EDDIE SUTTON : He Only Has to Coach in Shadow of Joe B. Hall
Moments before the Kentucky Wildcats made their first appearance of the new basketball season at Rupp Arena in an intrasquad scrimmage, their coach was introduced. A crowd of 13,527 stood and applauded.
Joe B. Hall probably couldn’t remember the last time he received that kind of ovation. Of course, this one wasn’t for Joe B. Hall. It was for the new coach, Eddie Sutton.
Poor Joe B. Hall. In 13 seasons as Kentucky’s head coach, his teams won or shared eight Southeastern Conference championships. They won one NCAA championship and an NIT championship. Of 397 games, his teams won 297. Yet, here’s the story, no doubt apocryphal, in Kentucky on Joe B. Hall:
In a child custody trial, the judge asked the child, a young boy, if he wanted to live with his father.
“No,” the boy said. “My father beats me.”
The judge asked the child if he wanted to live with his mother.
“No,” he boy said. “My mother beats me.”
“Then who do you want to live with?” the judge asked.
“Joe B. Hall,” the boy said. “He doesn’t beat anybody.”
Now it’s Joe B. Gone. Hall finally surrendered last March, although he probably realized years earlier that he never would replace Adolph Rupp, the Baron, in the hearts and minds of Kentucky basketball fans. Sutton has it easy. All he has to do is replace Hall. For that, he earned a standing ovation.
This is the job Sutton, 49, calls the best in basketball, the job he said he would crawl from Fayetteville, Ark., to Lexington to have.
That wasn’t necessary. Sutton may have fallen from grace at Arkansas, where he once sat at the king’s right hand, but Kentucky called and, lo and behold, made him a king. All you have to do is listen to Sutton to know he has found the real hog heaven.
“There is no place except Kentucky where on Oct. 15 at 12:01, on a rainy Monday evening, over 10,000 people would come out and watch the first practice of the season,” Sutton said a couple of weeks ago in an interview at his office.
He was hoarse from yelling during workouts, but he spoke in his normal television preacher tone of voice. It takes more than a sore throat to subdue him.
“Our first scrimmage was at Henry County,” he said. “There were 6,500 seats in that gym. The place was packed. People were scalping tickets in the parking lot, the reason being that they don’t get to see the team play during the season because there are no tickets available at Rupp Arena.
“Rupp Arena seats 23,000. You’d think there might be some tickets available, but there aren’t. I was in Paducah last night. It’s a six-hour drive from Lexington. The people there can’t get tickets for Rupp Arena. So they charter 14 buses and go to see the Wildcats at Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Georgia and Alabama. It’s anywhere from a 3 1/2- to a 7 1/2-hour drive. But it’s the only way they can get tickets to see the Wildcats play. The biggest crowds those teams have are when they play Kentucky.
“Hey, they didn’t invent the game in Kentucky, but they think they did. They think Naismith is from the mountains in Eastern Kentucky. These people in Kentucky know more about basketball than anyone else. There are 80-year-old great grandmothers here who know more about the sport than high school players in some places. They’re all students of the game. They’re all assistant coaches.
“Airline pilots can tell when they’re over Kentucky. If the lights are on after 9 p.m., they know the U of K is on the radio. I don’t want to say basketball is a second religion here, but it’s close to it. So you ask me why I came to Kentucky?”
If you’d asked Sutton in 1974 the reason he went to Arkansas, now that would have been a question. In five years at Creighton University in Omaha, his first job at a four-year school, he had built a nationally recognized basketball program. It would have been only another year or two before he would have gotten a call from one of the powers. Bob Knight and Dean Smith told him to be patient, not to go to Arkansas.
Arkansas had no basketball tradition, having gone 17 years without winning a Southwest Conference championship. It had few basketball fans. The year before Sutton arrived, the team drew 1,200 fans to the Razorback Classic in Little Rock. That was in two nights. In his first season at Arkansas, he had to pay the pep band to appear at home games.
The band had no difficulty finding enough seats because Barnhill Fieldhouse was seldom full, even though capacity was only 5,000. Going there was a health hazard. Underneath the basketball court was a dirt floor. Any kind of commotion stirred up dust, which left players and spectators teary-eyed and choking.
Sutton changed all of that. In 11 seasons at Arkansas, his teams won or shared five Southwest Conference championships. They finished in the nation’s top 10 four times. They averaged 24 victories a season, winning 78% of their games.
They went to the NCAA tournament nine straight years, a record matched during that period only by North Carolina. They went to the Final Four in 1978, the last year that Kentucky won it all, and were among the final eight in 1979. Sutton was the nation’s coach of the year both years.
For Razorback fans, basketball was a revelation. The renovated Barnhill was expanded by 2,000 seats, and still there was a waiting list for tickets. The team sold out every game for the last nine years in Fayetteville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff. According to the Nielsen ratings, a record 91% of the television sets in Little Rock were tuned into the 1979 Arkansas-Texas basketball game.
“Football and spring football were the only two sports, but we elevated basketball at Arkansas,” Sutton said. “We made that basketball team as popular as the football team.”
So it was that Sutton became as popular in Arkansas as Frank Broyles, the former football coach who now serves as the university’s athletic director.
One person familiar with the politics within Arkansas’ athletic department said Sutton was doomed by his own success, that Broyles felt threatened by the basketball coach’s popularity.
“Basketball became too big,” he said. “Eddie became too big. He could have stayed and beaten Frank, but why did Eddie need that when he could go to Kentucky?”
Others close to the athletic department defended Broyles, saying that the only thing about Sutton that became too big was his ego.
One thing that almost everyone agrees upon is that the once-close relationship between Broyles and Sutton was strained two years ago, when Sutton added his wife, Patsy, to the basketball staff as an unpaid academic counselor and gave her an office across the hall from his.
Sutton began introducing her as “my No. 1 assistant,” a designation that some familiar with the situation said she took to heart. They said she exerted her influence over other staff members, the assistant coaches and even the players. Broyles began hearing complaints.
Bill Brown, Sutton’s top assistant at Arkansas last season and now head coach at UC Sacramento, said that criticism of Patsy was unjustified.
“Eddie is his own man,” Brown said. “He had a young ballclub and was giving them a mother-image to relate to. We treated the program as a family.
“There also were academic benefits. The grade-point average of our team was higher under Patsy than it had been in the last five years.”
Tension between Sutton and Broyles was evident to observers during the basketball team’s tour of Japan and Hong Kong in the summer of 1984. The split apparently grew wider because of a difference of opinion over a cable television deal.
But even though their friendship was beyond repair, they maintained respect for one another professionally. Broyles certainly understood the pressure Sutton was under. The former football coach once said: “Coaching basketball is like having the other team inside your 10-yard line all night long.”
But people close to Broyles said he found Sutton’s behavior erratic last season. So did others.
With an inexperienced team attempting to adjust to Sutton’s complex, half-court game, Arkansas lost 13 times last season. Never before had a Sutton team at Arkansas lost more than nine games. He almost collapsed under the pressure he put on himself to win.
“In terms of his competitiveness, Eddie has a will to win that’s incredible,” Brown said.
Sutton complained that he had built a monster at Arkansas.
After losing two of three games during a tournament in Hawaii early last season, the Razorbacks boarded a plane in Honolulu the next afternoon and arrived in Fayetteville the next morning, 17 hours and two layovers later. Sutton told them to report to practice an hour later. They practiced three times that day.
Brown said that most of the criticism over that incident came from boosters, who had flown to Hawaii and were disappointed because the team hadn’t joined them at a luau after the tournament.
“It was a punishment mentally, but it was part of the discipline,” Brown said of the workouts.
There were other incidents.
After a loss at home to Texas Tech, Sutton wouldn’t face his team. He sent a graduate assistant to address the players.
During a loss at Rice, he became so frustrated by the officiating that he went into the stands to sit with his wife.
In his postgame press conference, he said he had called Las Vegas when the game ended.
“I won’t elaborate,” he said.
He never did.
By the end of the season, the Razorbacks had improved enough, because of Sutton’s persistence, to give St. John’s a scare in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Salt Lake City. But their play was overshadowed by Sutton’s theatrical protests over the officiating. During the game, he left the bench to sit on press row with Ladell Anderson, Brigham Young’s coach who was serving as the NCAA’s evaluator of officials.
Sutton’s health also deteriorated during the season. He sometimes had difficulty standing straight because of back pains, the result of an old high school football injury that seems to recur in times of stress, and he occasionally lost the feeling in both his legs. He developed an ulcer.
There were rumors in Arkansas that he was drinking too much.
Sutton has angrily denied the rumors, calling them ridiculous.
Asked about the rumors recently by the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton, Patsy Sutton said: “That maybe is the most astounding thing. . . . I could be upset, but what good would it do? If people know you, they all know these things aren’t true. I could rent a billboard and announce it around town, but that would just draw more attention to it.”
Through it all, Sutton remained the people’s choice.
One Little Rock newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat, polled its readers about whether Sutton should remain as the Razorbacks’ coach.
More than 5,000 people responded, 88% of them voting in favor of Sutton.
Late last March, in an address to the Arkansas legislature, Sutton said he hoped to be the Razorback coach for at least 11 more years. The legislators gave him a standing ovation.
Eleven days later, Sutton was Kentucky’s head coach.
As wounded as they were, most Razorback fans probably could have forgiven him for going to Kentucky. That was before he unintentionally added insult to their injury during his introductory press conference in Lexington.
“This is the only job I would leave Arkansas for,” Sutton said. “Kentucky is the epitome of college basketball. Believe me, I would crawl all the way to Lexington for that chance.”
It was an unfortunate choice of words. As Razorback fans interpreted it, Sutton’s claim that he would crawl to reach Kentucky meant that he would crawl to leave Arkansas. After that, many of them would have volunteered to give him a ride.
“When you leave to go to another job, you sometimes don’t part company the way you’d like,” Sutton said. “There are some people who felt I had abandoned them and let them down by leaving Arkansas.
“It’s too bad it had to happen. I do believe in time they’ll understand it. I do hope anyone who had ill feelings will respect what we did in 11 years there and be pleased. The people of Arkansas are good, quality folks. I don’t blame Arkansas. I hope they don’t blame me.”
Asked about the status of his relationship with Broyles, Sutton said: “I don’t know. He wasn’t there the day I resigned. He was at Augusta National, playing golf. So I talked to the president of the university. I haven’t talked to Frank since.”
In a telephone interview, Broyles said: “It’s been my policy not to comment in any shape, fashion or form since Eddie left. I don’t think it’s wise.”
Sutton said his relationship with Broyles wasn’t a consideration in his decision to leave Arkansas. The only consideration, he said, was whether he would have a better chance to win at Kentucky.
“Of all the coaches ever at Arkansas, no one was ever more loyal than me because I went there and built a program,” he said. “So I look back with mixed emotions.
“But every coach wants to win a national championship. That’s one of my goals. Look around the country. Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA and another five or six schools have a better chance to win national titles than other schools. It’s harder to win basketball games at Arkansas than it is at Kentucky.
“When you pick up the phone and call some recruit, one of the 10 best players out of high school, you might have a difficult time convincing the guy that Arkansas is a top program as compared to Kentucky.
“We may not get that young man at Kentucky, but at least he’ll listen. We’ve won more games than any other team. We’ve won more national championships than any team except UCLA. Year in and year out, Kentucky is a contender, whether Eddie Sutton coaches here or somewhere else.”
It was Sutton’s passion as much as his record that won him the job at Kentucky. The university’s first choices to succeed Hall were Arizona’s Lute Olson and Alabama Birmingham’s Gene Bartow, but they rejected offers.
When Sutton received the call to appear before the selection committee, he was ready. He told the committee that this was the job he had wanted since he was growing up in Bucklin, Kan., and listening to Kentucky and Kansas basketball games on a cabinet radio in his family’s living room.
“I think we’ve hired the best coach in the country,” the university president, Dr. Otis Singletary, said. “A lot of people were interested in the job, but with some of them you had to steady their hands the closer they got.”
It will take time for Kentucky fans to adjust to Sutton. Even his permed hair has attracted critics. One columnist, Billy Reed of the Louisville Courier Journal, called Sutton “Coach Perm” and said Kentuckians like their coaches’ hair the same way they like their bourbon. Straight.
There was controversy when Sutton announced that Kentucky would end its 55-year association with Converse shoes and switch to Nike, which pays him a reported $125,000 a year as a member of its board of directors. Only in Kentucky would a basketball coach have to call a press conference to explain the reasons he chose one shoe over another.
“Our shoes will not make a difference in the quality of our play,” he said.
Still another brush fire had to be extinguished when Sutton said he had turned down an offer to become the New Jersey Nets’ coach in July. Net officials responded testily that they hadn’t offered the job to Sutton, that, in fact, he had approached them.
“Who are you going to believe, me or the Nets?” Sutton said.
By then, Kentucky fans had buckled their seat belts.
Spunky is one of the words Singletary used to describe Sutton.
“We’ll have to get used to a different personality,” said Cliff Hagan, Kentucky Athletic Director. “While Hall kept matters to himself, Sutton likes to--what would you say?--brainstorm things in public.”
Sutton is comfortable in storms. When allegations appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader about under-the-table payments to Kentucky basketball players by prominent boosters, Sutton said boosters no longer would have access to the Wildcats in the dressing room after games, or in their dormitory. If the boosters didn’t like the policy, so be it.
“I’m not going to allow boosters to come in and dictate to me,” he said. “They probably don’t like me, but that’s part of the deal. They hired me to run the basketball program. I hope to win enough games that they will keep me around for a while. But I’m not going to please everyone. I’m going to tick some people off.
“I take a very philosophical approach. Every coaching job is a downhill slide from the time you take the job. How gradual the slide is depends on how many games you win. You do the best you possibly can and walk away from it when you lose.”
Sutton doesn’t anticipate losing at Kentucky, even though he admitted that the Wildcats this season aren’t as deep in talent as they have been in other years.
“But I’m not going to tell my squad that,” Sutton said. “I’ve been places where the cupboard was bare. The cupboard is not bare here. We’ve got the best player in college basketball in Kenny Walker. I’m not going to say this team can’t be in Dallas for the Final Four. The time is now at Kentucky. It always has been.”
So far, the players have responded positively to Sutton. His workouts are longer and more demanding than Hall’s, but Sutton allows the players to express their individuality more off the court. For example, he lifted Hall’s ban on mustaches.
“He’s a whole lot more personable with the players and a lot more relaxed,” Walker said, comparing Sutton to Hall. “Maybe it’s because he hasn’t been here long enough and doesn’t know what’s expected of him.”
On the court, Sutton emphasizes a structured offense and a pressing, man-to-man defense, but he also encourages creativity.
“If you’re hot, you’ve got the green light to do whatever you want,” Walker said.
Hall also gave his players the green light, but they had to make sure they didn’t miss.
Kentucky basketball will be different under Sutton, but he is respectful of the Wildcats’ tradition. In the corner of his office is Rupp’s davenport, which had been collecting dust in the Coliseum basement until Sutton heard about it and had it moved. “They tell me he used to take naps on it,” Sutton said.
Now that Sutton has replaced Hall, Rupp’s fans say the Baron finally will be able to rest in peace.