TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The moment to celebrate another Sweet 16 appearance came and quickly went, and all anyone at Florida State really wanted to do was cry.
No other NCAA tournament team experienced what the Seminoles had in the opening rounds. In all his years as a head coach, Leonard Hamilton had not experienced the situation that confronted him, either: How does a team and a coach, working toward their first Final Four appearance, handle death and sadness and grief as it unfolds inside a locker room in real time?
Phil Cofer will not be with Florida State when the Seminoles play Gonzaga on Thursday night in Anaheim, California, choosing to stay home with family in Georgia to mourn his father, who died the same day Florida State beat Vermont in the first round. Hamilton knows he must manage those emotions from the past week along with the emotions that come with any Sweet 16 game, a delicate balancing act that takes a deft but nurturing hand to handle.
“Our kids are so close that when they say 18-strong that’s what they mean, from my walk-ons to the most experienced players. That helped us through the situation, the relationships and the culture we’ve been able to create with each other.”
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton
“I know it’s going to be lingering, so we don’t want to hide from it,” Hamilton said in his office in Tallahassee before the Seminoles flew out to California.
“We have to turn this into whatever positive we can and dedicate our minds, our spirits and everything else we have to go out and demonstrate the love and respect we have for Phil’s family and him by how we represent him and the school at this moment.”
How Cofer even got to Florida State seems providential considering the circumstances. Cofer initially signed in 2014 to play at Tennessee, where his parents went to school. His father, Michael Cofer, played football for the Vols and later spent 10 years in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, so the athletics genes and Tennessee love ran strong inside the Cofer home.
But when Cuonzo Martin left Tennessee for California, Phil Cofer asked for and was granted his release before ever wearing a Vols uniform. Martin gave Cofer a list of coaches he thought would be a fit. Hamilton was at the top of the list.
So Cofer visited FSU.
“He felt like another father,” Cofer said in an interview with ESPN earlier this season. “Pretty much, he cares more about his players rather than everything else going on.”
That was especially important to Phil. Michael spent years battling amyloidosis, a rare disease that keeps the kidneys and other organs from functioning properly. Phil watched him suffer through constant pain but never complain, handling an incurable disease with toughness, grit and determination.
Teammates got to know that same grit and determination in Cofer, a player universally beloved in the locker room for doing whatever he could to be there for anyone in need. Soon, he grew into a key player on a Florida State team that made a surprising Elite Eight run a year ago, leading the team in scoring.
Cofer fought through injuries this season, but his leadership proved invaluable. After starting 1-4 in ACC play, Florida State has lost just twice since Jan. 22, once to North Carolina and once to Duke in the ACC tournament championship game. Cofer hurt his foot against Duke, but that was not at the top of his mind when he came to Hamilton with devastating news.
Michael Cofer had taken a turn for the worse, and Phil knew it was only a matter of time before his father would die. The unsettling reality set in when Michael did not recognize Phil during a FaceTime conversation.
Hamilton reassured Phil he understood his anguish, having suffered the triple loss of his two brothers and mother in succession. He wanted Phil to know that he and his Florida State family would be there for him no matter what. He asked Phil whether he was absolutely sure he wanted to make the trip for FSU’s first-round matchup. Phil said yes.
“As much I understood how he felt, I was not prepared for what I came into the locker room to experience,” Hamilton said.
Cofer sat out Florida State’s 76-69 win over Vermont with the foot injury. A few moments after the Seminoles returned to the locker room, Cofer got a phone call and broke down into sobs.
Hamilton was at the podium doing his postgame news conference. Florida State officials ran to get Hamilton and cleared media from the locker room to give Cofer some space. When Hamilton walked in, he heard the wailing and saw every single one of his players enveloping Cofer, holding and hugging him tightly.
“You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been in that situation,” Hamilton said. “When it hits you, you have no control. You just don’t, and it was 30 minutes, and he just couldn’t control himself. He was totally at a loss.”
Hamilton paused to gather himself. “Sad. It was tough. Very tough, he said.”
When Florida State got back to its team hotel, Hamilton had Cofer return to his room alone so he could have a private moment. He called the rest of his team into a meeting. The team’s sports psychologist happened to have made the trip and provided comforting words.
“Everybody was in pain, and sometimes even though you don’t want to talk, sometimes it’s best to get those things out,” Hamilton said. “Our kids are so close that when they say 18-strong that’s what they mean, from my walk-ons to the most experienced players. That helped us through the situation, the relationships and the culture we’ve been able to create with each other. People were able to express themselves, and also show Phil the love and the compassion that he felt was genuine.”
Players were given the opportunity to meet with Cofer individually after the meeting. Hamilton’s pastor was also on the trip and went to the room to pray with Cofer. Florida State dedicated the rest of the season to the Cofer family. Hamilton wore a decal on his suit lapel for the next game against Murray State with the initials “MC.” Players wore a black stripe on their uniforms.
“I just brought the fight. What I did was Google and YouTube ‘Mike Cofer’ and just saw how hard he played, how much fight he gave on the field, and I just wanted to bring that with me, and I feel like I did that. I played my heart out for that.”
Florida State guard Terance Mann
And after the Seminoles won 90-62 to advance to a second straight Sweet 16, Terance Mann said, “I just brought the fight. What I did was Google and YouTube ‘Mike Cofer’ and just saw how hard he played, how much fight he gave on the field, and I just wanted to bring that with me, and I feel like I did that. I played my heart out for that.”
The Seminoles plan to do the same Thursday night.