The redemption of Eddie Sutton

By Berry Tramel Published: March 18, 2004
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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.

"KENTUCKY'S SHAME."

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.


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