STILLWATER — Have you ever noticed? When Eddie Sutton is discussed, it is almost always and entirely about his career as a coach. Little is said about Eddie Sutton the player, but dig deeper and you find that Sutton, while not a star, was the kind of player that often excelled and was a difference-maker on the teams he coached—from Creighton to Arkansas to Kentucky to Oklahoma State.
Sutton was a 6' 1", 185-pound guard that was tough enough to play as a forward. He lettered all three years—which was all you could back in those days as freshmen were ineligible for varsity duty—and played on the freshman team, a team that Sutton would coach the year after graduating while he started work on his Master's degree.
Back to Sutton's playing days. He was born in Dodge City, but grew up and went to high school in Bucklin, Kansas. His parents were supportive of his loving and playing sports. His mom would even play catch with him to work on his baseball. His father, Orville, was a hardworking mechanic who traveled over Kansas building military establishments during World War II before the family settled in Bucklin.
"He and my mother did everything possible to allow me to spend time in sports," Sutton told famed radio host John Erling in an interview recorded in Tulsa back in 2010 when Sutton was 74, basically 10-years before we lost the Coach on Saturday night. "I can remember when we were living on the farm. Any time there was a practice session in baseball or any of the other sports I played, he always made a sacrifice to make sure that I could get there for practice. I did a lot of playing catch by throwing the ball up at the old barn and retrieving it. I did the same thing when I was shooting baskets. My mother, whenever she could when I was small, she would come out and throw the ball back to me."
Sutton remembers that he and his schoolmates were so much more active then than kids in his years as a coach. Life was harder in the Kansas countryside, and he learned from it and it made him a big part of who he was.
"Back in those days, in elementary school, kids played tag on the playground. Kids don’t do that today. We didn’t have video games," Sutton compared then to now. "In fact, where we lived on the farm, we didn’t have indoor electricity or indoor plumbing until I was in the eighth grade. We didn’t have TV. We had a transistor radio. That was one thing that hooked me. I started listening to basketball and baseball games on the radio. I pretended in my mind that someday I really wanted to do that. So I think that planted a seed that I wanted to play sports."
Sutton said he was basically the height he was as an adult by the seventh grade, which made him a dominant force through junior high and high school.
"I was six feet tall and I was bigger than everybody else," he said. "I only grew another inch in high school. We were in a small conference. I was the high scorer in basketball all four years of high school. In junior high, after I had my chores done, I would shoot baskets for two or three hours a day on the dirt by our barn. My dad had put a hoop up there. That’s how you become a good basketball shooter. Shooting is an art. Once you shoot the ball the same way every time, it’s just a matter of how many hours you put in. You can become a very, very good shooter."
I used to love to hear Eddie Sutton tell two stories, the first was how he would be in the coach's hospitality suite at the Final Four when he was a young coach and he would talk about how Mr. Iba and Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp would get into basketball arguments and eventually that would lead to the two of them getting Coke bottles and Seven-Up bottles on the coffee table and get into X-and-O discussions that often got pretty heated.
The other story I really enjoyed was one he recounted for that interview with John Erling. It was how Kansas famed coach Phog Allen and Wichita State's Ralph Miller came to Bucklin to recruit him to college. In the end it was Henry Iba that got Sutton to Oklahoma A&M, but never visited his home.
"They did try to recruit me my senior year. I can still remember Phog Allen, who was a great coach at Kansas coming out to the house," Sutton spoke. "He had been the Olympic coach in 1952. He came out and my mother made a Sunday dinner. He was there for about four hours. He was a great storyteller and talked about the Olympic games. The only coach that didn’t come to my home and recruit me was Mr. Iba and that’s where I ended up going to school. Recruiting was a lot different in those days. But the other coaches came out and I visited all of the campuses."
Phog Allen was retiring midway through Sutton's college years and he said that was the difference in him not going to Kansas, that and something he felt in Stillwater.
"When I visited OSU there was something so special that hit me. I was so impressed with Mr. Iba and how friendly people were. I made the decision and never regretted the fact that I went to OSU," Sutton explained of his first experience of being "loyal and true." "I felt it was the right choice. I have a lot of friends that went to school during those same years. They say that if I would have gone to Kansas that they would have won the national title, because they had the great center Wilt Chamberlain. One thing they didn’t have at that Kansas ball club was outside shooting. That’s about the only thing I could do. I could shoot the ball from out on the floor."
That skill would manifest itself in one of the greatest games in Oklahoma State history. That game came in the first year that Oklahoma A&M had become Oklahoma State University.
Sutton first played on the freshman team and then on his first varsity squad the Aggies went 18-9 and 10-5 in Missouri Valley play. They were ranked as high as No. 20 in the nation and swept Oklahoma in Bedlam, but they did not make the NCAA tournament. Sutton played with some outstanding players like All-American Arlen Clark, multi-sport standout Mel Wright, and others.
In his junior season in Stillwater there was the name change and the team finished 17-9 and were ranked as high as No. 12. They split with Oklahoma, but in the stretch of the season won a game for the ages against the school Sutton came so close to attending.
"My junior year in college we won one of the greatest games in OSU basketball history when we beat Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas (56-54) when they were ranked No. 1 in the country," Sutton would always say with pride of the win inside old Gallagher Hall. "We beat them and it is still considered one of the great victories for the Cowboys.
"I scored 18 points. That was one of the best games that I ever had," Sutton continued. "I hit nine field goals. We didn’t have the three-point line then. But had we had the three-point line, I would have had 27 points because they were all beyond the arc as we know it today. I was always quite good at shooting from that range."
He was good from a shorter distance as well. Sutton led the Cowboys in free throw percentage that season at .843. It is a percentage that would have him at No. 21 on the all-time list if he had averaged around another half of a made free throw a game that season.
Throughout his coaching career Sutton always made a big deal of how special it was to make the NCAA tournament. Perhaps, a reason for that was that as a player he only made it to the "dance" once. It was his senior season when the Cowboys finished 21-8, playing as an independent as they transitioned from the Missouri Valley into the Big Eight with rivals Oklahoma and Kansas. They split with both of those schools that season and were ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation.
"We went to the NCAA tournament as an independent," Sutton punctuated. "At that time I think there were only 24 teams that went to the NCAA tournament."
Oklahoma State disposed of Loyola-New Orleans 59-42 in a game in Stillwater. Then the Cowboys went to Allen Field House for the next two rounds as they defeated Arkansas 65-40 in a blowout.
"We went all the way to the championship game—what they called the Elite 8 Game of the Sweet 16," Sutton continued. "If we would have beat (No. 3) Kansas State who won the Big 8 that year, we would have gone to the Final Four. They defeated us (69-57). The game was played in the Allen Field House. That was the last game I played in."
There is no doubt there were many more high points for Eddie Sutton the coach, but it is worth reviewing that Eddie Sutton the player would have been more than good enough, disciplined enough, and tough enough to play for Sutton the coach.