By Simit Shah
ATLANTA – Brian Oliver and Joe Hamilton own a special place in the athletic history of Georgia Tech, and as of Saturday morning, they also own degrees from the institute.
Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough commended the pair for never losing “their eye on the prize, and that is a Georgia Tech degree” during his commencement address.
They were two of several student-athletes who received their degrees Saturday at summer commencement exercises at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
Oliver, who led the Yellow Jackets’ basketball team to an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and the Institute’s first NCAA Final Four appearance in 1990, received his bachelor of science in Building Construction. Hamilton, who quarterbacked Tech to three bowl games and a share of the 1998 ACC Championship, received his bachelor of science in History, Technology and Society.
Also participating in commencement exercises Saturday were baseball players Jon Henry Kail (Management) and Tyler Parker (Management), track and field star Lindsey Vincent (Management), and cheerleader Zach Shay (honors in Computer Science).
Track and field All-America Chaunte Howard (Economics), baseball players Brian Burks (Management) and Nick Wagner (Management), swimmers Conrad Aach (Management) and Vesna Stojanovska (Aerospace Engineering), football manager Erika Downing (Management) and football player Travis Kelly (Management) also received bachelor’s degrees following the summer semester.
Oliver, who received his bachelor of science degree in Building Construction, was a member of “Lethal Weapon 3” along with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson that led the Jackets to the Final Four in 1990.
Oliver was a senior that season, and the NBA beckoned soon after the season ended. He was only a few credits shy of graduating when he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers.
“When I started at Georgia Tech, I had no idea I would play professional ball or make a living doing it this long,” said Oliver, a native of nearby Smyrna. “I went into building construction, because it fascinated me. I wanted to get my degree, and that was really my focus when I was in school.
“I didn’t just make a commitment to go here and play basketball,” he continued. “I came to study. I could have taken an easier degree. I remember telling people that I was going into architecture and building construction, and I remember being told that it was too demanding. I’ve always believed that if you want to accomplish something, you have to work hard and sacrifice. Bobby (Cremins) was very supportive the entire time. He never tried to sway me, and that meant a lot to me.”
After playing in the NBA with Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, Oliver opted to go to Europe in 1998. He first played a year in Israel and has since played mostly in Italy.
The seasons in Europe often ended after summer semesters at Tech started, and that made returning difficult for Oliver, but there was never any doubt that he’d come back.
“It was always a matter of when, not if,” he explained. “People would ask me over the years if I was going to finish, and in my mind it was already a done deal. As soon as I had the opportunity, I was going to knock it out. My parents have always stressed academics.”
Oliver was able to squeeze in one semester in 2001, and then set his sights on this summer.
“Up until now, it was still the same situation with my schedule,” he said. “Last year, (assistant basketball coach) Willie Reese mentioned that summer semester was going to start later. At that point, I started calculating in my mind to get back here if the season ended in time.”
With the scheduling conflict resolved, Oliver decided to take the entire 12 hours this summer to complete his degree, rather than the recommended six or eight hours.
“There were a lot of people that were telling me that it wasn’t a smart thing with the courses being so intense over a shorter semester, but I know myself,” he said. “I’m motivated and highly disciplined, even if I had to sacrifice my personal time, I would do that.”
He credits his wife Eleonora and his family for providing him support this summer.
“My wife was extremely supportive, since she knew it was going to be a lot of me getting up early in the morning, leaving the house, coming back home and studying,” he said. “She did a lot to help me. She did everything she could to make it easier on me.
“I’m actually the first male in my family to graduate from a major university. That’s a big deal on my mother’s side and my father’s side. My dad was a great basketball player at DePaul, but he never got a chance to finish. It’s a big deal. My mother and father are bursting with excitement, energy and pride, because this is a family thing not an individual thing.”
He also spoke earlier this week to Cremins, who now coaches at the College of Charleston.
“Bobby has always been an important person in my life,” Oliver said. “Our relationship wasn’t as a coach and player, it was more close to a big brother, uncle or father. Bobby cares about me. He cares about all his players, and it stretched even further after I left. We still keep in contact, and he’s been supportive in everything I’ve done, especially finishing school.”
As he walked across the stage Saturday, Oliver flashed a huge smile and raised his degree. He knows that even though he hoisted his last shot for the white and gold 17 years ago, the Tech faithful are still rooting for him.
“The fans are like a big extended family,” he said. “I take pride in having gone to Georgia Tech. For me to finish my degree, it’s also for the fans too. I’m always going to be a Rambling Wreck. I made that commitment to Georgia Tech to be the best basketball player I could be, but also to be the best student-athlete I could be. This was about honoring the commitment.”
For Hamilton, the process of earning his degree has spanned the last several years. The Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1999, he was drafted by the Buccaneers the following spring. He spent three years in Tampa, and then part of another season with the Colts. In 2004, he joined the Arena Football League, which allowed him to start working towards his degree again.
“It wasn’t too hard while I was playing Arena, because I was able to dedicate my whole offseason to school,” he said. “I didn’t have to be in camp or anything until the spring. It was a lot harder in the NFL, because I always wanted to be around the organization so they knew that I was working. I had to be a gym rat and not leave their facilities so they could see what I could do. My job wasn’t guaranteed every year, so it was a different situation.”
The importance of having a degree especially hit home a few years ago when his former offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen spoke to him about joining his staff in Maryland, but he couldn’t make the offer since Hamilton lacked a degree.
“That really hit me,” Hamilton admitted. “This was a job that could help me achieve my dreams. It was right in front of me, but I couldn’t take it because I didn’t have a degree. I went to school for five years, and I didn’t get it. It was kind of embarrassing, so that was a wake-up call. It was a disappointment.”
He also drew motivation from another Tech football player, Nick Ferguson. The Denver Broncos safety forfeited a $50,000 workout bonus a few years ago to earn his management degree.
“Nick Ferguson really inspired me,” said Hamilton. “He came back to school and turned down a workout clause in his contract. He would have been able to make that money if he stayed in Denver, but he decided to come back to school. After seeing him do that, I had to get on it.”
Hamilton has been on it the last three semesters, earning his degree in History, Technology and Society.
“It’s just exciting, and I’ve done something for myself and made my family proud,” he said. “I realized that I was so close, and I needed it.”