Eddie Sutton (1936–2020)
Eddie Sutton was a men’s college basketball coach who led four schools, including the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), to the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. He became one of a small group of men’s Division I college basketball coaches to have more than 800 career wins. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020.
Born on March 12, 1936, in Bucklin, Kansas, Eddie Sutton graduated from Bucklin High School in 1954 and earned a basketball scholarship to what is now Oklahoma State University. Coached by Henry Iba, college basketball’s “Iron Duke of Defense,” he played guard on the freshman team (1954–1955) and on the varsity team (1955–1958).
Sutton graduated from Oklahoma State with a bachelor’s degree in 1958. After graduation, he married Patsy Wright, whom he had met as an undergraduate. They went on to have three sons. Sutton served as a graduate assistant basketball coach while working on a graduate degree. After receiving a master’s degree in 1959, he coached basketball at Tulsa Central High School in Oklahoma. In 1966, Sutton left Tulsa to establish the men’s basketball program at what is now the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. The team posted a 33–4 record in Sutton’s second season as coach. Since Sutton’s departure from Southern Idaho in 1969, the Gold Eagles have remained one of the nation’s best junior college basketball teams, having appeared in the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament more than twenty times and winning several national titles.
In 1969, Sutton assumed the head coaching position at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He replaced John “Red” McManus, who had coached the Blue Jays since 1959. Sutton’s best season came in 1973–74, when Creighton posted a record of 23–7.
Sutton next accepted the head coaching position at UA in 1974. Since the retirement of Glen Rose in 1966 (after a thirty-three-year coaching career in which the Razorbacks won 325 of 526 games), the team had declined significantly under Duddy Waller (1966–1970) and Larry Van Eman (1970–1974), winning only thirty-nine of 104 games. Sutton turned the basketball program around by his third season, when the Razorbacks won the Southwest Conference (SWC) regular season and tournament titles in 1977. Arkansas claimed SWC regular season titles again in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982, as well as SWC tournament titles in 1979 and 1982. Under Sutton, the Razorbacks appeared in nine NCAA tournaments from 1977 to 1985. After losing to the University of Kentucky in the National Semifinal, Arkansas defeated Notre Dame University in the consolation game for third place in 1978. In eleven seasons at UA, Sutton won 260 of 335 games, and his winning percentage of .776 is the highest in the history of the SWC.
In 1985, Sutton became the head coach at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. In his first three years at Kentucky, Sutton directed the Wildcats to seventy-five wins in ninety-five games, two Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles in 1986 and 1988, and three NCAA tournament appearances, in which they advanced to the “Elite Eight” in 1986 and the “Sweet Sixteen” in 1988. Sutton’s fourth season, however, resulted in Kentucky’s first losing season since 1927. Led by inexperienced underclassmen, Kentucky suffered from the graduation of key players and the suspension of Eric Manuel over allegations of cheating on his college entrance exams. An investigation by the NCAA concluded that Manuel had received improper assistance on the exams and uncovered an extensive scheme of providing payments to recruits. The Wildcats received a three-year probation, a two-year ban from postseason play, and a ban from live television coverage from 1989 to 1990 in exchange for the resignations of Sutton, his staff, and athletic director Cliff Hagan.
After a year out of coaching, Sutton returned to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, in 1990. He directed the Cowboys to thirteen NCAA tournament appearances, in which they reached the Final Four in 1995 and 2004. Oklahoma State won the Big 8 regular season and tournament titles in 1995, as well as the Big 12 regular season title in 2004 and the Big 12 tournament in 2004 and 2005. After retiring from Oklahoma State with 386 wins and 151 losses in 2006, Sutton became the interim head coach at the University of San Francisco, replacing Jessie Evans midway through the 2007–2008 season. On February 2, 2008, the Dons defeated Pepperdine University, marking Sutton’s 800th career victory.
In April 2008, Sutton retired from coaching, for a second time, with 806 wins, 329 losses, and a winning percentage of .710. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Sutton’s wife died in 2013. In 2020, he was named a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the seventh time he was a finalist since 2002, but this time, he was elected to be included in the Hall of Fame (with a posthumous induction in August 2020), becoming the second Arkansas coach to have that honor.
Sutton died on May 23, 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The following month, ESPN released a documentary titled EDDIE about his career.
For additional information:
Dawson, Dudley E. Razorbacks Handbook: Stories, Stats and Stuff about Arkansas Basketball. Wichita, KS: Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing Company, 1996.
“Eddie Sutton.” Sports-Reference.com. http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/coaches/eddie-sutton-1.html (accessed October 20, 2021).
Holt, Bob.”Branching Out.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 24, 2020, pp. 1C, 4C.
———. “Naismith Hall of Fame Finally Makes Sutton Call.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 4, 2020, pp. 1C, 5C.
———. “Ready for Eddie.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 3, 2020, pp. 1C, 6C.
———. “Sutton, UA Basketball’s Trailblazer, Dies at Age 84.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 24, 2020, pp. 1A, 8A.
———. “Widespread Influence.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 25, 2020, pp. 1C, 3C.
Jones, Matt. “Master of Barnhill.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 31, 2020, p. 4C.
Kerkhoff, Klaire. “Eddie Sutton: A Country Song Kind of Basketball Life.” Standard-Examiner, November 21, 2011.
Adam R. Hornbuckle
Spring Hill, Tennessee
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