Winning is soap for Sutton's dirty linen


March 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- Eddie Sutton said yesterday that he was surprised to be back in the NCAA tournament, and it should be noted that he is not the only one.

There are some people in Kentucky who are more than just surprised. They're not happy about it, not at all. They are among the many hoopalehs around the country who bought into the popular notion that Sutton's days as a college coach might be over.

Anyone who doubted Sutton's future, however, was not heeding one of the basic truths of college sports: If you can win games, you can always find a warm office with your name tacked on the door.

A little dirty linen won't get in your way. Dirty linen can always be cleaned.

Yes, Sutton's was particularly dirty. His four years at Kentucky ended with the Wildcats getting hit with three years of probation. Sutton wasn't named in any violations, but the NCAA mentioned his forced resignation as a reason the team avoided harsher sanctions.

Oklahoma State hired him 13 months later, last April. There were some sentimental explanations. He had played ball there in the 1950s. His college coach, a living legend named Hank Iba,

fronted the move to bring him back. It was a homecoming.

All that was fine, of course, and certainly played well on the local news. The essential explanation for his hiring, however, was that he would win games. Oklahoma State had a mediocre program, just one NCAA bid since 1966. Sutton would pull it up. There wasn't much doubt about it.

He had taken teams from three schools to the NCAAs during his two decades as a coach, winning more than 70 percent of his games at Creighton, Arkansas and Kentucky. His teams always played tough defense, ran the floor, played smart.

"He is one of the best five coaches in the country," said New Mexico coach Dave Bliss, whose team will play Oklahoma State today at Cole Field House in a first-round NCAA tournament game.

He wins. There is always a warm office for a winner, dirty linen be damned.

You haven't noticed the people at UNLV chasing off Jerry Tarkanian, have you? Illinois' Lou Henson and Missouri's Norm Stewart didn't lose their jobs when their teams went on probation. Norm by-gum Ellenberger, a cutting-edge cheater a decade ago, is on the bench next to Bob Knight these days.

These are winning coaches. They have something important to say. They will never be out of the loop. It isn't just endemic to basketball. Jackie Sherrill has his hands on a new football team down at Mississippi State. There is no bottom to the well.

All you need is a story. Your history revised, your linen cleaned. Maybe a little time to let the newsprint go yellow.

Sutton's sentence was a hiccup, 13 months without a team. He wanted to get back in at Texas A&M last year. They didn't like the statement it made, told him no. There was some opposition to him among Oklahoma State alumni. They didn't like the statement either. They lost.

Sutton, 55, came with a story. He admitted to a drinking problem, called Kentucky "a terrible experience," said he wanted a fresh start. He pointed to his record, which was clean until Kentucky. He looked better, healthier, the pasty-white pall of his Kentucky days replaced by red cheeks.

His linen had been washed. The president of the school grilled him for six hours and came away impressed. It made sense. He was family, and your family will always love you no matter what happens. Particularly if you're going to win 20 games.

There wasn't much doubt about what would happen after Sutton got the job, although the surprise is that it has happened so soon. He has worked his usual magic, taken another coach's players and won 22 of 29 games in his first season, enough to get State an NCAA bid for the first time in eight years.

"I didn't think we had a shot when practice started," he said. "But this team kept getting better and better."

Kentucky, meanwhile, is ineligible, still on probation, a 20-win team with nowhere to go. "People are pretty mad about him," a Kentucky writer told me this week.

Sutton has never accepted any blame for what happened there, though. His line is that there never was enough wrongdoing to warrant sanctions, that the Wildcats never would have been hit had scandal-weary school officials not so eagerly embraced the NCAA investigation.

"I feel very disappointed for those kids at Kentucky," he said yesterday. "They wouldn't be sitting out the tournament if the situation had been handled differently."

Was it such a miscarriage? According to the NCAA, Kentucky's malfeasance included an assistant coach mailing $1,000 to a recruit's father in an overnight envelope, and a top recruit cheating on an exam. Not exactly puffery. At the very least, Sutton was guilty of looking the wrong way.

But those crimes no longer matter, basically. The Kentucky stains are -- poof -- gone from Sutton's linen. He has a new team, a warm office, a happy following, practices to run, shoe contracts to sign, opponents to out-coach. He has made it back into the loop. It is no surprise. As Al Campanis might say, he has the necessities.

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