Coach Leonard Hamilton: ‘The program is getting more and more interested.’

Coach Leonard Hamilton: ‘The program is getting more and more interested.’

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Questions and answers have been edited and added for clarity.

You quit coaching when you were told Austin Peay wouldn’t hire a black head coach, right?

It just wasn’t like that. I went to talk to the university president when I thought Coach (Lake) Kelly was going to see if there was a chance I could replace him. He said he will retire in two years and nothing would make him happier than coaching at Austin Peay. He said, “I don’t know if he is strong enough to do this even politically.” He was honest with me, but that cut my guts.

So leave it?

I got a job at Dow Chemicals. My first day on the job, I got a call from Joe Hull (Kentucky’s coach), who told me you were going to beat them. At the end of the interview, he said, “I’ll tell you four things: I’ll be honest with you, no one will beat me, you’ll have players, and I won’t get you in trouble. But if you don’t give me the job, I’m going to go back to Charlotte and be the No. 1 chemical 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 were in places that weren’t exactly blue-blooded. Oklahoma State has not won an NCAA Tournament game in over two decades; Miami recently resurrected the program 15 years after dropping it; And Florida State has 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 around good players and won. I wanted to have one of those cool, bold jobs where I could go to work. But then God slapped me on both sides of my face and said, “You don’t need those programs.” It was like a vision – if you want to make a name for yourself in this business, you have to go somewhere very challenging. The worse the program got, the more interested I became. That’s how I get my lashes.

How much did your upbringing in Gastonia, NC prepare you to do with less?

We were eight people living in a two-room house. Our bathroom was on the back porch, there was no hot or cold running water. I took a bath in a tin tub. Everyone around us lived like that. This was a time when we could still get out of the water fountain, use the colored bathroom, sit in the back of the bus and drink. We are 30 or 40 yards from my church – Zion Baptist, on the corner of Allison and Morris, where everyone is and Christ is everything. I could hear the piano from the back porch, and if the doors were open, we were there. It gave me a moral compass. All of these situations, even the negative part of the breakup, mentally prepared me. It gave me strength, will, will to fight and determination to try to overcome challenges.

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