Harrisonburg, Va., and Huntington, W.Va., are separated by fewer than 300 miles of mountainous terrain. They are out-of-the-way Appalachian towns that don’t normally command attention.
But they have had their moments. One (Harrisonburg) was the site of the first great basketball recruiting announcement, precursor of an era of increasing hype and hysteria. The other (Huntington) is the site of the latest greatest recruiting announcement, which ironically will be a throwback to quieter and simpler times.
Andrew Wiggins has narrowed it down to Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida State. (AP)Between the two events is a 34-year span in which you can argue no sport changed as much as college basketball.
The connective thread between those two announcements is Leonard Hamilton.
In May 1979, Hamilton was the assistant coach at Kentucky who had his heart broken when the most celebrated prospect of his time, Ralph Sampson, stood behind a microphone in Harrisonburg and gave a half-hearted commitment to his home-state school.
“It came down to Kentucky and Virginia,” Sampson said that day. “So, I think I’m going with Virginia.”
Today, the 64-year-old Hamilton is the head coach at Florida State, and he’s anxiously waiting on the commitment of another once-in-a-generation recruit Tuesday.
The player is Andrew Wiggins of Huntington Prep. At 12:15 p.m. EDT, Wiggins is scheduled to announce whether he will play college basketball at Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina – or for Hamilton at Florida State.
Hamilton is attending the Atlantic Coast Conference spring meetings and was unavailable Monday to discuss his role as the bridge between watershed recruiting moments. Roy Williams, coach of the Tar Heels, is at the meetings in Amelia Island, Fla., as well. If the ACC meeting schedule plays out as planned, the two should be sitting in the same conference room when Wiggins makes his announcement.
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In a departure from what has become the norm for top-of-their-class recruits, there will be no lavish press conference for Wiggins on Tuesday. No made-for-TV hat game. No shaving the logo of his future school into his hair. A reporter from the local Huntington Dispatch will be on hand, and that’s allegedly it in terms of media involvement.
It is a throwback to the pre-Sampson days – before recruits were teenage commodities, before recruiting became a national obsession, before covering it became a multimedia orgy.
It was Ralph who pretty much got the recruiting hype train rolling. It left the station on May 31, 1979.
Sampson was a 7-foot-4 high school senior with skills and coordination, which made him the No. 1 senior in the class of 1979. Everyone wanted him, and bluebloods North Carolina and Kentucky were battling home-state Virginia to get him.
Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall dispatched young assistant Hamilton to work Sampson. Recruiting rules were much more relaxed back then, with contact virtually unlimited. So Hamilton all but took up residence in Harrisonburg, ingratiating himself with the Sampson family.
As Sampson’s announcement date closed in, Kentucky was supremely confident it would land the big man. In anticipation of the moment, a large Kentucky media contingent traveled to Harrisonburg. The night before the press conference, Sampson’s mom, Sarah, entertained many of those reporters at the family home.
Then, before a media crowd the Associated Press estimated at more than 100, Sampson stunned Hamilton with his lukewarm announcement for Virginia. He said he changed his mind “at least 50 times,” and left open the possibility he may change it again and go to Kentucky.
But Sampson stuck with the Cavaliers, prompting coach Terry Holland to abandon coaching understatement and publicly shoot for the moon.
“What we’re thinking about now is winning the national championship,” Holland said on the day of Sampson’s commitment. “That has to be our goal.”
It would be an unrealized goal, even with Sampson playing four years of college ball – a complete absurdity by modern standards. Virginia made one Final Four with Sampson, during 1980-81 season, but that was it.
Andrew Wiggins warms up before a McDonald’s All-American event. (AP)Hamilton stayed as an assistant at Kentucky through 1986 before getting his head-coaching start at Oklahoma State. He spent four seasons there and 10 at Miami, breathing life into what had been a dead Hurricanes program. After a brief and brutal stint as an NBA head coach, Hamilton returned to college at Florida State and has guided the Seminoles to eight straight winning seasons.
But in all that time, he’s never had a recruit like Andrew Wiggins, who some say is the most talented prospect since LeBron James came out of high school a decade ago.
The Canadian export initially considered Florida State because his parents went to school there, and the Seminoles have remained on the short list because of the recruiting efforts of Hamilton and his staff. Yet those at Florida State say the head coach himself had no idea as of Monday what Wiggins will announce.
So in that way, Hamilton is right back where he was in 1979.
Wiggins would be the biggest recruit in Florida State basketball history, an instant-impact player who could upgrade a 2013 NIT team into an ACC contender. Of course, he has to be instant-impact, because this is basically a nine-month decision before turning pro and perhaps being the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. The days of a Ralph Sampson-level talent staying four years in college are long gone.
There are other significant differences between May 31, 1979, and May 14, 2013.
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Prep schools, AAU teams, entourages and prospective agents were not part of Sampson’s formative years. ESPN was not televising his games – in fact, ESPN wasn’t televising anything; it didn’t come on-air until three months after Ralph made his commitment. A flotilla of recruiting analysts was not making online predictions where he would go.
But in many ways, Wiggins’ recruitment has actually been less of a circus than Sampson’s. Wiggins has been a media apparition, doing no interviews and seeking no attention. The fact that this will not be a made-for-TV production on ESPNU is stunning.
Andrew Wiggins is simply going to make a decision, and word will get out. In a far more publicized time than Ralph Sampson’s day 34 years ago, this counter-intuitively will be a far less elaborate affair.
Maybe this time, Leonard Hamilton will end up on the winning side of a watershed recruiting battle.