Some might say it’s been a long time coming. But basketball coaching legend Eddie Sutton has finally been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Though he was born in southwest Kansas. Sutton made a name for himself coaching teams in other states. Even though he never coached or played for the University of Kansas, he still left a mark on the KU men's basketball program. KPR’s Greg Echlin explains.
Eddie Sutton Selection to Hall of Fame Reverberates in Kansas
By Greg Echlin
LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) — Though Eddie Sutton never played nor coached at the University of Kansas, his selection to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has echoed across Kansas. Sutton was one of eight inductees announced on April 4 along with other headliners such as Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Sutton, who’s 84, was born and raised in Bucklin, Kansas, located southeast of Dodge City. In an interview recorded in 2000, Sutton said it wasn’t easy choosing where he would play college basketball. “I almost went to the University of Kansas,” he said. “Everybody thought I would go to Kansas. They recruited me harder than any other school.”
Instead, Sutton chose Oklahoma State, then known as Oklahoma A&M where Henry Iba coached. Sutton said he knew he couldn’t go wrong with the coaches who were closer to his Bucklin home because they, too, were bound for the Naismith Hall of Fame. “You had Tex Winter at Kansas State (inducted in 2011), you had Ralph Miller (1988) at Wichita University, Phog Allen (1959) at Kansas and Mr. Iba (1969),” he said.
In 1957, Sutton’s junior year with the team then known as the Aggies, he played a memorable game against the Kansas Jayhawks who were led by Wilt Chamberlain.
Chamberlain recalled from his 1998 (and final) visit to Lawrence that the Aggies followed a pattern established earlier that season by California. Since there was no shot clock in college basketball at the time, opponents started devising a strategy to stall on offense and drain the game clock. It was in KU’s fifth game of the season that Cal started using it.
“That was the signal to all the rest of the teams that we were now going to be playing over the next two or three years that the only way you could do anything with the University of Kansas was take the air out of the ball,” said Chamberlain who died in 1999.
Though the Aggies followed Cal’s lead, they didn’t employ the stall tactic against KU until the second half of their February 21 contest in Stillwater. In the first half, Chamberlain scored 24 or KU’s 32 points and KU enjoyed a seven-point lead at the half. But the Aggies held Chamberlain to only eight points in the second-half.
Chamberlain said, “I remember (Coach) Hank Iba telling his team, ‘You pass the ball 100 times before you even look at the basket. One hundred times. If I catch anyone looking at the basket before the pass the ball 100 times, you’re going to be on the bench and sitting next to me.’”
The game was tied, 54-all, when Iba decided to sit on the ball for the last three minutes and pin the outcome on a last-shot opportunity. “Mel Wright or myself was supposed to take the last shot,” recalled Sutton. “Mel Wright took it from the top of the key and hit the shot just before the buzzer went off. I still remember how our students just stormed the court. You’d have thought we won the national championship.”
Though Wright hit the winning shot, Sutton led the Aggies in scoring with 18 points. Sutton said playing against KU was different than facing other opponents. “The Kansas game was always a very special game, I think, because of Dr. Allen and Mr. Iba,” said Sutton. “Great friends but very competitive and we always played them two games even though we weren’t in the same conference.”
The Aggies were in the Missouri Valley Conference before switching over to the Big 8, the forerunner to the present-day Big 12. KU’s loss to the Aggies was its final loss until the NCAA championship game against North Carolina.
Using the same tactic employed so effectively by Oklahoma A&M, the Tar Heels beat KU in triple overtime. The '57 title game was the one that stayed with Chamberlain. “The triple overtime. That was the most devastating loss, I would say, in my athletic career,” he said.
As Chamberlain went on to greatness as an NBA player, Sutton achieved legendary status as a college coach. And a well-traveled one at that. Sutton became the first coach to lead four different teams to the NCAA tournament (Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State). Sutton surpassed the 800-victory milestone on his final coaching stop at the University of San Francisco in the 2007-08 season. He finished with 806 career victories.
“I’ve been at four great institutions and I was blessed with a lot of good talent, quality players,” said Sutton while he was still coaching at Oklahoma State. “And I moved around a lot.”
Sutton's first year coaching at Oklahoma State was in 1991. By then, the Aggies of Oklahoma A&M were no more. His alma mater had long since established itself as the Cowboys of OSU. In Sutton's inaugural season at Stillwater, he led the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
That season, and in the two seasons that followed, Sutton had an indirect impact on the future of the men's basketball program at KU.
On his coaching staff at OSU was a young Bill Self, also a former OSU player. Self spent three years as an assistant under Sutton before landing his first head coaching job at Oral Roberts in 1993. Eventually, of course, Self became a Hall of Fame coach himself, at the University of Kansas.
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Greg Echlin is KPR's roving sports correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.