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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S FINAL FOUR : 17-Year Focus : After an Absence That Included Trials and Tribulations at Kentucky, Eddie Sutton Is Back

March 31, 1995|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eddie Sutton will never forget his first time in the Final Four, at St. Louis in 1978. He was 42.

The way he remembers it, it was about as big as one of today's regional tournaments. He was coaching dark horse Arkansas, so nobody got too upset when they lost in the semifinals.

It was fun. He thought he'd just mosey on back some year.

"When I went there in '78," Sutton said last week, "I thought, 'Well, this isn't that hard.'

"But it's hard getting back to the Final Four. There've been a lot of great coaches and I'll mention them: Norm Stewart in our league (Big Eight), he's won over 600 games and he's never been to a Final Four. Jack Hartman, Ralph Miller, I can just go down the line. I'm just very thankful I had a chance to come back for a second time."

He's thankful for more than that. A lot happened to Sutton in 17 years and it wasn't all fun, starting with a four-year stint at Kentucky, where he got fired.

The Wildcat program, a state religion in Kentucky, had long been known for its fast-and-loose antics. In 1986, Sutton's first season there, the Lexington Herald-Leader published a series of articles, detailing former players' accounts of payoffs and other abuses of NCAA rules in the Joe B. Hall era.

The night before the first installment ran, one of the authors, Jeff Marx, stayed late at the newspaper office. Around midnight, he left, taking one of the first copies of the next morning's paper.

In the parking lot, Marx spotted a solitary figure--Sutton.

Sutton wanted to know how much trouble the program was in. He and Marx chatted--amiably, Marx remembers. Marx gave Sutton his newspaper.

That was the season the Wildcats went 32-4 and came within a game of getting Sutton back to the Final Four before losing to Louisiana State, a team they had beaten three times. Sutton was named coach of the year, but real trouble was on its way.

A recruit named Shawn Kemp was caught stealing some gold chains. An express company envelope with $1,000 in it, addressed from a UK assistant to the father of Chris Mills, popped open in the company's routing office next to LAX.

Before Sutton could say, "I never authorized any payment to anybody," he was out of work and wondering if he would coach again.

He spent a year making appearances for Nike before the Oklahoma State job opened up and he dived into it.

"The year I took off was a marvelous experience," Sutton said.

"I really didn't have the pressure and I was allowed to recharge my batteries. So when I came to Oklahoma State, I came in, even though I was in my mid-50s, I felt like I was in my 30s. And I still had the zest and enthusiasm to coach the college game. Maybe it was God's way of making me become a better coach and a better person, the experience that I had in Kentucky. It's one that I certainly wouldn't want to go back and relive.

"I think when I left there, I had questions whether someone would think I was tainted in some way. I think all my friends in coaching know I've always tried to run an honest program, and they knew the type of guy I was."

If his character wasn't in question, his reputation was. Personally, Sutton is a refreshing throwback in these days of the up-tight coach--garrulous, easy-going and friendly.

He says he wasn't aware of what was going on at Kentucky. He says his only crime was a failure to exercise proper institutional control. He also volunteered that he had been drinking too much.

For Sutton, Oklahoma State was home. He had gone to school there when it was a power under Hank Iba. Sutton's predecessor, Leonard Hamilton, left him some talent, including Byron Houston, and Sutton took his first Cowboy team to the Sweet 16.

The next fall, Bryant Reeves showed up, big as a house, if only a little more agile. "Mr. Iba," which was what everyone called the legendary coach, told Sutton he had his work cut out for him.

Turned out, the project went faster than anyone imagined and Oklahoma State was back in the top 20.

This season, the Cowboys went 23-7 and were sent off to the East Regional at the Meadowlands, where the powers were supposed to be Massachusetts and Wake Forest. Oklahoma State had a wake for Wake Forest in the semifinals, upended UMass in the finals and won four tournament games without allowing an opponent to shoot 41%.

Sutton is a man-to-man defense purist in the Bob Knight style. After the Bruins' piecemeal destruction of the UConn press, opponents know better than to try to run with them. Sutton is expected to slow the tempo but not to play zone defense.

He'll just send his big, old country boys out to see if they can step on the Bruins' sneakers with their cowboy boots.

"I think it's going to be a real challenge for us," Sutton said. "There's no doubt if we played the Bruins in a series that they would win. But in a one-game shot, if we can execute the things that we believe we need to do, then we can upset them like we did the two teams in New Jersey."

At 59, Sutton says he has "a young heart." He loves coaching as only someone who has lost what he loves best can. He used to say he'd love to get back to the Final Four one more time and here he is.

"Well," he said, "now you get greedy and you want to win the thing."

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