There's a saying in sports that Chinese bamboo takes five years to grow and when it does, it shoots upward 90 feet in five weeks. From the little I understand of horticulture, this proverb isn't exactly true, but the appeal is clear. Oft repeated in losing locker rooms, it's the obvious mantra of coaches talking to players in the midst of losing seasons and to administrators shepherding over sub-.500 tenures -- that with just a little more investment, now is the time when everything flips. Night is darkest just before the dawn, after all.
But every once in a while, a coach becomes the exception that proves the cliche.
This weekend's Sweet 16 will feature, largely, two types of coaches. There are the institutions -- guys like Gonzaga's Mark Few and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim -- who've been successful for nearly the entirety of their lengthy tenures. And then there are the instant successes -- like Alabama's Nate Oats and Arkansas's Eric Musselman -- who took over struggling programs and turned them around nearly overnight.
But there is a third type of coach, whose success is not linear and whose eventual arrival to the Promised Land is never obvious. The best example of that type of coach is Florida State's Leonard Hamilton, whose proof of concept needed darn near a decade and a half to arrive.
After four years at Oklahoma State and 10 at Miami, Hamilton parlayed a Sweet 16 run into the Washington Wizards gig. It didn't go well. One 19-63 season later, he was back in the college ranks, where he took over a Florida State program on a run of nine straight seasons of 10 or more losses in ACC play.
The ensuing 19 seasons would make Hamilton, by about 15 miles, the most successful coach in FSU hoops history, but the progress from there to here was far from linear. In fact, I count two different points where Florida State easily could have talked itself into firing him:
2008: Hamilton had been in Tallahassee six years by that point and had yet to even reach the NCAA tournament. By contrast, the 'Noles went Dancing twice in the 1970s, thrice in the '80s and four times in the '90s, and by that point it appeared destined for an 0-fer in the first decade of the new millennium. "We don't expect to be UNC or Duke," FSU could have easily told itself, "but it's not to much to ask to just make the tournament every once in a while. With one winning ACC season in six tries, it's clear Hamilton's not the guy." Counting backward to his previous jobs, Hamilton had been a Division I head coach for 20 years and made it to the second weekend of the tournament once.
The next four years saw Hamilton's first breakthrough: Florida State won at least 10 ACC games in all four seasons, reached four NCAA tournaments and won three tourney games, including a 2011 Sweet 16 trip. At that point, it was just FSU's third Sweet 16 appearance and first since 1993.
This sets up the second time Florida State could have fired Hamilton and been justified in doing so.
2016: Hamilton followed four straight Dance tickets with four straight Dance-less campaigns. Florida State wasn't bad in this stretch by any means, but they certainly weren't good either -- 9-9, 9-9, 8-10 and 8-10 in ACC play, with three NIT bids and one empty postseason.
"Yeah," the conversation could've gone, "Hamilton's done some good things here, but it's clear he doesn't have it anymore. Plus, he's 68! What are the odds he has a breakthrough at this age? It's time to take a chance on someone younger."
Had Florida State moved on from Hamilton, it would have been completely justifiable to the outside world. At that time, we were talking about a 68-year-old coach with 14 seasons on the job and all of four NCAA tournament appearances to show for it.
But it's a good thing they didn't, because that's when, like bamboo, Hamilton started shooting upward:
-- 2017: a second-place finish in the ACC regular season, a trip to the ACC semifinals, and a win over Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA tournament. Sure, FSU was blown out by 11th-seeded Xavier before a bunch of 'Noles fans in Orlando in the second round, but the 2017 season was an unqualified success.
-- 2018: a mediocre regular season, a first-round ACC tournament exit and a No. 9 seed are washed away when FSU beats Missouri in the first round, exacts revenge by stunning No. 1-seed Xavier in the second round, then manhandles Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. It is the third Elite Eight trip in Florida State history.
-- 2019: Florida State wins 13 regular season ACC games, faces Duke in the ACC tournament finals, then reaches its second straight Sweet 16.
-- 2020: Florida State wins its first ACC regular season championship and is, by all accounts, one of the favorites to win the national title when the entire postseason is cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
-- 2021: Florida State finishes second in the ACC regular season and tournament, and is now in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year.
Thanks to Florida State's patience, the only programs in all of college basketball to reach the last three Sweet 16s are Gonzaga, Michigan... and Leonard Hamilton's Fighting Seminoles.
There's an obvious reason why Hamilton got so long while so many other coaches did not. Florida State is a football school first, second and third, and a baseball school fourth. While Hamilton struggled, Florida State was preoccupied with the regime change from Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher, then intoxicated by the rise of Seminole football under Jimbo. For better or worse, FSU's football and baseball coaches will never get the leash Hamilton enjoyed. While football and baseball are expected to regularly compete for conference and national titles, clearly Hamilton's job was simply to put a competitive product on the floor and not embarrass the university.
To his credit, Hamilton did that and then some. He's a coach his players like playing for and his peers like working for. The 72-year-old is currently coaching in a walking boot after tearing his Achilles stepping off a bus.
“Pain is temporary,” Hamilton told the Orlando Sentinel. “We have a job to do and we’re going to work through whatever challenges that we have. My guys depend on me. If I’m going to ask them to work hard and challenge themselves, then I have to do the same thing. I didn’t even know I had the boot on once the game started. There are more important things right now than me being in a little pain.”
And while Hamilton is a prime example of patience as an institutional virtue, he's not the only one still coaching in this year's NCAA tournament:
-- After taking Villanova to four Sweet 16s and a Final Four from 2005-09, from 2011-13 Jay Wright went 24-30 in conference play and didn't win a tournament game, missing the Dance once. He lost in the second round as a 2-seed and a 1-seed in 2014 and '15. 'Nova could've decided he'd lost his touch. Instead, he kept his job, and from 2016 to today the program has won two national championships and five Big East titles.
-- USC hired Andy Enfield away from Florida Gulf Coast after he took the legendary Dunk City team to the 2013 Sweet 16. His first two Trojans teams finished 12th and 12th in the Pac-12. By 2019, Enfield had won all of one NCAA tournament game. His 2020 team would've made the tournament in a non-pandemic year, and his 2021 team finished second in the Pac-12 and advanced to the program's first Sweet 16 since 2007.
What's the lesson here? It would be great for the profession to declare coaches should never be fired, but that's not realistic.
Most athletics departments, particularly in football, operate by the sunk-cost fallacy -- that it's best to cut bait on a struggling staff as early as possible, lest they be given more time to fall further behind their competitors.
But Hamilton's tenure tells us that's not the worst case scenario. Florida State's late-blooming success under their 72-year-old head coach teaches us every AD owes it to their program to dig under the soil and investigate whether their bamboo is dead or simply just dormant, waiting to spring from the earth with abandon.