It may come as a surprise to you but Eddie Sutton took the Arkansas job in 1974 over the head coaching position at Duke … despite his friends warning him not to come to Fayetteville.
Yes, THAT Duke. Granted it was in the time that the Blue Devils couldn’t get the best players in school because of academic requirements that softened a little shortly after 1974, but that was a school hot after Sutton.
It was Frank Broyles’ salesmanship that landed Sutton. Remember, Broyles was still the football coach at the time and in the first year of being the athletics director. He didn’t want to lose in any sport.
Sutton took the job in Fayetteville with home games played in what was then Barnhill Fieldhouse, which was a half-step above a barn even by 1974 standards. They had 33 wins combined in the last four seasons before his arrival.
He passed away at his home in Tulsa on Saturday from natural causes, according to his family. He was 84 years of age.
He walked into a job where it was truly a small, intimate gathering of good friends to watch the Razorbacks play home games. I remember being at games and actually sitting on the front row because nobody else was there.
At Broyles’ urging, Sutton hit the circuit around the state selling his program. He came to Warren in the spring of 1974 to speak at the all-sports banquet in a gym that had no air conditioning on a hot spring evening.
Somehow the plane delivering him to Warren arrived early and he came over the gym and Sutton went to the football coaches’ offices connected to the gym which is where a 16-year-old proceeded to stroll in and ask for an interview.
I have no idea why it was a little surprising he said sure, grinning in a manner everybody in the state got used to. My first question was about as straightforward as I could come up with and it was, simply, “why did you want to come to Arkansas?”
Granted, it was done because I couldn’t think of anything better, but what followed was a lengthy answer that even a 16-year-old could figure out was Broyles had sold him on it.
That launched a roughly 40-minute discussion where he laid out his plan he had come up with that was based largely on what convinced me at the time he at least was sold on his plan.
Sutton also inherited a media that had never covered a big-time college basketball program. With me, that interview in the only air-conditioned place on a hot spring evening started a run during which over the next 11 seasons, you could literally walk into his office without an appointment and get five minutes or so.
When you called his office you got a return phone call. If you called him at home he would either answer or come to the office and patiently answer any questions.
“I’m going to ask those folks out there a question and I want you to watch how many people hold up their hands,” he said that night in Warren, still smiling. “You’ll know it when I ask the question.”
He was correct about that because it came early and there wasn’t a lot of wasted words before he got to it.
“How many of you have season tickets to Razorback basketball?” Sutton asked after saying he was glad to be invited to Warren.
He was there for free. A lot of coaches then were charging fairly steep fees, including Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant from nearby Fordyce, who wanted a significant appearance fee.
After Sutton asked the question, things got quiet really quick.
One man, longtime booster Sykes Harris, Sr., (one of Broyles’ good friends and golfing buddies), raised his hand. Everybody else suddenly was fascinated by the tables and plates in front of them.
Sutton just smiled again.
“You may want to go ahead and get on the list now because I can guarantee you they are going to be hard to get in just a couple of years,” he said.
Nobody laughed, but a couple of people later after Sutton left headed back to Fayetteville remarked, “I think he actually believes he can win enough games that people will want to come to those games.”
Sutton had a different timeline and an unbelievable confidence in himself. He knew what he could do, got Marvin Delph immediately out of Conway then got Ron Brewer from Westark Community College (now UA-Fort Smith) and Sidney Moncrief from Little Rock Hall and things changed in a hurry.
Within 18 months, Razorback men’s basketball tickets were a hot item. Less than three years later getting one required someone that either had deep pockets or knew the right people.
Hogs’ basketball was on the map. In his second season, Sutton had the Hogs in the NCAA Tournament and they blew a 17-point lead in the first round to Wake Forest as key players got in foul trouble and they lost a close one at the end.
His third season removed any doubt Arkansas basketball was back. They reached the Final Four, finished third in the nation a few months after the football team finished third after beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Arkansas sports hasn’t been at that level with football and basketball in the same year since.
Sutton showed that, yes, you could win big at a traditional football school if you were fundamentally sound. He stressed defense and believed you HAD to be able to do that and not turn the ball over.
If the players did that, he figured he was good enough to bring them across as winners.
Which he consistently did.
During his first five years he spent as much time coaching the fans as the players. His shows on KATV with Sam Smith, Dave Woodman and Paul Eells were required viewing on Sunday afternoons at 4:30.
Watching one of Sutton’s practice was as educational as talking to him, which happened a couple of times when he would come close enough and start explaining what he was teaching. Before that I didn’t have a clue about how players really SHOULD be playing a man defense with footwork and angles to watch the ball and the man you were supposed to be guarding.
Sutton even came up with the idea of a pep band stuck in a corner of a renovated Barnhill Arena and the director, Jim Robken, ran all over the place firing up the packed house. He even put in one of those noise meters and fans tried to blow it through the top.
It was a deafening noise. Opposing coaches hated playing in Fayetteville with a passion. After games Sutton would often be hoarse from the strain of just communicating over the crowd.
Houston’s Guy Lewis just threw his hands up one night and sat down with his towel.
“My players couldn’t even hear what I was trying to tell them,” he told me a couple of years later in Dallas at the SWC Tournament, recalling the game where the Cougars blew a lead late. He blamed the crowd.
Sutton built a monster that only his successor, Nolan Richardson, has managed to keep consistently fed adequately.
He left for Kentucky in 1985 when he admitted years later he got caught up in the challenge of taking over one of the highest-profile programs in college basketball.
Sutton later admitted his comment about “crawling to Kentucky” was a dumb comment and aimed at Broyles, not the fans. He also said he never should have left Arkansas then. He probably would have left for his alma mater, Oklahoma State, later but that’s one hypothetical piled on top of another one.
What Richardson accomplished in continuing to actually build on the program reached the top of a mountain no one even considered possible two decades before.
But he never would have been here if Sutton hadn’t arrived in Arkansas in the spring of 1974. Deep down his biggest asset was the ability to teach. That extended to fans and, yes, even the media.
He really did teach an ENTIRE state how to love basketball.