It is unfair, but it is also the way of the world sometimes.
Too many people hear of Eddie Sutton and think only of the man forced to leave the University of Kentucky as a result of a nasty basketball scandal that was highlighted by the mysterious opening of an Emery express mail envelope in Los Angeles from which $1,000 in bills tumbled out, an envelope sent from the university to the father of high school star Chris Mills.
Sutton is coming back to the Southern California area for the first time since that scandal tarnished him a decade ago. Sutton’s Oklahoma State team will play UCLA Saturday in the Wooden Classic at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim and if you look for more than a minute at the man and the coach, Eddie Sutton is so much more than the desolate person who left Lexington, Ky., in 1989.
For example, how many know that Sutton is the only coach in history to take four different Division I teams (Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State) to the NCAA tournament, and that he has taken two teams (Arkansas and Oklahoma State) to the Final Four.
Or that in his 28 years as head coach, Sutton has had only one losing season, a 13-19 record in that last, horrible year at Kentucky when the world seemed to crumble around him.
Or that Sutton is just the seventh coach in Division I history to win 600 games in 28 years or less--the others being Denny Crum, Bobby Knight, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Jerry Tarkanian and John Wooden.
More than that, though, Sutton is a coach who traces his roots to so many legends. To Henry Iba, who first coached Sutton at Oklahoma State, then hired Sutton as a graduate assistant coach. To Ralph Miller and Tex Winter and Phog Allen, who were all coaching in Kansas when Sutton was growing up. To Rupp, who wasn’t technically alive when Sutton arrived at Kentucky but whose presence was in the hearts of everyone in Lexington and whose legacy Sutton was taught every day that he was in Lexington.
And now, a little, to Wooden. For Sutton is ecstatic to be playing in this tournament and he is eagerly anticipating nothing more than the tournament dinner where Sutton will be able to chat up Wooden, at length Sutton hopes.
“I’m looking forward very much to talking with Coach Wooden,” Sutton says. “You can always learn something from him.”
Sutton knows, deep inside, that he will always be associated with the Kentucky scandal that cost him his job and might have cost him his reputation if there were not so much more to Sutton’s reputation.
It was a scandal that encompassed boosters and players in a pattern of miscreancy that almost certainly started way before Sutton arrived at Kentucky--coming from great success at the University of Arkansas and saying that he would “crawl from Fayetteville to Lexington” to take the Kentucky job--and would most likely have blown up in the face of some coach at some time.
Sean Sutton, now Eddie’s assistant coach and then a player for Sutton at Kentucky, says that “you can’t imagine the pain my father and our family went through. Nobody can. I’ve been fortunate to not have lost anybody close by death so I can say that this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
“To see what my father went through that last year. Every day there were people from the national media who came to town sticking cameras and pens in our faces and they weren’t coming for anything good. My dad would come to practice every day with his head up and tell us to keep our spirits up. He didn’t deserve what happened.”
After the 1989 season, when Kentucky was left with severe NCAA sanctions and Rick Pitino came blazing into town, Sutton slunk away. He took a job with Nike, unsure if coaching would be in his future again. Sean left UK to attend Lexington Community College and, as he said, “to lick my wounds a little.”
And then redemption came.
Oklahoma State, where Sutton had been a steady performer for Iba, “Mr. Iba,” as Sutton always calls the legend, was in need of a coach when Leonard Hamilton left to take the Miami job. Sutton was called and Sutton came. Back to maybe the closest thing to a home that Sutton had.
“Mr. Iba was still alive then,” Sutton says, “and he’d be at practice every day, sitting on press row and watching. It was one of my greatest joys to be able to go back there and be with Mr. Iba and talk to him every day.”
Sean says his father was reinvigorated, reinvented almost.
When he arrived in Stillwater in 1990 from Kentucky, the center of the college basketball world, Sutton was coming to a program that had one NCAA appearance and seven winning seasons in 25 years.
In Sutton’s first season, 1990-91, the Cowboys went 24-8, won the Big Eight title and made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs. A year later, the Cowboys went 28-8 and went back to the Sweet 16. And in 1995 Sutton took Oklahoma State to the Final Four where they lost to, yes, UCLA.
And the team that Sutton brings Saturday to the Pond will likely be 5-0 (OSU hosts Florida Atlantic Tuesday night) and is ranked No. 12 in the nation.
These days Sutton says that the bad part of his time at Kentucky “was overblown” and he says that he never worried about his reputation.
But then Sutton will also answer a question about what he would like to be known for by saying: “I’m most proud not of the fact that I’ve won over 600 games, or been to the NCAA tournament 19 times or had 23 guys go to the NBA or had 13 assistants take over Division I programs. I’m most proud of the fact that the majority of the young men who have played for me have gotten college degrees and gone out and done well in the real world.”
Sutton is not reading his accomplishments from some piece of paper. He has these in his head and that he tells them to you leaves the sense that Sutton knows he is too often famous for something bad instead of something good and that if he doesn’t list these good things no one else will for him.
Last Saturday night the Cowboys beat TCU, 79-74, in Stillwater. It was a crazy, intense game because Billy Tubbs, who had made mostly enemies in Stillwater when he was coach at Oklahoma, is still reviled. Lee Nailon scored 30 points for TCU, Tubbs was a wild man, but the Cowboys operated a precise offense and a tough-nosed defense which is what Sutton has always coached and which was what Sutton had learned from Mr. Iba.
The win was impressive, yet there were barely any highlights on national sports broadcasts on a night when No. 1 Duke was upset; when Kentucky edged UCLA; when Maryland smashed Pitt.
The next morning, Sean is talking about this man who is doing, still, some extraordinary coaching. “The only bad things ever attributed to my dad happened at Kentucky. Only good things happened for us at Creighton and Arkansas and now my dad is happier than he has ever been in his life.
“If you could have seen him when he came here in 1990, sitting next to Coach Iba every day and talking basketball. It made them both so happy. This has been redemption and now my dad is just doing great coaching jobs year after year. That’s what I’d like people to know about him.
“That Eddie Sutton is a great coach.”
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In his first seven seasons at Stillwater, Eddie Sutton has guided Oklahoma State to five NCAAtournaments, five 20-win seasons, and five first-or second place finishes in conference play. Some of Sutton’s other accomplishments:
* Four-time national coach of the year (1977, ’78, ’86,'95).
* Six-time conference coach of the year (1975, ’77,'79,'81,'86,'93).
* Only coach in NCAA history to lead four different schools to the NCAA tournament.
* Led teams to 18 NCAA tournament appearances in 27 years, including 12 straight from 1977-88.
* Ranks 12th among active Division 1 head coaches in games coached with 766.
* Only Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and John Wooden have won more games in 27 years than Sutton.
* Only four coaches rank higher in both winning percentage and victories for active coaches than Sutton (Jerry Tarkanian, Smith, Knight and Denny Crum).