For Now He's The Cat's Meow

Eddie Sutton is doing fine so far, but Kentucky's basketball coach is finding his job full of pressure
December 16, 1985

Like Eddie Sutton's hairdo, basketball coaches at Kentucky have had a permanent look to them. That's because there have been only three of them in 55 years. Sutton is the most recent, and in his eight months on the job he has already been scrutinized, literally, from head to toe.

From head...The day Sutton was hired a local newspaper columnist wrote, "Kentuckians like their coaches' hair the way they like their bourbon. Straight."

"I knew then," Sutton says, "that the honeymoon was over."

...to toe. Sutton caused a stir by signing a reported $125,000 sneaker deal with Nike, thus ending Kentucky's half-century-long association with Converse. Any schoolboy in the state who wanted to keep in step with the Cats—which is to say just about every schoolboy in the state—had to get new footwear.

In between, critics have also questioned Sutton's heart. Some Kentucky fans wondered over the summer why he took so long to move his family from Arkansas, where he had coached for 11 seasons. Others took issue with the mustaches he has permitted his Kentucky players to wear. Bluegrass businessmen registered their indignation at Sutton's policy of not speaking to service groups. And what in the world was he doing last summer talking to the New Jersey Nets about their vacant coaching position, barely three months after accepting the job he said he would have "crawled to Lexington" to take?

Sutton insists that the Nets contacted him first. The last time the Nets spoke on the question, their official position was that Sutton had contacted them.

Indeed, when the NCAA announced in October that it would launch an investigation into allegations of booster payments to Kentucky players during the 13-year tenure of Sutton's predecessor, Joe B. Hall, a Sutton inquiry into the Nets job suddenly might have made sense. "Eddie's in a state of shock," one college coach said after the Lexington Herald-Leader detailed the alleged improprieties (SI, Nov. 11). "There's no one in our profession more image conscious than he is. He'd go back to Arkansas in a minute if they'd have him."

Sutton disputes that. "I'm more excited about being here than ever," he says. And the allegations—The Cats' Pause, an independent fanzine, refers to them unflinchingly as "the alleged allegations"—seem only to have drawn his team closer together. There's no truth to the rumor that the defense the Wildcats used in beating Indiana 63-58 on Saturday night is called The Lexington Press. "I've been around Kentucky basketball for four years, so I know that things can change drastically," says guard Roger Harden, who downplays the team's 5-0 record. "If we lose a game we're not supposed to lose, or someone's not playing who some people think should be, the fans will make themselves heard. Those times are going to come."

For now, however, the team has a new attitude. Three current starters who either quit or nearly quit last season over disagreements with Hall—Winston Bennett, James Blackmon and Harden—have tidied up their points of view. "Overall," says Harden, "it's a happier team, a more confident team." And a selfless team. On Saturday night, Bennett and Harden each took crucial charges to foil a late Indiana run.

Indeed, the Cats have shown a looseness that never existed under Hall. At practice one day, there was Robert Lock, the 6'10" sophomore center, reenacting an air ball he threw up last season against Purdue, then adding some self-deprecatory yucks of his own to teammates' laughter. There was Harden, sinking soft jumper after soft jumper while imitating Cawood Ledford, the Wildcats' radio announcer: "Last time Harden hit a jumper was in early January!" More laughter. You would think these guys played for Louisville or something.

There's only one curious thing about this idyllic picture. If you were to visit Fayetteville, where Sutton built the Razorbacks into the Southwest Conference's preeminent team and kept them there with his salesmanship, hard work and sound coaching, you would hear alarming tales about his final season at Arkansas. Guiding a young team that would lose 13 games, Sutton overreacted to officials' calls, even retreating into the stands in protest on a couple of occasions. He developed a bad back, ulcer symptoms and occasional numbness in both legs as his team's travails mounted and he frequently found "peace of mind" by using the back door to his office to escape the pressures of his job.

So far Sutton has had no such problems at Kentucky, and he fits the profile drawn up by the school's search committee when it was seeking a replacement for Hall. According to athletic director Cliff Hagan, Kentucky officials wanted someone with a national reputation, untainted by scandal and easily identifiable as an "institutional" figure. And, because of the frequent criticism directed at Hall's strategic decision making, he had to be respected as a bench coach. Sutton was their man. But he was contacted, interviewed and hired in 27 hours during the hectic Final Four weekend in Lexington last spring, and only after negotiations with Arizona's Lute Olson and UAB's Gene Bartow broke down.

When Sutton left, Arkansans took the "crawl to Lexington" remark hard, particularly because he had told the state legislature a week and a half earlier that he planned to finish his career in Fayetteville. Then Sutton twice said publicly that he would love to have Andrew Lang, the Razorbacks' talented center, join him at Kentucky. Suddenly, the Eddie Sutton revered by Razorback fans seemed to have changed into Willie Sutton. "Some people in Arkansas feel that I abandoned them," Sutton says, "but one day they'll say, 'He built the program.' "

Of course, there's no building to be done in Lexington, where Adolph Rupp was chief contractor for 41 seasons. Sutton has, however, renovated a little bit. He has banned boosters from his locker room and practices. He has chalk talks with the team two mornings a week before classes. He has let it be known that he wouldn't hesitate to go regularly with an all-black starting lineup, something that would Rupp-ture a hoary Kentucky tradition. Indeed, for 54 soulful seconds in the first half on Saturday night, Sutton had five black players on the floor against the Hoosiers.

Sutton has gotten on well with his predecessor. For his part, Hall, now a vice-president of a Lexington bank, has given Sutton his public support, something Hall himself hadn't enjoyed from Rupp, whom he succeeded in 1972. The Baron kept an office and his TV show after he retired and openly second-guessed his former assistant. Kibitzers, of course, are still in abundance. "Once you're hired, there is a honeymoon," Sutton says. "But then there's a constant downhill slide, because you're not going to please everybody. The angle of the slide is dependent on how much you win."

Sutton's terrain remained gently sloped with the defeat of Indiana. Playing without star guard Steve Alford, who was sitting out a one-game suspension levied by the NCAA for lending his name and image to a sorority fund-raising calendar, the Hoosiers nearly pulled the game out. When rubber-legged freshman Ricky Calloway knocked in two of his 22 points on a jumper with 1:44 left, Indiana pulled to within 59-56. And as Stew Robinson, who played the entire game in Alford's stead, came barreling toward the basket moments later on a breakaway, IU was poised to pull even. But Harden hurried back on defense, determined to try out the skill that Sutton teaches in practice with a special drill. Said Harden, "I told my feet, 'Feet, don't fail me now.' "

Harden slipped into Robinson's path just as the layup was let go. Whistle, charge, no basket. Instead of facing a likely tie game, Kentucky took its three-point lead downcourt again, where, with the Hoosiers concentrating on All-America forward Kenny Walker (16 points), Harden broke baseline past Robinson for a clinching layup.

The Hoosiers sorely missed Alford down the stretch. Never mind that the Gamma Phi Beta sorority is a nonprofit organization, or that proceeds from calendar sales were to benefit underprivileged girls (the sorority hurriedly recalled 3,000 unsold copies last week), or that Alford wasn't paid a cent, or that Indiana itself had called the misdemeanor to the attention of the NCAA, or that Alford had recently done antidrug TV spots on the NCAA's behalf, or that the suspension affected one of the few programs in college basketball not suspected of wrongdoing just as it went up against a school that has been one of the most suspect. Alford's mom ripped the NCAA in the Louisville Courier-Journal for "picking on a very strong Christian boy." Indiana coach Bob Knight wouldn't say more than, "It's a decision they'll have to live with."

Sutton and Kentucky will have to live with each other's decisions, too. But Sutton has made some good ones, beginning in 1967 when he decided to leap, Knievel-like, from a high school job in Tulsa to a brand-new juco near the Snake River Canyon called the College of Southern Idaho. Success followed him there, as it would to Creighton and to Arkansas. At Kentucky he settled into the roomy rear office in the basketball suite for a few months—the only room with a back door. "But after going back there," he says, "I didn't like it that much." So now he's out front, just off the reception area, where the traffic streams by and probing eyes look in.

The folks back in Arkansas, Sutton has said, "know they've lost a good friend, but he has gone to heaven." They may have, and he may have. But as Sutton understands by now, there's no peace of mind in this particular firmament. And no back door.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOBlackmon (10) and Bennett (25) have rebounded from unhappy relationships with Hall. THREE PHOTOSJOHN IACONONow that Sutton's the one in the hot seat, no wonder Hall (with family, below) is smiling. PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.] PHOTOJERRY WACHTERWalker scored 16 points and attracted lots of attention from the Alford-less Hoosiers. PHOTODAVID PRICEThis charity calendar earned Alford a suspension.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)