Sutton's story is great one . . . if you can ignore some of the details NCAA TOURNAMENT

April 01, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SEATTLE -- To maximize your enjoyment of the NCAA tournament, the rules are pretty simple. Don't ask questions. Don't dig too deep.

Don't think about the unseemly mess that resides just below the glossy, upbeat surface you see on TV.

Don't think about the soul-robbing recruiting scandals that make the front pages, or the sickening gyrations that some schools go through to keep certain players eligible. Don't think about the coaches being in bed with the shoe companies.

Just play dumb and don't think about any of that, like CBS, and you can relish the tournament for the toe-tingling spectacle that it is.

Of course, sometimes the "other" side bubbles so close to the tournament's surface that it becomes impossible to play dumb, to keep from recognizing that what you're seeing is not nearly all there is.

Eddie Sutton's making the Final Four is an event that inspires such a cold shower of reality.

Sutton is the coach of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who will play UCLA in the first game of today's national semifinal doubleheader at the Kingdome. He is a wise, old-school tactician, one of the best coaches anywhere. He also serves as a window offering a glimpse at the game's dark morality.

In his last job before this one, Sutton was forced to resign after four years at Kentucky. The school was hit with a three-year probation soon after he left, and although his name wasn't mentioned in any of the violations, the NCAA mentioned his departure as a reason the school wasn't sanctioned even more harshly.

The violations included $1,000 sent to a recruit's father in an overnight package, and a top recruit cheating on an exam. Sutton has never admitted he knew any of it was happening. You can believe that if you want.

He recently said that what he learned from the "terrible experience" at Kentucky was to keep a closer watch on his staff, as if he weren't damaged goods himself. But administrators at Texas A&M thought so little of him when he was looking for a job that they refused to hire him, thinking it would send the wrong message. Sutton was damaged goods, indeed.

But the sad truth of college sports is that there always are plenty of schools ready to ignore such damages to get a coach who can win. Having a soiled past doesn't keep a successful coach from having a future.

Ethics and scholarship take a beating if there is a chance to just win, baby.

Granted, it made sense on a lot of levels for Oklahoma State to hire Sutton. He was an alum, a disciple of legendary State coach Hank Iba, a link to the school's rich basketball past. Family is supposed to help when you're in need, right?

But, of course, the real reason he was hired was that he had been a winner at Kentucky and Arkansas, and was a good bet to return some glory to State's foundering program. That he was fresh from one of the game's worst recruiting scandals in a decade just didn't matter.

Oh, sure, the State school president grilled Sutton for six hours, making a show of institutional concern. And Sutton gave his version of a mea culpa by confessing to a drinking problem, for which he received treatment. But in the end, some 13 months after being forced to resign at Kentucky, Sutton was hired amid much celebration.

In his first season, he took his predecessor's players to the NCAA tournament while Kentucky sat at home, still on probation for violations that occurred on Sutton's watch. There should be a law.

Today, it is safely said that Sutton has done exactly what he figured to do at State, turning a loser into one of the nation's top programs. He has taken three of his five State teams to the Sweet 16, and, now, one to the Final Four. No one ever said he couldn't coach.

Ever the front-runners, the CBS talking heads have taken to calling his Kentucky experience "adversity," as if it were just a run of bad luck or something. And he wasn't asked one question about Kentucky at yesterday's news conference. It's as if that whole page of his history has been wiped out. His version of an 18-minute gap.

Some will say that is only fair, that Sutton's record is clean other than Kentucky, that everyone makes mistakes and deserves another chance. Fair enough.

But the truth is that the Kentucky scandal was every bit as bad as Maryland's, and the Maryland coach, Bob Wade, was basically kicked out of college coaching for five years by the NCAA. Six years into his post-Kentucky career, Sutton is fortunate not to be just now emerging from that jail.

Instead, he is at the pinnacle of his profession, the Final Four, basking in the renewed attention being given to his considerable coaching skills. It would make for a nice comeback story if not for the large caveat attached to it: the dark spot on Sutton's record.

You can try to ignore it when you sit down to watch the games today.

Good luck.

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