Leonard Hamilton's coaching tree on display in this week's NCAA Tournament

Curt Weiler
Tallahassee Democrat

Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton's blueprint for building a program has been on display the last few years.

The Seminoles won the program's first ACC regular-season championship last season and nearly repeated this season. FSU earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round matchup with No. 13 seed UNC Greensboro Saturday at 12:45 p.m. on truTV.

Also on display this week during March Madness is how Hamilton's coaching tree has continued to sprout more branches.

Along with Hamilton himself, three of his former assistants, Bill Self at Kansas, Andy Enfield at USC and Dennis Gates at Cleveland State, are head coaches of teams that will play in this year's NCAA Tournament.

A number of current and former FSU assistant coaches agree on what it is about Hamilton that sets his assistants up for success once they start leading their own programs.

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"I've been in the business 26 years and I've been blessed to work for some really, really good coaches..." FSU assistant coach Charlton "C.Y." Young told the Democrat.

"I've seen a lot of very different ways to do it, but after seeing a lot of different ways to do it and spending eight years with J. Leonard Hamilton, he's the best head coach and CEO I've ever seen and been around. He is the total package.

"All the other guys, I've been blessed to be around, but none of them is the total package like J. Leonard Hamilton. J. Leonard Hamilton will never get the credit he deserves as an elite head coach and CEO."

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Self was an assistant under Hamilton at Oklahoma State back in the 1980s. He's paved his own path since learning under Hamilton, racking up 728 career wins, an NCAA Championship in 2008 and NCAA Tournament appearances in each of his 18 years with the Jayhawks.

USC head coach Andy Enfield and Cleveland State head coach Dennis Gates are more recent Hamilton assistants.

Enfield was an FSU assistant coach under Hamilton from 2006 through 2011 before he left to take the Florida Gulf Coast head coach position. He led the "Dunk City" Eagles on a Cinderella Sweet 16 run in 2013 and took the USC job that offseason.

He's now led the Trojans to a No. 6 seed in this year's tournament, his third appearance atop the USC program.

If USC and Kansas both win their opening games as expected, the two former Hamilton assistants would meet in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Monday.

FSU assistant coach Stan Jones, now in his 24th year working alongside Hamilton, has probably as good an idea as anyone about everything he does that prepares his coaches for their future jobs as head coaches.

"When you work for Coach, every area of a program (is worked on)," Jones told the Democrat.

"I don't know how he gets by in life with the little bit of sleep that he allows himself to have because his brain is constantly working and thinking about what's best for our program. So when you work for him, you start learning how to think and how to see everything more so than just getting to the game...

"He just has that encapsulating vision of the whole thing so when you work for him, you start thinking the same way. And when you go to take your program, you have that same CEO mindset."

Hamilton thinks of every detail, from the best route from the Tallahassee airport to FSU's campus to give the best first impression to how and when to make the most of the moment and promote his program.

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But he also does a great deal of delegating, both to divide the work and to give his assistants a share of the experience they will one day get when they take over their own programs.

"He gives us responsibilities. He didn't pigeon hole me one bit. He allowed us sort of an equal stake in our career, professional development, but also our experiences," Gates told the Democrat.

"He put us in situations where we could make decisions, where we could do everything but call a timeout or make a substitution. Everything from top to bottom, when it comes to molding young men, he allowed us to do. From recruiting to the individual workouts to the practices and also to the scouting of the opponents. The number of years I was there, I was able to consistently be put in that situation."

What Cleveland State's Dennis Gates learned from Leonard Hamilton

Gates was hired to replace Enfield in 2011 and remained on the FSU staff for eight years. Before he took over as an assistant coach at FSU, he had previously been a graduate assistant for the FSU basketball team during the 2004-05 season, Hamilton's third year in Tallahassee.

This gave him an inside look at what goes into building a program from the ground up as Hamilton did at FSU.

"Sometimes I would just bring my laptop, sit in his office and just be a fly on the wall. I never missed (one of Hamilton's) radio shows. I would just sit in the background and see how he operates," Gates said.

Cleveland State head coach Dennis. Gates celebrates with is team following an NCAA college basketball game in the men's Horizon League conference tournament championship game against Oakland, Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Indianapolis. Cleveland State won 80-69 (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

"I never missed a press conference, especially NCAA press conferences, because I wanted to sit there and see him break down the game and the view that he had. Different things like that. I just think he gave us the opportunity."

Gates took the CSU job in July of 2019, extremely late in the coaching carousel. He inherited a program that had lost 21 or more games in each of the last five seasons before his arrival.

When he got to CSU, he had just four players left on his depleted roster. Less than two years later, he led the Vikings to a 19-7 record (17-4 in the Horizon League) and the program's third-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

"I am not surprised by what Dennis Gates did at Cleveland State one iota. I expected it. I worked side-by-side with the dude for seven years. He was special. Great basketball coach. I told people when he first got the job there's a young star coming in our profession and please don't try to peg him as just a recruiter, because he's not," Young said.

"In 26 years, that's the best mid-major rebuilding job that I've ever seen as long as I've been in this profession. They say Dennis Gates did it in two years. That's not true. He did it in 16 months...Great basketball coach, great CEO. He had a great mentorship. I'm blessed to get a billion-dollar education in how to do it every day."

The Vikings, a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament, are heavy 20-point underdogs entering Friday's 7:15 matchup against No. 2 seed Houston (24-3, 14-3 in AAC). That being said, CSU won its opener in both of its previous NCAA Tournament trips.

The 14th-seeded Vikings beat No. 3 seed Indiana 83-79 in 1986, advancing to the Sweet 16 with a win over No. 6 seed Saint Joseph's. CSU also beat No. 4 seed Wake Forest 84-69 as a No. 13 seed in 2009.

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Whatever happens this week, Gates' success at CSU has made him a high-riser in the coaching ranks. He was linked to the Penn State opening which has since been filled and is also reportedly a candidate for the DePaul head coach position.

Unsurprisingly, he credits Hamilton for much of what he has accomplished so far.

"Leonard Hamilton helped me accomplish (this season). The vote of confidence that he gave me during my development as an assistant is sort of the pat on the back that you may need or the affirmation you may need that you're getting better or you're going in the right direction," Gates said.

"Coach isn't the one that will say it in words, but he'll give you that head nod like you've accomplished and you're continuing to do so. I just want to make Coach proud because he poured into my life and gave me a chance as a full-time assistant at the power-five level, in the ACC.

"He gave me that opportunity and hopefully, along the way, my job is to make sure his defensive philosophies withstand the test of time. My job is -- because I know he had to work so hard to get to where he is -- that the blueprint is preserved. This accomplishment I share with him."

No. 4 seed Florida State vs. No. 13 seed UNC Greensboro

When: Saturday, 12:45 p.m.

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

TV/Radio: truTV/101.5 FM

Former Hamilton assistants' NCAA openers

No. 3 seed Kansas vs. Eastern Washington

When: Saturday, 1:15 p.m., TBS

No. 6 USC vs. Wichita State/Drake

When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m., TNT

No. 15 Cleveland State vs. No. 2 Houston

When: Friday, 7:15 p.m., truTV

Reach Curt Weiler at cweiler@tallahassee.com or follow him on Twitter @CurtMWeiler.

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