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OSU honors tragic past in each triumph

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eddie Sutton wore a light blue blazer for Friday's off-day meeting with the media. The Oklahoma State head coach could have been wearing a sweater, golf shirt or even a sweat suit. All, however, would have been accompanied by the lapel pin he wears every day.

The pin, which reads simply "10," is his reminder of the tragic night of Jan. 27, 2001, when 10 members of the Oklahoma State traveling team were killed in a plane crash returning from a road game at Colorado.

The Cowboys beat Saint Joseph's on Saturday night in the East Rutherford Region final to clinch Sutton's third ticket to the Final Four in 34 years as a head coach on the Division I level. The journey, however, really started after the tragedy three years ago.

Even if the Cowboys had lost, Sutton's ability to be the program's rock and to turn the Cowboys into a Big 12 champion should go down as his greatest accomplishments in what is sure to be a Hall-of-Fame career.

"A lot of people thought we couldn't keep this program going," said Sutton's son Sean, an associate head coach. "Nobody was more hurt by what happened than him. He has worked hard every day to keep things going, making sure our players are OK and the players of the past are OK."

The younger Sutton points to that 2000-01 team's ability to make the 2001 NCAA Tournament as impressive, if not more remarkable than what this year's team has done, even though that OSU team lost to USC in the first round. The Pokes have also been ranked in the top 10 at some point in each of the last three seasons and are now poised to make their second Final Four appearance since 1995.

"I wouldn't have thought this could have happened three years ago," Sutton said.

Both Suttons, assistant Glynn Cyprien, and director of basketball operations Kyle Keller were on the staff in 2001. The only two remaining players who were on the 2001 roster are senior Ivan McFarlin, who was ineligible as a freshman, and redshirt junior Terrence Crawford.

"That year was so tough," McFarlin said. "That plane crash gave us a lesson for everybody to stick together. If we could win this for Coach Sutton, that would be awesome."

The plane crash changed the elder Sutton forever. He said he has a greater respect for each day and doesn't let a day go by without calling each of his sons and telling them he loves them. He has also impressed upon his players to call their families. The players, both current and past, have a genuine affection for Sutton. And he returns it by putting his heart into the program.

The Cowboys are always one of the hardest working teams, especially on the defensive end. They recruit players who fit their system. Players like Tony Allen, the Big 12 player of the year. And Sutton has had great success in getting transfers to adapt. Daniel Bobik played at BYU, and Joey and Stephen Graham played at Central Florida before settling in at Oklahoma State. John Lucas was Baylor's point guard just last season.

Lucas talks about Sutton as being a surrogate father. He is extremely close with his own father, John, who is at every game. But Lucas sounds as if he's indebted to Sutton for helping him mature as a person this season. McFarlin speaks glowingly about Sutton, too, saying he owes his maturity to his coach.

Getting to the Final Four, after everything this program has gone through the past three seasons, would be a way to celebrate the hard work that went into keeping this team on top.

"Getting to the Final Four would mean a lot to this school," Sutton said. "And if we got to San Antonio this team would really have a shot to win it."

Assistant coach James Dickey, who wasn't on the staff in 2001, was an assistant to Sutton at Kentucky. He said he spoke to Sutton on the night of the crash. He, like countless others, wants to see Sutton get back to the Final Four after all the pain he has endured.

"I was never worried about the program, but I was worried about Eddie and Sean personally because it affected them so much," Dickey said. "I know making those 10 calls (to the families) was the most difficult thing he had ever done. Everyone deals with it differently, but observing it from the outside it has been a heavy burden.

"I'd like to see him get there and win a national title. It's the one thing that has eluded him. He doesn't need it to validate his career but I'd love to see him have one more opportunity."

The plane crash, in an odd way, refocused Sutton. He said he didn't mellow, but did become even more focused about coaching. His passion is even more intense and he's 40 minutes away from getting the Cowboys back to the top of the sport ... three years removed from the lowest point in his life and the program's history.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.