Written by Chris Kubala
It’s been a rough week for legendary coaches on the hardwood this week. On Friday, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, the first NBA coach to win 1,000 games with one team, passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia at the age of 78. Father Time didn’t wait all that long to add a new Hall of Fame member to its coaching staff as on Saturday, it brought another top tier option into its fold.
Legendary college basketball coach Eddie Sutton passed away at home surrounded by family Saturday at the age of 84. He is slated to be inducted, posthumously, into the Basketball Hall of Fame in August along with former Lakers great Kobe Bryant. The Sutton family released a statement confirming Sutton’s death and went on to say that his impending induction into the Hall of Fame "was an honor and a tribute to the great players he coached and outstanding assistant coaches that worked for him."
Sutton’s coaching career spanned 37 years, five decades and five schools at the Division I level as a head coach. He became the first coach in NCAA history to lead four different teams to the NCAA Tournament. His head coaching career began at Creighton in the 1969-70 season and he led the Bluejays to the NCAA Tournament in the 1973-74 season with a 23-7 record. After five years with the program and an 82-50 record, he made the move to take over the head coaching job at Arkansas. With the Razorbacks, Sutton hit his stride as a head coach and really started to make a name for himself on a national level.
Sutton won five Southwest Conference regular season titles and three conference tournament titles in his 11 years with Arkansas. After seasons of 17-9 in 1974-75 and 19-9 in 1975-76 that kept the Razorbacks out of the NCAA Tournament, he led the team to nine straight March Madness appearances. That included the school’s first Final Four appearance since 1944-45 in the 1977-78 season. Sutton’s team, led by future NBA players Ron Brewer and Sidney Moncrief, finished the year 32-4 and fell to Kentucky 64-59 before beating Notre Dame in the third-place game. They would reach the Elite Eight a year later, going 25-5 led by Moncrief and Scott Hastings.
After a 22-13 season in 1984-85 with Arkansas, Sutton made the move to head to Kentucky and coach the Wildcats. He turned in a sparkling 260-75 mark with the Razorbacks, making him a high-profile candidate to go to Lexington. His first year with Kentucky was a terrific one as the Wildcats earned a #1 seed and finished 32-4 overall, 17-1 in the SEC. The Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight, only to fall by two points to LSU. That team was led by Kenny Walker and Winston Bennett. Kentucky made NCAA Tournament appearances in each of the next two years but cratered in 1988-89, finishing with a 13-19 record. That marked the first losing season in Sutton’s Division I coaching career. Early in that season, the NCAA levied 18 charges against the school after a package containing $1,000 was found addressed to recruit Chris Mills from assistant coach Dwane Casey.
Even more than two decades later, Sutton maintained that he and Casey were innocent. In an interview with the Kansas City Star, he said: "When that happened, it was a setup. Who would send money like that? And an overnight package somehow opens up? You need a crowbar to open those things." Once the season was over, he resigned and ended up going to his alma mater, Oklahoma State, in 1990. He would spend the next 16 years at Oklahoma State, leading the school to a pair of regular season conference titles and three conference tournament crowns while making 13 NCAA Tournament appearances. Sutton saw his 1994-95 and his 2003-04 teams reach the Final Four only to fall short of a championship. As a result, the floor at Gallagher-Iba Arena was renamed Eddie Sutton Court in 2005. He announced his retirement in 2006 only to resurface a few months later to coach San Francisco for a little more than half a season on an interim basis after Jessie Evans was let go with a 4-8 mark. Sutton’s 800th career win came over Pepperdine on February 2, 2007. After going 6-13 down the stretch of the season, he retired for good.
In his coaching tenure, Sutton had just two losing seasons in his 37-year career with one of those coming in that half-season with San Francisco. He finished his career with an 806-329 record. At the time of his 800th win, he was just the fifth coach in Division I history to reach that mark. He currently stands ninth in the all-time wins list at the Division I level. Sutton put together a terrific resume and elevated multiple teams to success in his tenure. We offer our condolences to the Sutton family during this difficult time.