When Oklahoma State announced last spring that it was hiring Eddie Sutton as its basketball coach, Byron Houston had to hold himself back from laughing. Considering the size of Houston's legs, pulling them was not an easy task.
"It happened around April 1, so I thought it was an April Fool's joke," Houston recalled.
Sutton's return to coaching came only a year after he left Kentucky amid a scandal that eventually put the Wildcats on National Collegiate Athletic Association probation; his return to prominence has come just as quickly.
After sharing the Big Eight regular-season championship with Kansas and after victories over New Mexico and North Carolina State last week at the NCAA East Regional in College Park, the Cowboys and their coach find themselves suddenly reborn.
When Oklahoma State (24-7) plays Temple (23-8) on Friday at Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., it will mark the school's first trip to the regional semifinals since 1958. Sutton was a senior on that team, coached by the legendary Henry Iba.
"When I played, it was a little easier to get up the ladder," Sutton, 55, said Saturday at Cole Field House. "There weren't as many good teams. It's been a long dry spell for Oklahoma State University. Being it's my alma mater, it makes it very special."
The Cowboys, like their coach, have new-found discipline. Under Leonard Hamilton, who left to become coach at the University of Miami, Oklahoma State never made it past the second round of the National Invitation Tournament or won more than 17 games in a season.
Though the players recruited by Hamilton are the nucleus of Sutton's team, there is more attention paid to playing tough, man-to-man defense and taking better shots, especially down the stretch.
"We always used to take the wrong shots at the end of close games," said Houston, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward, who, with 26 points against the Wolfpack, overtook Bob Kurland as the leading scorer in school history. "There was no discipline."
Then again, Sutton's life apparently had gotten even more out of control. There was a reported drinking problem, dating back to his days at Arkansas, that eventually required Kentucky officials to provide him with a driver. The ego had grown so massive that Sutton said that Kentucky basketball "was bigger than the New York Yankees, bigger than the Dallas Cowboys, bigger than Notre Dame football."
Former Oklahoma State athletic director Myron Roderick was aware of Sutton's history with alcohol and said yesterday that he and school officials thoroughly checked out the situation in Lexington, as well as with the NCAA. When Sutton was cleared of any involvement in the Kentucky charges, he was hired by his alma mater.
"I'd rather take somebody like Eddie who's been thoroughly investigated by the NCAA and take a chance on him, than someone who's never been investigated," said Roderick, now bTC executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. "We had to be careful about the image and credibility of the man. But when everything checked out, there was no question that he was our coach."
The day he took the job, Sutton admitted to having a drinking problem and said he had sought help for it. Today, 10 pounds lighter and his batteries recharged, Sutton once again is doing what he does best -- coach.
"He's one of the five best coaches in the country," said New Mexico's Dave Bliss.
Said Sutton: "I'm a better person and a better coach. I've put it [Kentucky] behind me. It's unfortunate it had to happen, but life goes on."
For Sutton, the first coach to lead four different schools to the NCAA tournament, this season has been a bit of personal and professional healing. But while he apparently has changed his lifestyle, his approach to coaching remains the same.
"Coach told us, 'If you don't want to play defense, you can take a seat next to me,' " said junior guard Corey Williams, a former starter who comes off the bench and is the defensive stopper for the Cowboys.
Though he doesn't have the talent that he did at Arkansas or Kentucky, Sutton's team is not without it. Houston, when his temper is under control, is one of the better power forwards in the country. Center Johnny Pittman, when he doesn't have to shoot free throws, is a 7-0, 270-pound force. And point guard Sean Sutton, when he plays under control, is an effective floor leader.
While his father is getting a second chance in Stillwater, so is the younger Sutton. In his two years at Kentucky, Sean Sutton was asked more questions about what he did or didn't do off the court -- initially charged with lying to NCAA investigators, the younger Sutton later was cleared -- than what he did as a little-used Wildcats guard.
"I think Sean in a lot of ways had a tougher job coming in here than I did," said Eddie Sutton, who ranked as the 10th-winningest active Division I coach entering the season. "I think he's shown a lot of people that he can play."