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Hamilton, Howard cross paths once more with Elite 8 on the line

There will be a familiar feel on the sidelines when Florida State faces Michigan in the Sweet 16

NCAA Basketball Tournament - West Regional - Anaheim Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When Florida State tips off against Michigan at 5:00 p.m. Sunday on CBS, anyone who has followed college basketball over the past few decades that tunes in will know the names Leonard Hamilton and Juwan Howard. What fans may not realize is how well the two head coaches actually know each other.

Leaving a lasting and indelible mark on the game as both men have, you are almost sure to cross paths at some point. Indeed, Howard played under Hamilton for 54 games during his lengthy 19-year career in the NBA after he starred at center for the two-time NCAA runner-up “Fab Five” teams at Michigan.

Their high regard for each other extends well beyond the lone season they spent together in 2000-2001 on the Michael Jordan-led Washington Wizards. They’ve kept in contact over the years, and Hamilton can still recall how Howard was the “ultimate professional” as a player during their time together.

“He handled every little detail with the utmost focus and professionalism. He had all of those high-character qualities that you love to see in a basketball player,” Hamilton said this week. “That same humbleness that he operates with, professionalism, attention to detail, I think is what is really making Michigan an outstanding team. Juwan being Juwan.”

Likewise, Howard also commented on how much Hamilton means to him when he was asked about the hall-of-fame candidate during a video call on Thursday. He said “it’s special” what Hamilton has done for the FSU program.

“Our relationship runs deep,” Howard said. “It goes back to the time when I played for coach Hamilton when I was playing for the Washington Wizards. The respect that I have for him as a man, as a father, and also as a coach, obviously, during his time coaching the University of Miami as well as Florida State. He’s had amazing success, great knowledge for the game of basketball, people. And his resume speaks for himself.”

A generation between them, Hamilton is clearly a role model for Howard, just like he is for many young coaches. Countless opposing team’s coaches have remarked how respected he is within the profession, and Howard’s thoughts are no different.

“I learned a lot. I will continue to use coach Hamilton as a mentor, a father figure, an example of what great successful coaches look like on this collegiate level,” Howard said.

Florida State is well aware of the tall task they are presented with in the No. 1 seeded Wolverines. After crashing back down to a .500 conference record and just 19-12 overall in Howard’s first season in 2019-2020, Michigan rebounded with a regular-season conference title this year and have spent the past two months in the top five of the polls.

To say Hamilton believes Howard has Michigan going in the right direction may be an understatement.

“He’s a class act. He’s very bright and very intelligent...I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s one of my favorite people in the business,” Hamilton said. “He’s gonna take [Michigan] to maybe even higher than some of those places they have been in the past.”

When the two clash in the Sweet 16, they’ll be both be aiming to be just one win away from their first Final Four as a head coach. Whether it is FSU who comes out on top or Michigan, the revered veteran Hamilton has set an example for Howard that will carry on with him for the rest of his career.

“I’m going to continue to keep learning because I have that growth mindset. He’s a great example. John Thompson, coach Leonard Hamilton, coach John Chaney and many others, those coaches are paving the way for a guy like myself and young other coaches that are coming in,” Howard said.

“Coach Hamilton will always be that friend, father figure that I will always lean on.”