Eddie Sutton

The highs and lows of longtime Oklahoma State basketball coach Eddie Sutton were showcased in a documentary that aired Monday night on ESPN. Sutton’s coaching style earned him nine regular-season conference championships and three trips to the Final Four, but he also carried plenty of anguish and anxiety, which lent itself to addiction. But regardless of how he was viewed by the outside world, his players, staff members and fans remained loyal to him until the day he passed this year.

There are those who believe you should never get too close to your heroes, otherwise you may learn something that could tarnish a pre-existing image in your head.

But let’s say you do learn something disturbing about your hero. Do we blame the idol for not living up to this image we cultivated? Or should we have even held that person or those people on such a high pedestal in the first place?

After all, the operative words are “person” and “people”, as in imperfect human beings. While we may look up to them for whatever the reason, they are human, just like us. And they screw up.

Is it still OK to stand by their side? Are you allowed to compartmentalize which parts of their life you advocate? We see it so often in our culture today that the second someone of repute has a slip-up, big or small, there are those who want to distance themselves completely from the high-profile figure. On the other end, there are those who could watch their beloved icons commit the most heinous acts and still defend them.

Is there no middle ground? Can we not admit and accept that the people we have admired were flawed and not always model citizens? Is it still OK for them to be our heroes?

Those questions lingered on the minds of anyone who grew up watching Eddie Sutton’s basketball teams as they prepared to watch the premiere of Christopher Hunt’s documentary “Eddie” on ESPN on Monday night. All reviews and promos for the film promised an unabashed look at the complicated legacy of a man whose entire career appeared to be a dichotomy of great coaching and leadership, juxtaposed against some moments many shunned him for. He happened to enjoy his whiskey, sometimes before practice and even games, but also happened to win more than 800 college basketball games. He led Arkansas out of the depths of who-the-heck-cares-dom and into a Final Four. He also was held responsible for getting Kentucky frighteningly close to suffering the “Death Penalty”. He was someone who was so beloved by his players at Arkansas that longtime Sutton assistant James Dickey said that when Eddie left the Razorbacks to take the job at Kentucky, “every player, to a man, wanted to know if they could go with him”. However, he was also someone whose drinking escalated to the point he would direct purposefully hurtful verbal barbs at his son Sean while at home.

The documentary paints Eddie Sutton as a character from a Greek tragedy. And in many ways, he was. He built great things, taking Creighton to previously unmatched heights, turning Arkansas into a powerhouse and taking his alma mater from insignificance to a regular-season Big 8 title in his first year and the Final Four four years later. And at all those places, his return visits were largely viewed as wonderful reunions. And while he was viewed as family by fans of (most of) his previous coaching stops, there were those on the outside who chose to focus on the negatives.

“He drank too much.”

“He left a mess behind at Kentucky.”

“His recruiting was shady.”

As the documentary shows, there were questions surrounding Kentucky’s “squeaky-clean” image upon his arrival in Lexington. And while the film certainly was edited in such a way that this point was meant to be almost overemphasized, it felt like a no-win situation from the start. And based purely from the information offered in the doc, it was likely a booster, not Sutton nor Dwane Casey, who sent money to a recruit. Call me naive, but for those reasons, it’s hard for me to find much footing with the latter two critiques.

So was the man’s use of alcohol to calm his nerves the reason it took him a decade-and-a-half for the committee to vote him into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame? Was it because he got a DWI, never mind that it came five years after two of his players and several staff members were killed when a plane he very easily could have been on crashed?

Several things stood out to me regarding Monday’s watching experience. The first was it is still bewildering what took so long for that man to make the hall. The second, made apparent to me by posts on Twitter, was that just about everyone who grew up in Oklahoma in the 90s and 2000s, even those who were OU fans or alums, had an astounding amount of respect for Eddie.

I have long said there is a hierarchy of hero worship in Stillwater, OK. And while the second and third tiers (Garth Brooks, John Smith, Stan Clark) may be fluid, a select few names will forever be near the top. Barry Sanders might never relinquish the top billing as most celebrated figure at Oklahoma State. But Eddie might be the most respected, most beloved and most admired. There was a warmth to the welcome he received upon his returns.

I was at a game in 2014 when they honored the 2004 Final Four team at halftime. On my way to the restroom, I passed a former classmate, who was rushing from the concession stand back to her seat, not wanting to miss a moment of the ceremony.

“That is my childhood out there,” she exclaimed.

There is a lot of talk going around right now, both in and out of sports, about how we should remember the past. Is it OK to go back and watch old movies, read older books or listen to older songs whose content has aged poorly? In many ways, that is the Eddie Sutton conundrum. How are we supposed to be remember Eddie? Is it fair to strictly remember him as an excellent basketball coach who would drain your soul with Spandex-tight defense and patient offense, ignoring the burdens he carried? Is it fair to view him as a drunk who happened to be good at calling plays but couldn’t handle adversity without self-destructing?

“Eddie” chose to show him as both. And in the end, that would up being the right call. The film, like Eddie’s career, made you cheer, made you cringe, made you cry. But you walked away in awe of what had just happened, and only saddened that the great man wasn’t able to enjoy it a little bit more.


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