Photo by Steve Sisney
This story was originally published in The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com on March 16, 2004
On all fours, Eddie Sutton crawls around the rug, playing peek-a-boo with Stephen, his 3-year-old grandson.
This is a striking visual of the man of La Madness. The NCAA Tournament begins today, and the annual American basketball festival has no more dominant face than the crinkled scowl of the 68-year-old Sutton.
The old master has weaved magic again. Sutton's Oklahoma State Cowboys are the popular choice to make the Final Four; they are his Golden Pond, his seventh no-hitter.
The man recruited by Phog Allen, the man who played college ball against Wilt, the man coached by Henry Iba, still rides high on the hardwoods well into the 21st century. Fifty years ago this spring Sutton drove a '51 Ford pickup from Bucklin, Kan., to Payne County and first saw the campus that now loves him with a love that is more than love.
Those wrinkles on Sutton's face, like the rings of a mighty oak, tell the story of time.
When his hair was curled and his skin smooth, Sutton was a different man. Not a bad man. Just different.
Then a game changed. A drunk sobered. An empire fell. A plane crashed.
And now, with the hair smooth and the skin curled, Eddie Sutton chases not just the perfect basketball game, but little Stephen around the floor.
"Look at how he plays with his grandkids," said Steve Sutton, the eldest son of Eddie and Patsy Sutton. "It's a whole different world. Dad is happier now than he's ever been.
The rural electric authority
brought college basketball to Eddie Sutton.
He was in the seventh grade on a farm outside Bucklin, Kan., where Sutton had been raised with a two-hole outhouse and kerosene lanterns. But electricity meant radio, and radio meant basketball, and basketball meant the golden age of Midlands hoops.
Allen's Kansas Jayhawks. Ralph Miller's Wichita State Wheatshockers. Tex Winter's Kansas State Wildcats. And Iba's Oklahoma A&M Aggies.
Sutton grew up quite the athlete in Bucklin. Played football, basketball and baseball. Ran track. But that was not unique in Bucklin, 1954 graduating class of 18.
"Marvelous experience," Sutton said. "You were in everything. Glee club, student council, debate team, in all the plays. You got a good education."
The Suttons had an old milk cow named Flossie, a pinto pony named Tony.
Into that Norman Rockwell painting walked basketball's grand coaches. Allen, the legend first hired at KU in 1907, came for Sunday dinner, Beryl Sutton fried chicken, and the Phog spent five hours telling stories and enchanting a family on the dusty plains.
Old-time Kansas fans still bust Sutton for not becoming a Jayhawk. They figure he cost KU the 1957 NCAA title, when the Jayhawks and Wilt lost to North Carolina in triple overtime. KU needed a shooter, and Sutton could swish 'em.
Instead, Sutton went to OSU, where Iba never recruited off campus. On Sutton's visit to Stillwater, he spent the night in a West Bennett dorm room; he was hosted by a javelin thrower who also hailed from western Kansas.
Iba was no five-hour storyteller. "He put it on the table," Sutton said. "Look, we'd like to have you."
Something clicked. Maybe it was the competitive fire that burned in Iba and still burns in Sutton a half century later. Sutton signed on and now goes to work in a building bearing Iba's name.
"The opportunity to come back here has been a blessing," Sutton said.
Sutton returned in June 1990, and the results have been spectacular. At a program that had fallen into disrepair, Sutton built a contender.
In 14 years, OSU has two conference championships, 12 NCAA trips, four Sweet 16s, a Final Four, 16 NCAA wins, a Gallagher-Iba Arena doubled in size and tripled in splendor. And a team this year ranked fourth nationally that has shoved itself into the spotlight normally reserved for the Dukes and Connecticuts.
Best of all, in Sutton's eyes, Henry Iba got to see liftoff before he died in January 1993.
"That was the best thing that could ever happen," Sutton said. "To have that short time with Mr. Iba, that was really special."
Some could argue that Sutton saved OSU athletics. The department was mired in debt in 1990. Football was in deep probation and making no money. Basketball was stagnant.
Without big-time hoops, without Sutton, would OSU automatically have been included in the Big Eight/Southwest Conference merger?
Maybe. But definitely without Sutton, there would have been no Gallagher-Iba Arena expansion. Without Sutton, there would have been no relief for football to get back on its feet.
"His arrival was extremely timely for us," said Tom Dirato, OSU's director of athletic broadcasting. "He brought an entire image of the athletic department back to the glory days.
"Anybody who says he was not the driving force behind that new building (Gallagher-Iba Arena) and getting people excited about Oklahoma State athletics, you're kidding yourself."
If true, Sutton is pleased. "I've paid part of the debt I owed to this school."
Osu has not always
been good to Sutton. It was in Stillwater that he took his first drink.
"I never had a drink until I was out of high school," Sutton said. "And until I got to Arkansas, it probably never was a problem."
He hopes it never affected his teams. He knows it affected his family.
"Probably a day doesn't go by he doesn't feel regret for some things he's done in the past," said Sean Sutton, Eddie's middle son and right-hand man on the OSU staff.
"When somebody has a drinking problem, you can't keep it hidden from the family. There's no question me and my brothers were fully aware of what's going on."
Sutton took his alcoholism to Kentucky in 1985, and two years later the drinking had escalated.
"He wasn't making very good decisions," Sean said. "He lost control."
Close friends in Lexington and family finally convinced Sutton to face his problem. They convinced him to enter the Betty Ford Center.
"You really fight it at first," Sutton said. "But I needed to go."
So in summer 1987, Sutton entered the clinic and met professionals from all walks of life.
"I guess most people see the alcoholic as being the guy sitting on the bench or in the gutter," Sutton said. "But that disease hits at every level."
At basketball-mad Kentucky, the drinking never became public. Probably, Sean figures, there were whispers and rumors. But Sutton sobered up without scandal.
"At some point, he just realized this is not the way I want my life to end or to go," Sean said. "He wanted to be in control. He wanted to be the father he felt like he should be and the husband he felt like he should be.
"He took the proper steps to make sure it happened. It wasn't an easy thing."
Sutton has considered speaking on the dangers of alcohol. Maybe the kids would hear him. He gets them to listen on hoops; maybe they would heed his warnings.
Sutton already has counseled Larry Eustachy, the Iowa State coach who lost his job last year over alcoholism. Sutton knows how Eustachy feels.
"You're embarrassed a little bit," Sutton said.
Sutton's boys aren't embarrassed. They are proud.
"With alcohol, anybody can fall off that horse at any time," said Steve Sutton, a 39-year-old banker in Fayetteville, Ark. "It's a choice every day. The fact that his choice every day is not to have that in his life ...
"We've had some tremendous ups and some horrific downs. We've all come through it better people."
THE MAY 29, 1989,
Sports Illustrated cover proclaimed the sad tidings.
A marvelous tradition was in tatters, courtesy of a three-year NCAA probation. Sutton had fought for his job and lost. He resigned, and a sterling reputation built over 20 years teetered.
The NCAA found little wrongdoing by Sutton and cleared him to coach again. But Kentucky was barred from postseason play for two seasons, stripped of scholarships and forced to return 1988 NCAA Tournament money. UK president David Roselle demanded the resignation of Sutton and his staff.
Sutton still claims UK was set up by the famed Emery package that fell open in a warehouse, spilling $1,000 intended for recruit Chris Mills. The NCAA placed Kentucky assistant Dwane Casey on five years conditional probation.
Sutton's good name was in jeopardy in the court of public opinion.
"I was concerned about the sportswriters," Sutton said. "I wasn't concerned about the coaching profession. They know that thing was completely blown up."
Sutton's defense is reasoned. Why would a guy who didn't cheat at Creighton or Arkansas need to cheat at Kentucky?
"So everybody knows," Sutton said. "Coaches know. But even to this day, I'm not sure there aren't some sportswriters who still think I'm tainted."
Sean Sutton admitted, "A lot of people were concerned: Is this going to be the way he's going to be remembered?"
Either way, Sutton has rebuilt his reputation at OSU. The Cowboys have won without high-profile recruits. No McDonald's All-Americans. Few prized recruits. OSU wins with players who develop into good players and transfers looking for a fresh start.
Steve Sutton said there never was a doubt his dad wouldn't rebound from Kentucky shame.
"That thought never crossed my mind," Steve said. "That's not the way he's wired. When you hear about people being successful, it doesn't matter what the venue they're in.
"Dad could be head of a Fortune 500 company. He could be great in the military. He is a successful individual. He happens to have applied that to basketball."
Much like Oklahoma football, Kentucky historically had been a program out of control. The Wildcats ran afoul of the rules under both Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall, Sutton's predecessors.
Former Indiana coach Bob Knight, now at Texas Tech, had built up quite a disgust for the Kentucky legacy and feuded with Sutton when they were border competitors.
But now, Knight gushes about Sutton and doesn't acknowledge a rift. "My feelings about him and how I felt about him as a coach, really as a person, have never undergone any kind of change," Knight said.
Perhaps the lasting remnant from Sutton's Kentucky days is how he's perceived in the Blue Grass. When Sutton returns to Creighton or Arkansas, he's warmly received. Not so in two NCAA trips with OSU to Lexington, Ky.
Former Kentucky star John Pelphrey, who played for Sutton, coached with him in Stillwater in 1992-93 and now is head coach at South Alabama, said he doesn't detect animosity toward Sutton from Kentuckians.
"The circles I run in, everybody understands what a great coach he was," Pelphrey said. "I don't think there's any ill will toward him or his family. There may be some, but that's athletics."
Eddie Sutton always refers to great friends back in Kentucky, but Steve Sutton doubts his dad's reputation will ever be repaired in the UK basketball empire.
"He will probably not ever be revered in the general public as one of the good guys over there," said Steve, who said Kentucky fans have an aristocratic air. "If you have fallen out of their good graces, it takes something from the pope to get back."
But nationally, Kentucky's shame fades further and further away, eclipsed by the OSU success story.
"I get the feeling from coaches and different people that follow college basketball that they don't give much thought to" Kentucky, Sean Sutton said. "It's all about what's gone on here the last 14 years."
couldn't coach today.
That's heresy to basketball traditionalists, and you better not let Eddie Sutton hear you say it. Except Sutton said it himself.
"Mr. Iba would have a hard time ... adjusting to that 20-hour week," Sutton said of the NCAA limiting practice time. And don't forget recruiting. And tattoos. And the shot clock. And the 3-pointer.
Sutton has adjusted. Known just a few years ago as a slowdown coach, his Cowboys play as fast as most any team in America.
Ironically, Sutton's own beliefs forced him to change. The defensive trend of college basketball, which Sutton has endorsed for going on 40 years, has forced good teams to counter by playing faster in search of easier shots.
"I've talked to a lot of people, they think maybe this is the most fun team we've had," Sutton said.
Longtime assistant coach James Dickey said Sutton's Midas touch stems from two factors: ability to adjust and ability to motivate.
"One thing he hasn't gotten enough credit for is how well he motivates players," Dickey said.
Sutton's scowl still evokes fear, but he's also learned that a hug goes a long way, too. His former players ride the current Cowboys over how easy they've got it.
"Without a doubt, he's changed a lot," said Joe Adkins, an OSU guard from 1996-00. "It's a big difference. He still has that fire, but he's a lot more lenient. They get away with more."
Junior forward Ivan McFarlin doesn't argue. He says Sutton has mellowed. Sutton still has bite to his bark, but "he knows what spot to hit on each player," McFarlin said. "Players don't get mad. They just know to work harder."
But Sutton's message hasn't really changed. On a 20-year-old TV tape, he says, "Young men will accept criticism if they know you love 'em."
He says the same thing these days.
"They know I love 'em," Sutton said. "They know I care for 'em. They'll go to the wall for you, and you can get on 'em.
"I tell 'em, 'Don't listen to the tone of my voice; listen to what I'm telling you.'"
After both of OSU's victories over Texas the previous two weeks, delirious Cowboy star Tony Allen ran up to Sutton, hugged him and said, "I love you, Coach."
The Lion in Winter hugged him back.
That would never happen with Mr. Iba.
Of course, Hank Iba never had to call a parent to tell them their child was gone.
Nate Fleming. Brian Luinstra. Will Hancock. Pat Noyes. Jared Weiberg. Bill Teegins. Kendall Durfey. Denver Mills. Bjorn Fahlstrom.
Sutton called the families of each the night of Jan. 27, 2001, when an OSU team plane crashed in the Colorado badlands, killing all 10 men.
That night changed Eddie Sutton.
You can tell it with his grandkids and with his players and with his phone calls.
He sees his family often. But Sutton still will pick up the phone. "I've always been close to my sons, but there's very few days I don't call Scott or Steve, tell 'em I love 'em," Sutton said.
"I'm much more expressive toward my family and players. My friends. I have a greater appreciation for life."
Neither does a day go by when Sutton fails to think of someone on that plane.
OSU basketball has been in a slow heal since Jan. 27, 2001. Since that night, all involved have turned emotional corners.
First funeral. First laughter. First game. First monument. First championship.
Cowboy Terrence Crawford broke down and cried after OSU clinched the Big 12 title against Texas two weeks ago. He said he was thinking of his fallen teammates.
Sutton was a pillar in those first few troubled days, delivering eulogies at the memorial service. The team, the school, the state leaned on Sutton.
He leaned on Sean, and over in Arkansas, Steve worried about them both, with good reason.
"He was as strong as any human being could possibly be," Dirato said of Eddie. "But it took a lot out of him emotionally."
To this day, Sutton coaches basketball and eats a Homestyle burger and plays with the grandkids, all while knowing he put those 10 men on a plane.
"I know it hurt him immensely and still does," OSU athletic director Harry Birdwell said.
But there is comfort in the hug of a Tony Allen or the smile of 3-year-old Stephen or in the sight of teammates of Daniel Lawson and Nate Fleming climbing a ladder to cut down a net.
"I think it helped put things in perspective," Steve Sutton said. "It fine-tuned his clarity on what truly is important on this Earth."
EDDIE SUTTON HAS REPAID
the debt to OSU, and now he's going in hock again.
Thanks to his alma mater, he's never been happier.
He coached two of his sons at OSU. One works with him, and the other, Scott, coaches hoops at Oral Roberts in Tulsa. All the grandkids are nearby.
"This has been a special experience," Sutton said. "This is where I've been the happiest."
It's the eve of the day OSU will win its first outright league title since 1965; Steve and Robin are driving over from Fayetteville that night so Eddie can chase Stephen around the floor.
"It's been so special to see Dad, how he reacts with his grandkids," Steve said. "It's great to know he's truly embraced that part of his life."
Steve has told his mother that his dad is more relaxed, less stressed and definitely happier. No one dissents.
"I think now he's at peace with himself," Sean Sutton said. "He's got control of his life. He's a good example to his sons, a good husband to his wife, been a good leader to his players.
"He's put a lot of demons out of his mind."
That curled skin tells quite a tale. Of glory and weakness and tragedy and triumph, of a man who finds his pleasure not just on the hardwood floors of college basketball, but on the hardwood floors of home.