The college basketball community lost a legend with the passing of Eddie Sutton, a head coach of 37 years in the Division 1 ranks and a two-time recipient of the AP Coach of the Year award.
A native of Bucklin, Kansas, Sutton got his start in college basketball when he crossed the state line to play for Hall of Fame head coach Henry Iba at Oklahoma State, and took a seat on Iba’s staff as an assistant after graduating in 1958.
Sutton would return to Stillwater some 31 years later to become Oklahoma State’s head coach in 1990. He was hired to inject life into the program that had been down in the 20 years since Iba’s retirement, and after only five seasons on the job, Sutton had the Cowboys in their first Final Four since 1951. He took them back again in 2004, before stepping down in 2006 after 16 seasons, 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference tournament championships, three regular season conference titles and 368 wins, second all-time to his mentor, Iba.
Between the Oklahoma State bookends on his coaching journey, Sutton also led the programs at Tulsa Central High School (about an hour from Oklahoma State’s campus), Southern Idaho, Creighton, Arkansas and, of course, the University of Kentucky. He threw in a year as an interim coach at San Francisco at the very end of his career, coming out of retirement with 798 wins midway through the 2007-08 season, and in February of 2008 he became only the fifth head coach in the 800-win club.
However, Sutton’s widely successful coaching career (did you know he was the first coach to lead four programs to the NCAA Tournament?) does not come without its baggage, and the worst of it came during his time in Lexington. All was going well in his first years as Joe B. Hall’s successor: he signed elite talent, including All-Americans like Rex Chapman, Eric Manuel, Shawn Kemp and Chris Mills, to name a few, and he earned the SEC and AP Coach of the Year awards in 1986, his first season on the job.
But a couple years later, the public learned some of Sutton’s recruiting tactics were not within the rules and things broke wide open, literally, when employees at Emery Worldwide discovered the infamous package (you know the one) that almost brought down The Greatest Tradition In College Basketball for good. It was a package containing $1,000 to Chris Mills’ father and it was the breaking point in a scandalous tenure. Sutton, as well as then-athletic director Cliff Hagan, were forced to resign, while UK was handed a three-year probation, which eventually led to The Unforgettables and Rick Pitino’s restoration of greatness.
Sutton also had his own personal battles throughout his life, and as UK historian Oscar Combs said of the man he once covered, “despite the struggles he faced in life with a terrible disease that many people still fight, Eddie was a very kind, generous man and he was a great coach.”
Rex Chapman tweeted, “Eddie Sutton was a fascinating and complicated person. He also was an unbelievable teacher of the game of basketball. I was fortunate and lucky to have learned from him. Grateful.”
Chapman was one of the stars of Sutton’s four-year tenure at Kentucky and an All-SEC selection in his two seasons with Sutton. Chapman may be Sutton’s biggest win at Kentucky too, after Sutton convinced “King Rex” to pick UK over rival Louisville in the biggest recruitment the Bluegrass has ever known.
Before Rex, Sutton’s 1985-86 team was on a path to win the national championship in Sutton’s first season on the job. That team entered the tournament with only three losses all season and a 17-1 record in SEC play, but a fourth run-in with LSU, an 11-seed on the bracket, made for an upset loss in the Elite Eight. Kentucky had won the previous three meetings, but the fourth time was the charm for Dale Brown’s Tigers as LSU upset the Cats, 59-57, to become the lowest seed to ever reach a Final Four. It robbed college basketball of Kentucky-Louisville in the Final Four, Louisville would go on to win the championship, and LSU is still to this day the only team to beat the top three seeds on its way to Final Four berth. It will forever be one of those “should have been us” teams in the Kentucky record books.
Sutton’s entire career is full of NCAA Tournament memories, including his nine straight appearances with Arkansas before he took the phone call from Kentucky. He guided the Razorbacks to the Final Four for the first time since the 1940s, Sutton’s first of three Final Four trips over the course of his career.
He had a Hall of Fame coaching resume, an easy vote when it would come time for his induction, but the off-court troubles weighed on the voters. Sutton was a finalist for the Hall of Fame six times before he was finally selected as a member of the 2020 class, not even two months prior to his passing at age 84.
The Associated Press said it best: “Eddie Sutton waited so long to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He couldn’t hang on long enough to make it to the ceremony.”
At least he took his final rest knowing that he’ll be forever named among the all-time legends, an honor he deserves for all he did for college basketball: four different teams to the NCAA Tournament, a Final Four in three different decades and 806 career wins.
Rest in peace, Hall of Famer.