Highlights from an Evening with Eddie Sutton
I recently had the distinct honor of attending a get-together organized by a group of University of San Francisco alums in which the Dons’ interim coach, Eddie Sutton, gave a brief presentation and answered questions for a small group of former players, coaches, fans, and one analyst (me).
Sutton, approaching his 72nd birthday, without a doubt seemed genuinely enthusiastic about his present employment, despite the controversy and strange circumstances surrounding it. The story’s been well-covered elsewhere, but essentially Dons coach Jessie Evans, a former assistant of Lute Olson, was asked to take a leave of absence for the remainder of the season, just before the Christmas holiday.
Athletics Director Debra Gore-Mann, herself brimming with enthusiasm and excitement, laid out an end-of-season scenario for our group in which Sutton will serve as an advisor for the recruitment and selection of the Dons’ next head coach, and to recommend other administrative and facility upgrades within the Dons’ basketball program.
Along the way, he hopes to pick up his 800th win (which could come as early as tonight when the Dons face RPI #182 Pepperdine in Malibu), a feat which he has said is probably more important to his family and friends than it is to him. An underlying impetus for taking the job, which has been mentioned elsewhere, was to leave college basketball on his own terms, rather than under the hasty regret from which he departed Oklahoma State in 2006.
What seemed important to Sutton, at least on this night, though, was the opportunity to once again coach young men who needed his help.
Evans recruited young men of mediocre talent, but solid character, throughout his tenure at San Francisco. The heart of his teams shone through many times in the past, including during upset wins over Texas Tech and New Mexico State in 2006, and during the two closest WCC games Adam Morrison ever played during his final year at Gonzaga. The Dons even pulled off a nearly unthinkable upset over the Zags the year prior at War Memorial Gym.
Many outside the program suspected that a lack of discipline and structure under the free-wheeling Evans has led to the team’s inconsistency. Sutton admitted that it’s been one of the great challenges of his first month on the job to re-instill a work ethic and commitment to fundamentals in his players.
Any who suspect Sutton may be past his prime, though, are sorely mistaken. Passion still drips off of every Southern syllable uttered by the legendary coach. Though he demurred from diagramming any plays for his audience, his more general analysis of dribble penetration, which he considers the single-most important offensive tactic in the game today, and the motion offense created by one of his heroes, “Mr.” Henry Iba*, underscored the incredible wealth of strategies and insights that nearly 50 years of coaching have inspired.
*Longtime followers know that Sutton considers “Mr.” to be the ONLY acceptable first name for the patriarch of the Oklahoma State program. In fact, Sutton remarked that Bob Knight is the only coach he knows of who called the legendary man “Henry,” though he quickly pointed out that Knight respected and admired the man as much as he did.
Sutton followers also know that few can match the man’s storytelling ability. Here are just a few gems from the other night:
- As coach of the Kentucky Wildcats during the 1985-1986 season, his first in Lexington, Sutton was befriended by former Kentucky Governor and MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler, who helped counsel Sutton on handling the pressure of coaching Big Blue. Kentucky went 17-1 in the SEC that year, and yet still didn’t feel entirely comfortable that he was the man for the job. Despite a heartbreaking loss in the Elite Eight, ending the ‘Cats season at 32-4, Sutton received a note from Chandler after the 1986 Final Four, which read, simply:”Dear Coach: It’s o.k. to unpack.
- One of Sutton’s most famous players, Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, was from a thumbtack-sized town in Eastern Oklahoma. Sutton considers the development of Reeves one of his greatest accomplishments at Oklahoma State, as the big man was nearly un-recruited out of high school. Sutton recalled seeing enormous potential in Reeves’ huge, soft hands, but figured he would be a work in progress for much of his college career.Reeves progressed faster than anyone expected, and managed to start one of the first games of the 1991 Preseason NIT.Sutton recalls he played quite well in limited minutes, but was amazed at how nervous he was prior to the second game. One of the assistant coaches went over to “Country” at the team’s pre-game meal prior to the second game, hosted in Stillwater, and asked the big man why he looked so pale, given that the Cowboys had completely blitzed their first-round competition.
“Coach,” replied Country, “I’ve never been on a plane before,” referring to the fact that if OSU had won the next game, they’d have to fly to New York to play the Finals at Madison Square Garden.
Reeves became a media darling, as OSU defeated Georgia Tech in the PNIT Final, and when a reporter asked him how he’d compare his hometown to New York City, Reeves responded slowly:
“Well…you drive into town and the post office is on the right. Then…you drive a little further and there’s a gas station on the left. Then…you drive a little further and you’re out of town.”
- In the early 1980′s, Sutton was part of a deployment of college coaches asked by Nike to conduct a series of clinics for Chinese coaches eager to learn the game. As the piece de resistance of the clinic, he and several other coaches, in their mid-40′s were asked to play an exhibition game against the Under-21 Chinese National Team. The coaches protested, as many hadn’t played a competitive game in over 20 years, but nonetheless were convinced to accept the challenge.What they didn’t know when they accepted the challenge was that the game would be played against the Under-21 Chinese Women’s Team. The hosts got off to a fast 9-4 start, and the American coaches called time-out. Sutton called a huddle and told his teammates in Keyshawn-esque fashion, “I played center in high school; I can play with my back to the basket. Give me the ball.”
He went on to have what he describes as one of the best games of his career, scoring close to 40 points and getting to the line a dozen or so times. Of course when people ask him whom the game was against, he tells them “the Chinese National Team,” but typically leaves out the gender of the opponents…
There were many other stories, but the story of the trip China prompted (or followed?) a discussion of international basketball in general. Sutton remarked that on a similar tour of Greece in the mid-1990′s, he’d been amazed at the enthusiasm of the coaches, but lack of understanding of fundamentals they displayed. A decade later, when he returned, he realized that European teams have been able to instill the game’s fundamental skills and strategies much more deeply than those in the United States had been able to do over the same period.
While Europe and other countries around the world have the advantage of year-round club teams with professional or semi-professional coaching, even at a young age, Sutton points to another factor which has harmed the standing of U.S. basketball in relation to the rest of the world: summer and AAU basketball.
Sutton re-iterated numerous times during the course of the evening his opinion that talent still wins over coaching in most situations, and feels that the U.S. on balance still has more talented players than the rest of the world. But when junior high kids and high schoolers are removed from their school environments, where coaches “typically still do a good job of teaching the game,” they learn bad habits and a bad work ethic by playing under coaches who don’t know fundamental basketball as well as they should, playing under coaches who don’t hold them accountable when they freelance or slack off, and simply by playing too many games and not getting enough practice time.
Sutton’s troubles with alcohol over the years have been well-documented, as has his ignominious departure from the University of Kentucky. (As an aside, having now met the man, I find it hard to believe that he had anything to do with the $1000 “signing bonus” that never quite found its way to Chris Mills. Class and honor would be two of the first words I’d use to characterize Sutton.)Regardless of what fans may think of Sutton’s sometimes checkered past, it’s my view that he deserves another chance at a big-time program. The question is, does he want that? His life’s passions now seem to consist of his family and assisting with the substance abuse center at Oklahoma State.
Given his passion for the game, and his globe-trotting experience at spreading basketball around the world, perhaps a more appealing position might be as a sort of Domestic Advisor to Jerry Colangelo about how to strengthen the game within our own borders, and how to make Team USA more competitive.
Regardless of what the future holds for Eddie Sutton, two things were immediately clear to me after this night: he has earned the right to leave the game however he sees fit. And his place in history as one of basketball’s great coaches is well-deserved.