Sutton's Impact Reached Well Beyond Basketball

John Helsley

Eddie Sutton always stood larger than life for me.

And I brushed up against my share of big personalities during 30-plus years as a sports writer. Tiger Woods. Barry Switzer. Jack Nicklaus. Russell Westbrook. Bill Russell. Albert Pujols. Pat Riley. Mike Gundy. Les Miles. Mack Brown. Bob Stoops. Bill Self.

Plenty more, too.

Eddie, however, was different.

It’s hard to explain, especially when you consider I never even covered Eddie’s teams as the primary beat writer. I was the No. 2 man on the beat for The Oklahoman, alongside my pal Mike Baldwin, during some great seasons. I was the No. 1 football writer back then, and what we called the “backup” writer for hoops. Sort of the B Team.

Still, Eddie treated me like the A Team. Always.

Eddie, who died Saturday at the age of 84, stands as an OSU A-Teamer for the ages. If you’re crafting an OSU Mount Rushmore, don’t you include him?

Sure, the competition for such hallowed space is stiff. Iba. Barry Sanders. John Smith. Gundy. Ed Gallagher. Bob Kurland. Gary Ward. Mike Holder. All worthy of serious consideration.

And the list goes on.

But do you know how impactful Eddie Sutton was on OSU athletics, at a critical juncture?

It's sort of accepted and maintained that Cowboy basketball enjoys a rich history and tradition. And it does, indeed, yet, OSU’s success is really wrapped up in two coaches: Iba and Sutton.

Before, between and since, the Cowboys have scuffled mightily, working for mostly a group of forgettable coaches, although Mike Boynton offers hope of returning the program to an elevated status.

But get this: spanning 111 seasons, A&M/OSU basketball has posted 1,678 victories. Iba (654) and Sutton (368) are responsible for 1,022 of those. Allow that to sink in a minute.

Still, Sutton’s impact goes far beyond just the wins.

When Eddie returned to OSU in 1990 after becoming one of the nation's great coaches through stops at Creighton, Arkansas and Kentucky, the school was in need of an athletics jolt, teetering on the edge of irrelevance when it came to the revenue sports. Football was in an NCAA probation-infused funk, one year ahead of a winless season. Basketball hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in eight years and reached the postseason only three times total since joining the Big Eight Conference in 1957. THREE TIMES.

Eddie immediately rerouted the basketball trajectory, returning the Cowboys to the NCAA field in his first two seasons and 13 times overall in his 16-year run in Stillwater. In doing so, he indirectly spurred new life and hope for football.

The momentum and energy and excitement raised the roof, literally, on Gallagher-Iba Arena and on what had become sleepy expectations for what should have been the department's premium attractions. Soon, basketball’s success bled over, with the renovated GIA sparking a renewed focus on improving football’s presence.

Make no mistake, the vision for Boone Pickens Stadium doesn't exist without Sutton's impact; him making basketball a big deal -- again -- first filling the smaller GIA, then packing them inside still when the building doubled in size, gaining that "Rowdiest Arena In The Country" reputation.

Where would OSU athletics, GIA, BPS and the near-complete Athletic Village be without Eddie Sutton’s successful return? Take it a step further and weigh the role of athletics on attracting big donors to campus -- Burns Hargis calls athletics "the front door" to giving -- and how many marvelous buildings might not exist?

Shudder to think.

But Sutton did succeed. And he returned home to do so, as a favorite son no less. And Cowboys fans loved him for it, and kept on loving him even when life got bumpy. That's what you do with family.

And they loved him, just like his players and anyone who saw the man from the inside, just for being him, which was kind and caring and generous, except for when he had a whistle around his neck or a referee in his sights. They loved him for always being there, especially when the going got tough, even when tragedy struck, which happened when 10 members of the OSU basketball family perished in a Colorado field on a failed flight home from a game one winter night in 2001.

It was Eddie who guided the families and OSU through the grief.

And while it took a toll on the man, it elevated him in a much more meaningful scope. Maybe all of that, all of Eddie, is what made the man different for me.

One afternoon, I was passing through Gallagher-Iba – the house that Eddie rebuilt – as the Cowboys were getting ready for another practice; taking a shortcut of sorts after doing some football interviews.

I crossed paths with Eddie, stuck out my hand to reintroduce myself, saying, "I’m John Helsley" – and Eddie cut me off, saying, “I know who you are. You’re a heckuva writer; enjoy reading you.”

Now, I know the heckuva writer part is a stretch. And I have no idea if he actually read my stuff, let alone enjoyed it.

He didn't have to, but Eddie welcomed me, with warmth. Made me feel comfortable. Made me feel good, which I came to learn is exactly what he did with so many people during memorable stints at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and OSU.

Eddie was tough, as his players will attest. He ran some out of practice. He fitted his teams with football pads for practice when he felt guys were growing too soft. He growled and made that bulldog face. And he shot from the hip, never mincing words. Eddie could be the poster boy for tough love.

But the love was there and unmistakable. And it was real, seen as well in his three sons Sean, Scott and Steve, all fine products of Eddie and Patsy Sutton.

Eddie Sutton was a great coach. A great influencer. A great father and husband. A great man, despite the humanness that at times dragged on him.

For me, he was and is, larger than life.

Just writing this, and reflecting, and being reminded of Eddie's impact, not only on basketball but on the school, I'm convinced.

When talking about OSU's Mount Rushmore, argue all you want about the other three spots, but Eddie Sutton belongs.

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