2007, 25 percent of the men’s coaches in Division I were Black. Sadly, that percentage has largely stagnated since then; 33 percent of Division I coaches were Black in 2023, according to the NCAA. But the Football Bowl Subdivision has only 15 Black head coaches, or about 11 percent of the available jobs.

When Leonard Hamilton was hired at Florida State in 2002 — succeeding Steve Robinson, who is also Black — there was only one other Black coach in the ACC: Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech. Hamilton is now in his 22nd year at Florida State, and Wednesday’s 86-76 second-round win over Virginia Tech was his 443rd at FSU and his 643rd overall. He is 75 years old and looks 50.

Hewitt (and Clemson’s Oliver Purnell, hired the year after Hamilton) were long gone when this wave of coaches started to become part of the ACC. North Carolina State’s Kevin Keatts is second in tenure of the conference’s Black coaches, and he is in his seventh season.

“I don’t feel as if I deserve any credit for what’s happened,” Hamilton said, relaxing in his locker room after Wednesday’s win. “If you want to look at historically, it really began with Dean Smith and Lefty Driesell back in the ’60s when they were both coaching in North Carolina [Smith at UNC, Driesell at Davidson] and they recruited Black players even though a lot of their fans didn’t like the idea.

“But they quieted down because they won.

“Dean in particular was always outspoken on racial issues. He’s probably more important in terms of racial progress than anyone in college basketball history.”

Hamilton is pretty important himself. He was the first Black player at Tennessee-Martin and was the SEC’s first Black assistant when Joe B. Hall hired him at Kentucky in 1974. He was a part of Kentucky teams that won a national championship in 1978 and went to the Final Four in 1984.

That led to his first head coaching job — at Oklahoma State, where he was the first Black head coach in the Big 8 before moving on to Miami and Florida State — with one lost year working for Michael Jordan and the Wizards in D.C.

Some might argue that, given what Hamilton had to overcome as a trailblazing Black coach, he should receive serious consideration for at least the college basketball Hall of Fame. Florida State has been to four Sweet 16s under Hamilton and one Elite Eight (in 2018). His best team was 26-5 and won the ACC regular season title but never got to play in the postseason because of the pandemic.

“I honestly wish the rest of the world would be more like basketball,” he said. “My teammates at UT-Martin were White. It didn’t matter. We were friends, and we all had a common goal. I’m on a circular text with all the guys today more than 50 years later.

“I think that’s true in all sports but especially basketball because the teams are smaller and because racial diversity has been part of the sport for longer than a lot of sports. It may be a cliché, but I wish more people would look at life like that.

“No one comes out of the womb hating anyone. It’s something you learn as you grow up. How can you hate someone you’ve never met just because you don’t like the way I look? I’ve never understood that, but we all know there are a lot of people in the world who think that way.”

But it isn’t just the non-basketball-playing world that still has progress to make. It is remarkable that the Big Ten and SEC had just three Black head coaches. The Big East, whose most important and iconic figure is still John Thompson Jr., had five — but that’s still less than 50 percent of its jobs. This in a sport in which well over 50 percent of the players are Black.

“Let me tell you something,” said former Syracuse coach (and Hall of Famer) Jim Boeheim, “All these guys can coach. I mean they’re well-prepared and ready for these jobs. It’s a good thing — all good.”

Boeheim was succeeded this season by Adrian Autry, a former Syracuse player who is Black, and he received consideration for the conference’s coach of the year honors. The winner? North Carolina’s Hubert Davis, who in his first season (two years ago) reached the national championship game.

Boeheim’s right: These guys can coach.

There’s only one school left in the ACC that has never had a Black football or basketball coach: Duke. (Sigh from this alumnus).

Meanwhile, as Hamilton left the locker room Wednesday, I asked him whether he will back next year.

“Of course,” he said. “I still love it. I love being part of basketball.”

The longer he stays, the better it is for the sport he loves.

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