Sutton’s Hall of Fame honor long overdue

For a while, Eddie Sutton’s name was one I just didn’t want to hear.

I resented that he left the University of Arkansas in 1985 to be Kentucky’s basketball coach, and I really resented the comment he made when he arrived in the Blue Grass State.

“I would have crawled to Kentucky,” Sutton said.

That resentment, of course, was silly. I didn’t know Eddie Sutton, and he certainly didn’t know me, a high school kid from West Memphis at the time. The resentment stemmed from the shallow thoughts of an immature high schooler who was too inexperienced in the ways of life and naive enough to believe that the whole world revolved around the Razorbacks.

I never thought any coach would leave Arkansas for another job, even though I did know enough to realize that Kentucky’s job was celebrated as one of the great jobs in all of college athletics.

Sutton’s departure stunned me as a fan, much more than when Frank Broyles, Arkansas athletic director, pulled the plug on Lou Holtz after the 1983 season.

Heck, as a Razorback fan I dearly loved having Sutton as the head Hog. He was one of the most respected college coaches of the day, mentioned among the same company of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. I don’t think it would be an embellishment to say that from 1978 until 1985, he was as well respected as almost any coach who hadn’t won a national title.

Of course, national titles in that day weren’t viewed as the end all and be all of college sports. Coaches were judged more on how consistently their programs won year after year than by just winning a national title.

For example, Smith didn’t win a national title at North Carolina until 1982, but I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t considered one of the coaching greats because of how consistently he won at Chapel Hill.

Now, Sutton didn’t win at that level at Arkansas — not as much or nearly as long — but he was working at it. When he left the Razorbacks program, Sutton had a 260-75 record in 11 years, that’s a 77.6 percent winning percentage. Simply incredible for a program that had very little in terms of a basketball identity before he arrived.

Sutton had taken the Hogs to nine consecutive NCAA Tournaments after the program had only been once in the 26 years before he took over the job. He had made the Final Four and the Elite Eight, and Razorbacks were perennially ranked in the Top 20 and often higher. He coached All Americans and put players in the NBA. Sutton made the Razorbacks not just a good basketball program but a great one.

But, boy, did that line about crawling to Kentucky sting. I guess it still does a little bit today.

Even with all of that he accomplished at Arkansas, I resented Sutton for about five years after he left the Razorbacks because I saw his departure as a slap in the face to the program I loved. I shamefully admit I was happy he washed out at Kentucky. That’s how petty unrealistic fandom can be.

That all changed, though, when I actually got to speak to the coach in a telephone interview in October of 1990 for a preseason story in the “Arkansas Traveler,” the UA’s student newspaper. The story was about Barnhill Arena and how intimidating of a venue it was.

At the time, I wasn’t surprised he returned the phone call, but when I look back on it from today’s vantage point, I really realize how lucky I was to not just get to interview Sutton, but to be able to spend 20 or maybe even 30 minutes on the phone with him. It’s rare for any reporter to get that kind of time today, much less a know-nothing college kid.

It was so clear after that phone call how much Sutton loved and cherished his time with the Razorbacks and how much he appreciated and cared for his players, assistants, staff, and managers. Whatever resentment I had was virtually gone.

Sutton spoke glowingly of The Triplets — Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer, and Marvin Delph. He was so proud of the man Darrell Walker had developed into, and was over the moon that former player and assistant Jim Counce had become a surgeon. Likewise he praised Scott Hastings and Joe Kleine and a number for other Hogs. And it was fantastic to hear him describe U.S. Reed’s three-quarter court shot to down Louisville in 1981.

Sutton was even excited that Nolan Richardson had gotten the program back on track after a couple of lackluster seasons in his first two seasons as head coach.

I didn’t have the courage at the time to ask Sutton about the “crawl to Kentucky” quote, and after a few minutes into the interview, it didn’t even seem relevant. I could tell his time at Arkansas was special to him, and that meant more to me than anything as a Razorback fan. The quote didn’t matter much to me anymore.

As I continued to cover the Razorbacks, and talk with reporters who had covered Sutton daily and others that knew the circumstances, I learned more about his personal struggle with alcohol and how it got out of hand in his final years with the Razorbacks.

While it may have been common knowledge in circles around Fayetteville, I didn’t know until the early ‘90s that Arkansas Athletics Director Frank Broyles basically pressured Sutton to move on because he thought Sutton’s drinking was out of control, and he feared a scandal of some sort.

Things are never as simple as they seem to be, especially to someone as naive as I was as a high school kid who couldn’t believe any coach would ever want to leave Arkansas for any reason.

Like so many other Razorback fans and followers, it was heartening news to learn last Friday that Sutton finally would be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. It was an honor long overdue for Sutton, who no doubt had his personal struggles, but was without a doubt one of the great teachers and coaches of the game.

For me as a Hog fan, Sutton was the catalyst for so many great memories when he roamed the sidelines of Barnhill Arena and his Hogs wreaked havoc with defense, discipline, and dedication.

Without Sutton’s efforts, what Nolan Richardson accomplished would never have been possible, and the hope that many Razorback fans have for what could be possible under Arkansas’ latest coach Eric Musselman just wouldn’t be there.

So congratulations to Coach Sutton and his family for the honor, and thanks so much for the memories, especially that phone call back in October of 1990.