Eddie Sutton doesn't need the Basketball Hall of Fame to verify his iconic status
Eddie Sutton kept insulting his new team. Kept telling the Cowboys that what they were wasn’t good enough.
“You gotta get out of that NIT mentality,” Sutton kept saying to that talented but raw group of OSU players Leonard Hamilton had recruited before taking the University of Miami basketball job.
Ron Arthur lived with those Cowboys in the dorm. He was a student manager for Hamilton and would be a student manager for Sutton. Arthur knows how those Cowboys felt in those rough days 29 years ago, when Sutton first was hired to coach his alma mater.
“Those guys were insulted by that,” Arthur said. “We thought the NIT was pretty good. That’s all we knew.”
Speaking of insults, the Basketball Hall of Fame delivered one itself Tuesday, informing the Sutton family that the most iconic Cowboy of them all would not be inducted in its 2019 class. At age 83 and in poor health, Sutton’s chances to enjoy a Springfield enshrinement are fast fading.
Frustration mounts and anger grows over Sutton’s exclusion. Bewilderment over how Lou Carnesecca (526 college wins, one Final Four) is in and Sutton (806 college wins, three Final Fours) is out. How if scandal at Kentucky is keeping Sutton out, how scandal at Maryland didn’t keep Lefty Driesell (20 fewer wins, no Final Fours) out, too.
But these are not the times to question the Basketball Hall of Fame, a shadowy, insular institution without the protocols or transparency of Cooperstown or Canton. The Basketball Hall of Fame is not to be taken too seriously. It’s always been a private club, a secret society. Eddie Sutton would do more for the Hall of Fame than the Hall of Fame would do for Eddie Sutton.
On this disappointing day, it’s best to think of the salad days of OSU basketball. When a long-slumbering program rose from the ashes and became one of our state’s greatest success stories.
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Big Eight and Big 12 championships. Two Final Fours. Routine trips deep into the NCAA Tournament, including that very first team that indeed shook off an NIT mentality and made the Sweet 16.
And oh, what Sutton did to Gallagher-Iba Arena. It’s easy to think of the refurbished GIA as the house that Sutton built. But no. Gallagher-Iba was remodeled in 1987 into the beloved gymnasium we all remember, yet not until Sutton’s arrival in spring 1990 did the 6,381-seat bandbox become the nation’s rowdiest arena.
“You’re talking about a tradition that went dormant for awhile, an expectation level that was not met for awhile, and here he comes with his discipline, his system, his coaching, his winning background,” said long-time OSU radio analyst Tom Dirato. “The fans latched onto that in a hurry.”
Inheriting a roster of Byron Houston, Darwyn Alexander, Corey Williams, Johnny Pittman and John Potter, Sutton added his son, point guard Sean Sutton, and the Cowboys took off. Their first two Big Eight games, an 80-79 loss at Missouri and a 78-73 home win over Kansas, told the conference a new sheriff was in town.
Students camped out for good seats. Eventually, student tickets were good for only every other game. The masses returned to Stillwater. The Henry Iba golden years were revived.
“All of a sudden, a bunch of excitement on campus,” said Arthur, now a long-time Shawnee High School coach. “Everyone wanted to pack Gallagher-Iba Arena. Man, it just kind of over time took off, and it was really fun. Even as a manager, you were somebody. We became the fad of campus.”
It was more than a fad. The frenzy lasted all 16 seasons that Sutton coached, and it’s a frenzy four other head coaches have tried to capture, knowing the embers remain for a spark.
“What he brought in was a disciplined approach to how to go about the game of basketball and the game of life in particular,” Dirato said. “Didn’t take him long to install that. Within months of him being here, the kids understood this was going to be a different day and age and they were going to have to play both ends of the floor or they weren’t going to play.
“We had good players. But what he brought was a mindset.”
Sutton now has been gone from the job 13 years; almost as long as he coached. OSU faithful never will forget the Final Fours and the conference titles and all those great games of Bedlam and Kansas, the Big Eight and Big 12 Tournaments, the always present madness of March.
But the most precious memory might be that first year, when Oklahoma State basketball was reborn and became a source of instant pride, a feeling that can’t be tarnished by any hall of fame.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
What others are saying about Sutton's snub; How Sutton compares to Hall of Fame inductees, Page B6