- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The lines on Eddie Sutton’s weathered face suggest a hard life. The 68-year-old coach of Oklahoma State moves a little slower now and with more of a hitch in his step, but the head Cowboy is as wily as ever.

Sutton is making his third appearance in the Final Four, this time with a hodgepodge roster of transfers from Division I and junior-college programs. That he is winning with a collection of players who needed a second chance is, in a way, fitting: Sutton himself arrived in Stillwater after a recruiting scandal that left him damaged goods in coaching circles.

“I don’t know if I have a soft spot,” said Sutton, in his 14th season at his alma mater. “But the one thing you have going for you when a young man transfers, he’s really locked in. Where’s he going to go? Division II, Division III? Somebody coming from Baylor, somebody coming from Central Florida, BYU. So we’ve had great success.”

Sutton is in his 34th season as a Division I coach and ranks ninth all time with 755 wins. He resurrected his career in Stillwater — and Oklahoma State’s dormant program, too.

The Cowboys, who face Georgia Tech in a national semifinal Saturday in San Antonio, are coming off their first outright Big 12 regular-season championship in 40 years. They are 31-3 and riding a 10-game winning streak in a season that has left their savvy coach pleasantly surprised.

Small wonder. Oklahoma State was picked to finish fifth in the conference, a prediction the straight-shooting Sutton said was just about right.

“That’s why getting there for the third time is very special,” said Sutton, who took Arkansas to the Final Four in 1978 and Oklahoma State in 1995. “Especially going back to October when we started practicing, if somebody told me we were going to be in the Final Four and win 31 games, I would say, ‘You’re crazy. You’ve been drinking or something because there is no way this team can do that.’”

Six months later, Sutton, leading a team that includes seven transfers among its 11 players, is in position to win his first national title and the program’s first since 1946.

Sutton arrived at Oklahoma State a half-century ago as a farm boy from west Kansas anxious to make his mark on college basketball. He played guard for the great Hank Iba from 1956 to 1958. The next year, Sutton began his coaching career at Tulsa (Okla.) Central High School. He moved on to Southern Idaho Junior College eight years later and got his first Division I job at Creighton in 1969.

Thirty-five years later, Sutton has coached in 24 NCAA tournaments. Only former North Carolina coach Dean Smith (27) and Texas Tech’s Bob Knight (26) have appeared in more.

“I have seen probably everything an opponent can throw at you,” said Sutton, who has 23 20-win seasons. “I coached a long time.”

Long enough to become the first coach to take four different programs — Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State — to the NCAA tournament.

Long enough to battle and defeat alcoholism. Long enough to be disgraced by a recruiting scandal at Kentucky. Long enough to find a permanent home at his alma mater in Stillwater in the twilight of his career. And long enough to pick up the pieces after a team plane crashed three years ago, killing 10 people.

Someone suggested Sutton might retire to a more recreational lifestyle if the Cowboys win it all in San Antonio. And why not? His resume would be complete. He could do something less taxing during his golden years than recruiting teenagers and dealing with the daily grind of running a program.

But like the real cowboys who live near the rural campus, Sutton found his calling on the wind-swept prairies of Oklahoma.

“Thousand to one,” Sutton declared as the odds he would retire if his team wins a championship next week. “I plan on coming back. We have a lot of these guys coming back. Coaching is a great profession when you win. It ain’t worth a [darn] when you lose.

“If I was losing the whole ballclub, I would say ‘I think I’ll retire’ because I don’t want to have any more seasons where you’re sweating your fanny off while they’re scratching a victory out every two or three games.”

The famous “Sutton scowl” will be on display Saturday in the Alamodome, but players say that frown masks a compassionate man.

“I can’t thank Coach Sutton enough for what he has done for my life and my game,” said John Lucas III, the Big 12 MVP and the son of former Maryland All-American and NBA star John Lucas. “They have been through a tragedy, too, with the plane crash a couple years ago. The first thing he said was if I ever needed anybody to pour onto, he was there.”

Lucas began his college career at Baylor but left last summer after teammate Patrick Dennehy was murdered, another teammate was charged with the crime and coach Dave Bliss, who was caught in a cover-up for paying players, was fired.

Lucas is one of many transfers on the team.

Shooting guard Daniel Bobik left BYU after returning from a Mormon mission to find his position taken. He is 24, married and has a child. Forward Joey Graham transferred from Central Florida, along with his brother Stephen. Leading scorer Tony Allen came from Wabash Valley (Ill.) Community College.

“I always say he’s like my second father,” Lucas said. “My mom and dad can’t be in Stillwater, and he never lets me get away with anything. As soon as I start laughing or smiling in practice, he is on me.”

It has been a hard life of character-building for Sutton, who battled alcoholism at Arkansas and brought the problem to Kentucky before finally getting help. He left the Wildcats in disgrace after recruit Chris Mills received a package from Kentucky’s basketball office that contained $1,000 in cash.

An NCAA investigation found 17 violations, and the hallowed program was placed on three years probation and banned from the NCAA tournament for two years.

The rising star of college coaching, who had replaced the great Joe B. Hall, was forced out after posting a 13-19 record in 1988-89, the Wildcats’ first losing record in 61 seasons. The cover of Sports Illustrated read “Kentucky Shame,” and the fallen coach was left to reassess his unraveling life.

“In a lot of ways our family and he is better because of it,” said Sean Sutton, who played for his dad at Kentucky and Oklahoma State and is in his 11th season as a Cowboys assistant coach. “He had some things in his life that were out of control that he needed to get corrected. Sometimes you need to get a wake-up call. That’s certainly a reality check to him.”

The overworked coach began spending more time with his wife, Patsy, and now finds time for his six grandchildren.

“He wasn’t around either of my brothers or myself as much as he probably would have liked when we were growing up,” Sean Sutton said. “I think now he tries to make up some of that by spending a lot of time with his grandkids.”

Eddie Sutton was out of basketball for a year before getting a second chance in 1990 at Oklahoma State, a program that needed rehabilitation as much as he did.

The Cowboys had reached the NCAA tournament once in 25 seasons before Sutton returned. He not only revived the Cowboys, he took them to the 1995 Final Four with center Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.

“To win a national title would be nice,” Sutton said. “But if I don’t win a national title, I have had so much fun coaching — all the great kids I have had, the wonderful assistants I have had. I know that all the young men we’ve coached, a great many of them, really prospered from being part of the program.

“Why do teachers stay in teaching? They do it because they feel like they are helping youngsters.”

Sutton appears to have come to terms with his career regardless of whether he captures the ultimate crown. His players, however, want to give him a lifetime achievement award.

“It is like [Syracuse] coach Jim Boeheim last year,” Bobik said. “Both guys have been around a long time. It would be really important for him. We love him so much we want to do it for him.”

Either way, Sutton likely will be back for a 35th season as a Division I coach when practice opens in October. Though his body and face show the strains of four decades of coaching wear and tear, this ol’ Cowboy is having too much fun to hang up his coaching saddle.

“Get my hip fixed, I’ll be just fine,” he said.

The final sunset will have to wait. There is more basketball to be played.

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