Leonard Hamilton arrived in Tallahassee in March 2002, oblivious to the obvious. He couldn't see the headlines about spring football at Florida State. He couldn't see the basketball program's seven losing seasons in the past nine, the empty seats at the Seminoles' home arena, the nearly guaranteed spot at the bottom of the ACC standings, the losses to Furman and American and Western Carolina and on and on and on.
"Whenever you take a job," Hamilton said, "you never really have all the information that it takes to make those kinds of assessments. You really go in and just evaluate and understand that you have to work as hard as you possibly can to get the job done in the shortest time possible."
Hamilton's job at Florida State isn't done, not by a long shot, particularly if you ask him. But entering tonight's game against No. 24 Maryland, the Seminoles are 10-1 and off to the best start in school history -- clearly much better than when the former Washington Wizards coach took over just 21 months ago for former Kansas assistant Steve Robinson. FSU hasn't been considered a threat entering the ACC schedule since the winter of 1992-93, which also happens to be the last time the Seminoles finished better than sixth in the league.
"Now, I feel we can be real good," point guard Nate Johnson said. "It's basically all on us. If we continue to get better and we keep taking steps forward, we can get into conference play and be in a pretty good position. That's the way we all feel. It's up to us."
It was up to Hamilton to first get players talented enough to be in this position, and then to get them to believe.
Last year, Hamilton brought in guard Tim Pickett, a slick junior college transfer who was a preseason all-ACC selection this year and is averaging 14.4 points. He brought in Johnson, another junior college guy who's polished enough to play the point against tough competition. And this season, Florida State landed what some consider to be the top recruiting class in the nation.
At Oklahoma State from 1986-90, Hamilton persuaded players to come to Stillwater, where the Cowboys hadn't made back-to-back postseason tournaments since the early '50s. He persuaded them to come to Miami, though the Hurricanes had abandoned basketball for 14 seasons. It's the one thing he couldn't do during an ill-fated, one-year stint with the Wizards, during which the team went 19-63.