Eddie Sutton Remains Unappreciated, Especially by UK Fans

One is tempted at times to say Cincinnati really is in Kentucky, kind of the way Philadelphia really is in New Jersey. That in mind, the Cincinnati, Ky., athletic scene endured two earth-shatteri

Feb 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

One is tempted at times to say Cincinnati really is in Kentucky, kind of the way Philadelphia really is in New Jersey. That in mind, the Cincinnati, Ky., athletic scene endured two earth-shattering scandals in the late 1980s.

Each scandal badly marked its principal character to the extent that each is likely to be kept from his profession's Hall of Fame. Each of the principal characters was among the most enjoyable to cover from a sports reporter's standpoint because, in part, of an easiness in personality.

In each case, though, that easiness is one aspect among many, for both men are driven. Indeed, each is compelled and compulsive to the point of addiction.

The more famous case is that of Pete Rose, the West Side river rat who rose to athletic immortality without obvious athletic gifts, pushed by obsession that sometimes trumped human decency. Well before his playing days ended, Rose walked the earth as something of a secular deity, feeding a sense of invincibility that did him no favors as he faltered against the biggest challenge of his life.

Should he tell or not? Baseball left it up to Rose by issuing no finding as to whether he bet on the game in a 1989 suspension agreement.

As long as the matter was undecided, despite overwhelming evidence, Rose could plausibly deny it. He finally came clean in 2004, but probably too late for the Hall of Fame's graces.

Baseball's inquiry concerning Rose and gambling had only begun as the University of Kentucky learned its fate from the NCAA, which investigated the basketball program's recruiting practices during the previous year. The university went on probation for two years with no hope of postseason play during that time.

Just as Rose's 15-year silence on the gambling question compromised his support, the past 15 years also have been unkind to Eddie Sutton's legacy at UK. Sutton resigned as Wildcat basketball coach following a stormy 1988-89 season that lives on two fronts of infamy.

Not only did virtually all the discussion that year ride on developments in the investigation, but the Wildcats finished 13-19. That campaign remains Kentucky's only losing basketball season in 80 years.

The implosion of Sutton's program at UK shortened his tenure to four seasons, an 88-39 record with two Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight. Sutton arrived with the program under a cloud after a series of stories in The Lexington Herald-Leader told of recruiting violations under the previous regime. The NCAA subsequently cleared UK, but the program's reputation for running afoul had been a long time brewing and the real tempest was yet to come.

Sutton took an under-sized team playing man-to-man defense with three guards to 32-4 his first year, 1985-86, losing a regional final to LSU the fourth time they met that year. Young and under-manned in 1986-87, UK finished 18-11. Whispers about a drinking problem circled, and Sutton underwent treatment in 1987.

But the Wildcats picked up their recruiting, winning commitments from talents like LeRon Ellis and Eric Manuel. In 1988-89, led by the backcourt of Rex Chapman and Ed Davender, the Wildcats finished 25-5. They fell in the round of 16, 80-74 to Villanova, where coach Rollie Massimino often prevailed with inferior talent in Thursday-Friday games due to his preparation.

With that loss, Sutton's term unraveled. Chapman cried during the post-game press conference, and everyone knew he would turn pro. He endured bizarre scrutiny as UK's reigning Hillybilly Prince of the Hardwood, so he sought peace in the NBA.

Less than a month later, a story broke in Los Angeles concerning an Emery Air Freight package addressed from UK assistant coach Dwayne Casey to recruit Chris Mills, which was supposed to have "popped open," exposing $1,000 in cash. Thus began the investigation that finished Sutton.

As the 1988-89 season began, Sutton declared, "I'm innocent. I hope my program is innocent." The NCAA later cleared Sutton of wrongdoing, but member universities were prohibited from hiring Casey for five years without clearance.

Sutton might have won a national championship at UK, but be couldn't control the program well enough to keep it. On his heels, both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith have won national titles, so Sutton is remembered as the only UK coach in more than 70 years not to. And his deliberate style of play is out of step with the Kentucky tradition.

A year later, Sutton landed on his feet at Oklahoma State, his alma mater, on the condition that he address his drinking problem. He spoke about it at his introductory press conference, then took the Cowboys to unknown heights.

In 25 previous seasons, OSU notched only seven winning records and two NCAA tournaments. In Sutton's 15 full seasons through last year, OSU finished 351-135 with 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference championships, two conference tournament titles and a Final Four.

At 69, Sutton might have retired and turned the team over to his son, Sean, before this season. He cracked bones in his lower back falling on an airport escalator in 2004 and complained since then of constant back pain.

On Feb. 10, on his way to meet his team at the airport in Stillwater, Okla., Sutton weaved across four lanes of traffic, crashing into another car and a tree. He soon took a leave of absence for the remainder of the season.

Last week, the worst was confirmed: Sutton was drinking — a lot more than anyone ought to. His blood alcohol level at the time of the accident, 0.22, is nearly three times the legal limit of .08.

More troubling, that amount of drinking is insane. According to a calculator on the University of Oklahoma's Web site, a 220-pound man who drinks eight doubles on the rocks in one hour would only blow a .16. Is Sutton drinking Everclear straight out of the bottle?

Sadly, his career probably is finished. Because OSU's wins this year will count on his record while Sean Sutton coaches the team, he's still within reach of 800 career victories in 36 seasons. He was the first coach to take four different schools to the NCAA Tournament and the first to take two to the Final Four.

Of Sutton's four stops, three of them — Creighton, Arkansas and Oklahoma State — were nowhere on the basketball map when he took control. Considering that he spent only four years at Kentucky, it's arguable that he's done more with less than any coach in college basketball history.

And he's been fighting the bottle the whole time.

Many of Sutton's former players will tell you that they love him to death. He's an absolute purist, never one to orchestrate much of a show. He's just a ball coach.

But many believe his chances of going to the basketball Hall of Fame already were doomed by the scandal at Kentucky. Now his career probably is done because the bottle beat him again.

Sometimes you beat the bottle. Sometimes the bottle beats you. The bottle beat Sutton almost at the worst possible time, probably a month before he was about to step down as the game's grand old man.

In the end, sadly, it appears Eddie Sutton will go down somewhat like Pete Rose, these two men who scandalized the Tristate sports scene two decades ago. Like Rose, it's possible Sutton will be remembered as the most accomplished man in his profession to not enter its Hall of Fame.