It has been a long road back for Eddie Sutton, and he has the tired face and tattered past to prove it.
Sutton talks about being in the homestretch of his career, and Oklahoma State has given its 59-year-old jockey quite a ride. The Cowboys earned their first Final Four appearance in 44 years -- they face top-ranked UCLA at 5:42 p.m. today -- by wearing down favorites Wake Forest and Massachusetts with second-half comebacks in last week's East Regional.
But no member of the Cowboys has come back like Sutton.
By the time he became Oklahoma State's coach in 1990, Sutton was a disgraced legend looking for a second chance.
He already had won more than 400 games in 20 seasons at three schools and had guided Creighton, Arkansas and Kentucky to the NCAA tournament. He had coached an Arkansas team, featuring future NBA players Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph, to the Final Four in 1978.
Eleven years later, Sutton was known primarily as the man who ruined Kentucky. During Sutton's four seasons there, the program became smeared by a series of irregularities. The low point was a recruiting scandal involving Chris Mills, whose father allegedly received a package containing $1,000 from one of Sutton's assistants. After an investigation, the NCAA placed Kentucky on three years' probation, and Sutton was kicked out of Lexington.
The next year marked Sutton's first season away from coaching since 1969. He stayed in touch with the game by working for a shoe manufacturer at all-star clinics. Then, in 1990, coach
Leonard Hamilton left Oklahoma State, the school Sutton had graduated from in 1958 after playing for the legendary Hank Iba.
OSU decided to give one of its more famous alums a chance at a rebirth.
Last week, while he guided the Cowboys through the regionals, Sutton talked about the ups and downs of his career.
"I learned a great deal from that [Kentucky] experience, and it was a very hurtful one for anyone involved," Sutton said in his baritone, native Kansas twang. His face is framed by deep furrows and highlighted by heavy bags under his eyes. He has the relaxed, contented look of a guy who has been through it all.
"I thought we were doing the right things but evidently we weren't," he added. "I wasn't sure when I left whether I'd get back into coaching.
"The opportunity to go back to my alma mater was something special. They had confidence in me. It's been a real honeymoon for me and my family to go back to Oklahoma State and to have the success we've enjoyed. I have no ill feelings toward Kentucky. I think maybe that was God's way of making me become a better person and a better coach."
It was obvious from the beginning at Oklahoma State that Sutton hadn't slipped a lick as a coach. The Cowboys won 24 games, tied for the Big Eight Conference title and went to the NCAAs in his first year. Since then, they have finished no lower than second in the league, won no fewer than 20 games and have been to the tournament every year.
In a career marked by so many high points -- Sutton has a record of 553-208 and trails only Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Denny Crum among active coaches in career wins and winning percentage -- Sutton may have done his greatest job this season.
The Cowboys stumbled early, losing to four ranked opponents in the first month, and wound up December with back-to-back road losses to Arizona State and Providence. Then came the season's low point, a 74-66 loss in the Big Eight opener at Kansas State, which eventually finished last in the conference.
"After that, a lot of our people and our players thought we'll be lucky to be in the NIT," Sutton said. "But from early January until now, this team has probably made more progress than any other team I've coached."
Sutton benched Chianti Roberts and inserted Scott Pierce into the starting lineup, favoring his defense. He preached patience to the Cowboys, insisting they believe in a half-court offense built around 7-foot center Bryant Reeves and shooting guard Randy Rutherford. And, above all, he demanded they play the man-to-man defense that Sutton teams are known for.
The Cowboys responded, winning 10 of their next 13 Big Eight games to finish second in the league. They continued their roll, winning the Big Eight tournament, beating Drexel and Alabama as a No. 4 seed in the first two rounds of the NCAA East Regional, then coming from behind to beat Wake Forest and Massachusetts in the regional semifinals and final.
In each game last week, the Cowboys trailed by hefty margins, and Sutton sat, head in hand, calmly observing, making adjustments. His players never panicked.
Oklahoma State won both games with tremendous second-half performances, sparked by its defense, which has yet to allow a tournament opponent to shoot over 41 percent.
"When I came in, Coach Sutton told me to listen to him and work hard, and he could make me a better player," said Reeves, the team's leading scorer and rebounder and a certain NBA lottery ** pick. "That's something I've tried to do, and now I'm going to the Final Four. If it wasn't for him, I don't know if I would have handled the situations we've been up against these last few days."
After winning the regional championship, Sutton -- the only coach in history to take four different schools to the NCAA tournament -- spoke of Iba, the man who put Oklahoma State basketball on the map and won 655 games from 1935 to 1970. Iba, who died two years ago, won the school's last national title in 1946.
"As a coach, he was tough but he was fair and we knew he loved us. Five years ago, it [Sutton's hiring] was a big thrill for him, because one of his boys was coming home," Sutton said. "He would come to practice almost every day for those first two years, not to tell me how to coach, just to talk basketball. He gave me the foundation to be a good coach."
* Three-time national Coach of the Year (1977, '78, '86).
* Six-time conference Coach of the Year (1975, '77, '79, '81, '86, '93).
* Only coach in NCAA history to lead four different schools to the NCAA tournament.
* Led teams to 18 NCAA tournament appearances in 25 years, including 12 straight from 1977 to 1988.
* Fifteen of his teams have finished the season ranked among the nation's top 20.
* Has produced 20-win seasons 17 times, including two 30-win seasons.
* Has had only one losing season in 25 years (13-19 at Kentucky in 1988-89).
* His 24 victories in first season at Oklahoma State tied Big Eight record for wins by a first-year coach.
* Has won conference championships in the SEC, SWC and Big Eight and has been named Coach of the Year in all three conferences.
* Has coached 20 players who went on to play in the NBA, including one at Creighton (Cyrill Baptist), 10 at Arkansas (Ron Brewer, Tony Brown, Marvin Delph, Scott Hastings, Byron Irvin, Joe Klein, Andrew Lang, Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, Darrell Walker), six at Kentucky (Winston Bennett, Rex Chapman, LeRon Ellis, Rob Locke, Irv Thomas, Kenny Walker) and three at Oklahoma State (Byron Houston, Brooks Thompson, Corey Williams).