Eddie Sutton's voyage takes him back to alma mater

January 20, 1991|By Skip Myslenski | Skip Myslenski,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The date, Oct. 15, is one of college basketball's totems, the little box on the calendar that marks the opening of practice and symbolizes the dawning of a fresh season. But for Eddie Sutton, now in his first year at Oklahoma State, it is more. It is now, with him, a symbolic way to encapsulate the voyage he has traveled so recently.

That voyage began one minute into the Oct. 15 of 1988, that minute his Kentucky team sprinted onto the floor of Lexington's old Memorial Coliseum and was greeted by a standing ovation from 10,000 delirious fans. Show Time followed in that ovation's immediate wake, but that afternoon, then-university President David Roselle announced the school had received the official NCAA letter of inquiry that effectively ended Sutton's career as Wildcat coach.

So the next Oct. 15 found him suspect and wandering and out of his chosen profession for the first time since 1959. He was, instead, a roving ambassador for a sneaker company, a job that this day landed him in Raleigh, N.C., for a visit with then-North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano.

"It was very strange. It was kind of an eerie feeling," he recalled weeks after that day.

But last Oct. 15, his feelings were dramatically different, and that day, at 4:30 a.m., he awoke in his new home that abuts the second fairway of the Stillwater Country Club. It was just hours until he would hold his first practice at his new job, just hours until he once more would have a team to teach, and he was restless.

"I was excited. I had a hard time sleeping. I was ready to go," he remembers.

There was, he remembers too, no more sleep that morning, and then later, with a simple blast of a whistle, he was back. Eddie Sutton was back, and not just anywhere. He was back at his alma mater, and that was symbolic as well. For two Octobers earlier he had embarked on a nightmare season, and now he was awakening to another season in his dream job.

When he landed in Lexington in the fall of 1985, Eddie Sutton was floating on endless clouds of success. First at Creighton, then at Arkansas, he had proven himself one of the best in his business, and now he was being handed the top job at one of the most storied programs in all the land.

He would crawl from Arkansas to Lexington if he were offered the job, he had said before accepting it, and it did not matter that Kentucky was about to be visited by the NCAA sheriffs. They were coming in response to articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize, but the general lack of concern about them seemed well placed when those investigators failed to draw up a case against the school.

That behind him, Sutton guided his Wildcats to 32-4, 18-11 and 25-5 seasons, and once more he seemed ensconced firmly high above the masses struggling below. Yet, at the end of that third season, in March of 1988, an Emery package popped open in a Los Angeles warehouse, and then, he now recalls, "It was like everybody was on a witch hunt."

That package, sent from Kentucky and heading toward the dad of recruit Chris Mills, contained $1,000 as well as Wildcat game films, and reports of that fact brought the NCAA to campus once again. Sutton and his assistants and all connected with the program denied mailing that cash, but a box as full of troubles as Pandora's had been opened, and it could not be closed.

There were questions about a player's test scores and institutional control, about Mills, that Emery package and Sutton's role in it all. Through it all, through even the most damning days, he maintained his innocence, yet his team suffered, struggled and finally bungled its way to the school's first losing season since 1927.

"For a time there," he remembers, "people were running into each other [doing investigations]. It was a circus.

"It got to the point where it was tough for me to come to practice. The players weren't talking basketball. They were talking investigation. It was tough keeping their minds on priorities. Ninety-nine percent of what happened at Kentucky, we had good times. That last year wasn't fun, but I think I grew as a person that year too.

"Things had always been pretty rosy for me. I'd never really had very many obstacles, very many hard times. Life had always been very good for me. We'd won. We'd never really been criticized. We had wonderful people to coach. Then, all of a sudden every day it was difficult to pull yourself together. The adversity we faced forced me to mature."

He was going to fight the investigation to the end, Sutton recalls. He was going to fight Roselle and the athletics board and keep his job no matter the cost. He was going to fight beyond the board, which Roselle controlled, was going to take his battle to the politicians who held the school's purse strings, but then, on March 19, 1989, he resigned.

"I never ran away from a battle before," he had thought to that moment.

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