Sutton is a living legend

Originally Published: November 13, 2004
By Doug Gottlieb | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Doug Gottlieb played for Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State from 1997-2000.There are a lot of things that people do not know about Eddie Sutton.

Some remember Kentucky and his darkest days. Others think of Big Country, the Final Four and the permanent scowl on his face.

Few know that in the 25 years before he came back to Oklahoma State, the Cowboys had been to the NCAA Tournament only once, and in the 14 years he has been back, they have been dancing 12 times. Even fewer know that he is a great storyteller with a charming wit and an incredible sense of humor.

Nonetheless, he is still considered a living legend and his ability to be successful with so many different types of teams is amazing.

When you play for a legend there is always that question that people outside of the program ask you: "What is it like?" In truth, playing just three years for a man who has coached for more than forty provides you with a mere fraction of the information on what he is "about." That being said, my father actually coached with him over 30 years ago at Creighton, so I feel like I may know more about "Coach" than some would perceive.

So what's it like to play for Eddie Sutton? Imagine the most difficult and most rewarding experience of your life. Now double the emotion of both and there you go. Keep in mind that I loved each and every minute of my career at Oklahoma State, but it is no picnic living up to the standards that are expected of you on a daily basis.

* * *

"This is the hardest thing you will ever do, I promise you that."

He would say this on occasion during a 7 a.m. morning practice as moaning and groaning accompanied stretching drills. Nothing is easy with Coach. Two-a-day practices are not just for the preseason; in fact they are the norm all season long. An hour and a half of shooting and dry offense (no defense) in the morning, then two and a half to three hours in the evening was routine.

Practice had a tendency to run long, so much so that guys would always peek at a digital clock at the top of the arena. Coach Sutton put an end to that by having it covered up by the managers. "We'll be finished when we get it right," he would say.

Early season games may have ended with a blowout, but that does not mean it was seen as a success by the coaching staff. Often Coach would walk in for a game against Nowhere A&M and write the following on a dry erase board:

Us

  • 80 points or more
  • 50% field goal shooting
  • 80% free throw shooting
  • Less than 15 turnovers
  • 5 charges taken
  • +10 rebound margin

    Them

  • 50 points allowed
  • 40% field goal percentage defense
  • 20 turnovers

    Complete these goals and you have a day off, fail and be here, taped, at 7 a.m.

    * * *

    "Mr. Iba is rolling over in his grave right now."

    To be clear Mr. Iba is Henry Iba, and no one calls him anything else. It is the ultimate sign of respect from Coach that he, like everyone else in Stillwater, Oklahoma, still refers to Henry Iba as "Mr." or "Coach Iba." It is because of this that I (and almost everyone else) refer to Eddie Sutton as, simply, Coach.

    Mr. Iba is, without question, the biggest influence on Coach's coaching style. His favorite drill is the "Iba Drill," where a player must take a charge, dive for a loose ball and then make three lay-ups while managers pound him with football pads.

    His favorite offensive set is a 2-1-2 spread that Mr. Iba brought to basketball in the forties. "Cowboy Screen-down" and "Cowboy Motion" are direct descendants of that offense. In fact, the Pete Carril's "Princeton offense" that has spread across the nation and to the NBA, is derived from that offense.

    It almost goes without mentioning that his long practices are an ode to Mr. Iba, who apparently used "three-a-days" as motivation.

    Many people think Coach is merely trying to win 800 games before he retires, and that is partially true. What is especially true is the incredible emotion he'll go through when he passes Mr. Iba on the all-time wins chart later this year.

    * * *

    "Run them till their ankles smoke."

    Coaches will often approach me to ask how Coach gets his teams to play hard. It's simple: you either practice hard or run, and play hard in games or sit.

    If a practice doesn't have the intensity he desires, he'll tell the other coaches to make their "ankles smoke" and head to his office to grab a Diet Coke. When he returns, practice usually restarts with a newfound intensity.

    In an age where more and more coaches coddle their players, Coach is one of the last bastions of old-school work ethic.

    * * *

    "I am going to call your dad."

    There comes a point when some players tune out their coach. Instead of fighting it, Coach will walk over to the phone that sits besides the court during every practice and call the player's father, explain the situation (as he sees it) and then call the player over during a stop in the action.

    I will never forget Desmond Mason having to talk to his father, Johnnie, during a turbulent practice. The conversation from Desmond's end went something like this ...

    "Yes, sir ... yes, sir ... yes, sir ... I know, but, ... yes, sir?.OK ... I love you, too."

    Click.

    After that, there was a new Desmond. He never was a problem again.

    * * *

    "That may have worked in high school, but around here it'll get you WILSON tattooed on your head."

    Coach Sutton has an immense respect for the level of competition in college basketball. While most coaches become cliche mongers, saying things like, "We just need to worry about what we are doing," coach will instead constantly put big-name opponents in your head.

    "Get to that free throw line and say to yourself, 'this is the shot that is going to beat the Sooners or the Jayhawks.' "

    * * *

    "You go back there and tell that cook that Eddie Sutton and his boys are hungry."

    This dates back to a trip to Columbia, Mo., in January 1998, when our planes were late getting in and our practice ran long. We had a room at the local Olive Garden for dinner.

    After arriving an hour and a half late, at 9:45 p.m., we were told that the kitchen was closing in fifteen minutes. Calmly our trainer, Brian Farr, asked if anyone in our party had a problem with salad, breadsticks and pasta with marinara sauce. We all were fine with the order, but the waitress promptly reiterated that the kitchen was closing. Farr calmly asked to see the manager.

    Ten minutes later a manager appeared disheveled and, in somewhat rude fashion, asked what the problem was. Farr explained the situation only and was told that there was nothing they could do. After a few more minutes of discussion, coach Sutton had had enough and barked out for them to cook something up.

    As soon as the manager left, coach just looked at us, winked, smiled, and said, "Sometimes you got to let them think you are crazy."

    * * *

    "You need to put that move in moth balls and break it out in the summertime."

    In this politically correct world we live in, Coach says what he feels.

    Whether it is a press conference or to his players in the locker room, you know exactly where you stand in his eyes. He will call his players "bricklayers" or "thugs" if that's how they are playing. He'll definitely let you know when you're in trouble.

    "Someone get Doug a bone, because he's in my doghouse and he'll be there a while."

    There isn't any of this reading between lines over what he wants, he will tell you.

    * * *

    "Come over here and help me coach."

    This is the best way to know if he is unhappy with how you are playing. Throw the ball away and ... BUZZ, the horn goes off and you will sit next to him. Take a bad shot? BUZZ ... have a seat. Don't take a charge when a player comes barreling down the lane? You can literally see him grab another player and throw him into the game for you.

    Coach Sutton believes there is a right way to play and a wrong way to play. Play the right way and you can stay as long as you want.

    * * *

    "You know ... Patsy just told me how much more she liked the games when you were playing. We sure do miss you."

    Coach told me this about two years after I finished school. It was one of the proudest moments of my career. Patsy Sutton is his wife, whom he proudly boasts is also an Oklahoma State alum.

    Let me say that there is nothing like hearing someone you respect give me a compliment like that. When a player leaves Oklahoma State, Coach seems to really open up and share a little more of his life with you. That in turn shows a bond that makes any bit of punishment worthwhile.

    Coach believes in family and once you are in that family, he remembers your wife's name (usually he asks about her first), sends you baby shoes when your kids are born, asks you if you have gone to church or temple, calls your parents even after you no longer play for him, calls you on your birthday, recommends you for a job and makes sure you have your degree.

    * * *

    One final anecdote ... Oklahoma State had been badly outplayed by Saint Joseph's in the first half of last year's NCAA Elite Eight matchup. At the end of halftime, as Coach walked out of the locker room, he looked back at his grandson, Parker, and made silly faces at his newest good luck charm. This, just seconds before one of college basketball's great second halves in the last few years.

    Priorities, competition, charm, motivation and how to become a man are all things I have learned from Eddie Sutton. He truly is a living legend.

    Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and the co-host of GameNight for ESPN Radio.

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