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

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Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

It wasn’t quite like that. I went to consult with the university president when I assumed Coach (Lake) Kelly might leave to see if there was a probability I could replace him. He said he was retiring in a pair 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 that 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 change into aware of me because we almost beat them. Near the top of my interview, I said, “I’m going to let you know 4 things: I’ll be loyal to you, no person will outwork me, you’ll have players, and I won’t get you in trouble. But in case you’re not going to supply me the job, I’m going to return to Charlotte and be the No. 1 chemicals salesman within 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 weren’t exactly blue bloods. Oklahoma State hadn’t won an N.C.A.A. tournament game in greater than twenty years; Miami had recently resurrected its program 15 years after dropping it; and Florida State had all the time been a football school. Is that a coincidence?

As an assistant coach, like most young coaches, I used to be dreaming. I desired to be somewhere that had good facilities, was within the vicinity of fine players and that had won. I wanted to seek out one in all those good, cushy jobs where I could really go to work. But then it’s almost like God slapped me on each side of my face and said, “Those programs don’t need you.” It was almost like a vision — in case you’re going to make a reputation on this business, you’re going to need to go somewhere that is incredibly difficult. The more serious this system, the more I got interested. That will 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 have been eight of us living in a two-bedroom house. Our bathroom was on the back porch, there was no cold and hot running water. I took my bath in a tin tub. Everybody in our neighborhood lived that way. This was an era after we were still drinking out of a coloured water fountain, using a coloured bathroom, sitting behind the bus. We lived 30 or 40 yards from my church — Mount Zion Baptist, on the corner of Allison and Morris, where everybody is any person 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 an ethical compass. All of those circumstances, even the negative a part of segregation, prepared me mentally. It gave me a toughness, a desire, a will to fight and a determination to try to beat challenges.

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