Cowboys' character tested by hardship

Oklahoma State: Greatly affected by separate tragedies, the team and coach Eddie Sutton have persevered all the way to the Final Four.

Final Four

College Basketball

April 01, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are coached by a man whose career was once tainted by scandal. They are led by a point guard whose life was sidetracked last summer by one tragedy, and they are part of a program that overcame another tragedy three years ago. They are the Oklahoma State Cowboys, college basketball's second-chance team.

As Oklahoma State weaved its way to this year's Final Four in San Antonio, the buzz was about this collective comeback. It is a story of restored reputations, renewed faith and revived success.

At the center is Eddie Sutton, who returned to Stillwater 14 years ago with his once-exemplary career in tatters after his three-year reign of error at Kentucky wound up with the Wildcats being put on probation for serious infractions committed during his unstable watch.

Then there is junior point guard John Lucas, who left Baylor last summer after the shooting death of one teammate and subsequent murder charges filed against another. One of five Division I transfers on this year's team, Lucas has played a large role in Oklahoma State's 31-3 season.

But the biggest comeback was made by the basketball program itself, which rose from the ashes of a plane crash that killed two players and eight others in January 2001.

Part of these Cowboys, and certainly a big part of Sutton, remains back on that night more than three years ago when one of the three private planes the team was chartering from Denver after a game at Colorado crashed in a field outside the city.

"I don't think there's a day that goes by that something doesn't remind me of that plane crash, because we lost 10 wonderful people," Sutton said last week in East Rutherford, N.J., where the second-seeded Cowboys beat No. 3 seed Pittsburgh and No. 1 seed Saint Joseph's.

There are reminders every day Sutton and his assistant coaches, including his son and former player Sean, pass by the glass-encased memorial at Gallagher-Iba Arena honoring the 10 who died. And there are the two players remaining from that team, Terrence Crawford and Ivan McFarlin.

"It was difficult, but you try to use it as a learning experience and that everything bad that happens, something good can come out of it," said Crawford, who had known one of those killed, Nate Fleming, since they played in a youth league together. "Everything happens for a reason."

Earlier this season, after Oklahoma State won at Texas, Sutton asked his players if any wanted to address the team.

"[Crawford said:] `Don't you think those 10 guys are up there smiling?' " recalled Sutton, 68, who attaches a button with the number 10 to a piece of clothing every day.

Those close to Sutton say the coach was both devastated and inspired by the tragedy. He became more understanding of his players, though not any less tolerant of their on-court mistakes. He also became even more invigorated to fulfill a promise he had made in 1990.

It was made to Sutton's coach and mentor, the legendary Henry Iba, who had led Oklahoma State (then Oklahoma A&M) to back-to-back national championships in 1945 and 1946 as well as to the championship game in 1949. The Cowboys went to the NCAA tournament once between Iba's retirement in 1970 and Sutton's arrival in 1990.

"It all goes back to when I came back to Oklahoma State; it had been a long drought," Sutton said. "I'll never forget Mr. Iba, when they made the announcement and he said, `Well, one of my boys is coming back.' To take this team to two Final Fours, I guess it's a small way of saying thanks for what was given to me as a student when I played there."

The Cowboys made the tournament in each of Sutton's first five years. Oklahoma State reached the Sweet 16 in 1991 and '92, and when the Cowboys made the Final Four in 1995, the younger Sutton thought his father might contemplate retiring.

"I thought at that point he felt he really completed the turnaround," said Sean Sutton. "I think it was good for him after what happened at Kentucky. I know that he probably didn't want people to remember him for what happened at Kentucky.

"When the plane crash occurred, there was a whole newfound dedication that he wasn't going to let this thing crumble. He'd fight every day to keep this program at a high level. He takes complete pride in coaching anywhere, but he's got great pride in Oklahoma State."

Terry Don Phillips, then Oklahoma State's athletic director, credits Sutton with keeping the team, and ultimately the program, from falling apart.

"He drew the team inward," Phillips, now the athletic director at Clemson, said yesterday. "He worked hard on them staying focused, on playing basketball and going to class, but he understood their grief. His concerns were like any father would have for their children."

The elder Sutton said the plane crash changed his life dramatically - and put his career in the proper perspective.

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