Thursday, March 23, 2000

Cowboys give Sutton shot at redemption




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Eddie Sutton has done the dictator thing. He used to coach college basketball by decree, the way everyone did in the days when authority meant never having to say why. But he has come to see the value of consensus.

        “It used to be you could just say, "Hey, you go do this,'” the Oklahoma State basketball coach said. “Now, sometimes you have to say: "You know, I think this is the way we want to do it, and I'd like you to do it.' So, maybe you soften yourself up a little. I wonder if Adolph Rupp or Henry Iba could have made those adjustments.”

        The guys who last in big-time basketball these days are the ones who keep learning — those who can embrace innovation, adapt to change and stay up to speed on the latest loopholes in the NCAA manual. Sutton continues to win at 64 years old because he continues to evolve.

        Eleven years after his forced resignation at Kentucky and a subsequent bout with alcoholism, Sutton has revived his career and rebuilt his reputation at his low-profile alma mater. He is still teaching the same principles Iba taught him during the Eisenhower administration — tight defense, smart shooting, sparse turnovers. But he has managed to stay current, too.

        Sutton's Cowboys play a structured game, but not a stifling one. They have spontaneity. They have style. They have reached the NCAA's Sweet 16 with a point guard prone to length-of-the-court passes, a star forward who moonlights as a painter and a coach who has grown more tolerant with time.

Message received
        Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, Sutton called a timeout with his team trailing Pepperdine 5-1. He didn't rant. He didn't rail. He didn't raise his voice.

        “Instead of going nuts, like some coaches would do, Coach sat us down and said, "Look guys, you've seen what they can do. Now's the time to relax and start to play,'” said Doug Gottlieb, the Oklahoma State point guard. “There's where his experience comes in and the fact that he's been here before for all these games.

        “People ask us all the time what it's like to play for Coach Sutton. There is no secret to it, no magic potion that he has. It's just that he prepares us and over-prepares us so we are ready to play the second we step out on the court.”

        Sutton has won 658 games in his 30 years in college basketball and is the only coach to lead four different schools to the NCAA Tournament. Though his image has been scarred by the 1989 Kentucky scandal — an air-freight envelope addressed to a recruit, stuffed with cash; allegations of academic fraud — Sutton is not a man who characteristically cuts corners.

        He declined an invitation to take part in Nike's “Bracketville” commercials which were being filmed in Florida, preferring to stay in Stillwater to prepare for the Big 12 Tournament. His commercial credits consist primarily of an ad for Charlie's Chicken, in which Sutton is shown coaching a chicken mascot to “dunk it, Charlie, dunk it.”

        “The chicken listened,” Sutton said, proudly.

        Ultimately, listening is a coach's litmus test. Methods vary. What matters is whether the message makes it through.

        “You know sometimes when it's proper to jump on somebody,” Sutton said. “And other times, you need to stroke 'em and tell 'em you love 'em. I think that's something any coach certainly will learn as they coach the game. But there won't be too many guys coaching as long as I've coached.”

Untold story
        Sutton is still at it, at least in part, in order to put a new spin on his Kentucky experience. He wants to be defined by success, not scandal.

        “Some day, when I quit coaching, I'm going to write a book and the true story will be written,” he said. “It'll be quite a story.”

        No need to reserve your copy just yet. If Sutton has established a timetable for his retirement, he's not sharing it. Not even with his son, and probable successor, Sean.

        “One goal is still out there that he hasn't been able to accomplish — to win the national championship,” Sean Sutton said. “That's why you coach. I don't think he's given up on that dream.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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