Like many other Razorback fans, I watched the documentary “Eddie” on ESPN Monday night, and all the memories of the Eddie Sutton era of Razorback basketball cascaded back — good and bad.
If you missed the documentary, I encourage you to track it down.
Sutton, of course, revitalized Arkansas’ basketball program, actually laying the foundation for what we know as modern Razorback basketball as head coach from 1974-85.
Taking nothing away from Nolan Richardson, but without what Sutton built on the Hill, Richardson never would have had the opportunity to be the trailblazer he was and accomplish what he did at Arkansas.
Of course, Arkansas was just a portion of Sutton’s Hall of Fame career. He was the first coach to take four Division 1 schools to the NCAA Tournament, first at Creighton (1969-74), then Arkansas, Kentucky (1985-89), and then his alma mater Oklahoma State (1990-2006). He finished off his career in 2008 at San Francisco, where he won his 800th game as a head coach.
The documentary was powerful and in some places extremely raw. Sean Sutton, Eddie and Patsy Sutton’s middle son, opening up about the verbal abuse he withstood from his alcoholic father and idol when he was in high school was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking to hear.
Though not quite as personal but just as harsh was former Kentucky star Rex Chapman’s revelations of how bad Sutton’s alcoholism became in 1986-87 when Sutton would actually fall asleep in the middle of addressing the team from the stands during practice.
Sean Sutton and Chapman’s disclosures are even more harrowing knowing that both have dealt with their own demons, falling under the haze of addiction to prescription pain medications during their lives.
The documentary just underscores how human the men and women we watch coach and play actually are. Nothing is as simple as it seems sitting in the stands or watching on TV, and nothing is ever as black and white as it seems when read from the printed page or a tablet screen.
The lives of sports stars — coaches and players — are just as messy, difficult, and human as our own. Fans only get to experience a small sliver of their lives, even the people who know them well, only know what those persons reveal.
One of the comments Sutton made in an interview used in the documentary was that he felt leaving Arkansas was his biggest mistake.
That was a really interesting comment, even in light of with the way he was forced to resign at Kentucky in the midst of a recruiting scandal, one the NCAA never directly tied to him.
Sutton had been gone from the UA for nearly four years before I had the opportunity to cover the Razorbacks for the UA student newspaper “The Arkansas Traveler” in 1989, but I quickly heard the second-hand stories both good and bad about Sutton from other reporters and others who were close to the program.
Whenever you hear second-hand stories, you have to take them with a grain of salt, but it’s no new revelation to anyone who followed the program closely that Sutton’s alcoholism had become an issue by his final year at Arkansas.
In my news reporting lab in 1989, the class instructor, who also worked for the basketball program as a tutor at the time, had our class go to the Washington County Courthouse to practice researching various documents. One of her examples was looking up a couple of Sutton’s citations.
It’s also not a big secret that Richardson inherited drug issues among the members of the team when he took over in the spring of 1985, and by no means did Sutton leave Richardson a “Final Four team” as Sutton reportedly said.
By the end of the 1985 season, Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles was exerting pressure on Sutton. It was the same type of pressure former Hog football coach Ken Hatfield felt when he abruptly left Arkansas for Clemson two weeks before national signing day in 1990, and the same type that Richardson felt during various times of his 17-year tenure as head basketball coach.
As a result, Sutton flirted with the Auburn job before saying he intended to end his career at Arkansas in front of the state general assembly in Little Rock in late March of 1985, but during the weekend of the Final Four, his deal to “crawl to Kentucky” was brokered.
The Razorbacks went 22-13 in Sutton’s final season, and bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in a second-round loss to St. John’s, 68-65. It wasn’t a banner year for the Hogs, but the record had little to do with Broyles’ dissatisfaction with Sutton.
From a fan’s view at the time, the only thing that appeared out of order was that twice that season, Sutton left the bench after becoming upset with the officiating and sat in the stands to watch the end of the games.
The first was a 71-68 loss to Rice on Feb. 24 at Houston, and the second was the loss to St. John’s in the NCAA Tournament on March 16.
To a high school kid at the time, I thought Sutton’s behavior was odd, but also kind of funny. In hindsight I see that it might have been a cry for help.
As “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette” reporter Bob Holt revealed in the documentary, talk around the program was if Sutton were to stay at Arkansas, Broyles wanted him to go to rehab. Of course, such talk was never reported in the papers or TV because it was unsubstantiated.
Sutton did end up going to rehab, according to the documentary, after his second season at Kentucky, but the recruiting scandal did him in a year later.
Maybe it would have been better if Sutton had stayed at Arkansas, went through rehab, and continued on as the Razorbacks’ head coach?
But then again maybe not.
Sutton’s and Broyles’ egos had begun to clash, and the relationship probably ended at the right time.
Had Sutton stayed at Arkansas fans may have been denied the pleasure of Richardson’s hey days as head coach which included four highly entertaining regular-season conference championships from 1989-92 and ‘94, and of course the 1994 national title and 1995 runner-up seasons.
When Arkansas hired Richardson away from Tulsa in 1985, he was winning at such a high level that he was ripe for the picking. If Broyles hadn’t hired him, some other program would have.
It also could have denied Sutton’s comeback at Oklahoma State, and the resurgence the Cowboys’ basketball program underwent under Sutton. In 14 seasons, Sutton won a couple of Big Eight regular season titles, and three conference tournaments. He took the program to 13 NCAA Tournament appearances and two Final Fours in 16 seasons. A relapse with alcohol did force him out at OSU, but the good he did at the school far outweighed the bitter end.
While Sutton’s struggles in his career can’t be denied, what stands so much taller is the success he had as a coach on the floor but even more so the impact he had on the lives of so many players that he coached.
No doubt the struggles Sutton endured through his life prepared him to show the strength and leadership that he did for the families of the 10 who lost their lives in the tragic January 2001 plane crash and the OSU program.
What also stood out in the documentary is how much the players he coached at Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oklahoma State admired and loved him despite the struggles he had.
Isn’t that what being a part of a family is, sticking together through thick and thin?
Like all of us, Sutton was flawed, but his impact survives him in the lives of his players and others who were in his orbit. Their lives stand as a living tribute to him today in so many ways.
It certainly lives on in the Arkansas basketball program that looks to be on the rise once again 45 years after Sutton got the modern era of Razorback basketball rolling.