If the history of scandal-tainted college programs has taught us anything, it's that every outgoing disgraced coach gets treated differently.
Ohio State fans gave Jim Tressel a standing ovation last November to commemorate his return to Ohio Stadium for the 10-year anniversary of the 2002 national championship. By contrast, Indiana fans might run Kelvin Sampson out of Bloomington with pitchforks if he ever returned to the program he sent plummeting into rebuilding mode with rampant recruiting violations. And then there's Jim Harrick, hardly beloved by UCLA fans despite winning their lone post-Wooden national title yet certainly not shunned either.
The relationship between Eddie Sutton and Kentucky fans always seemed most similar to Sampson and Indiana, which is why it's intriguing that Wildcats coach John Calipari is apparently trying to thaw the ice.
Calipari told the Tulsa World on Thursday he has invited Sutton to observe practice in Lexington and offer his advice. Not only have the two coaches had a strong rapport since Calipari's UMass team met Sutton's Oklahoma State team in the Final Four in 1995, they're close enough that Sutton was one of the people Calipari called when deciding whether to leave Memphis and come to Kentucky four years ago.
"I said, 'Come on in, man. Come on in to practice,'" Calipari told the newspaper. "I'm not into all that other stuff. My whole thing is Eddie Sutton has been great for the game of basketball and great for college coaches and has helped many, many programs.
"Like many of us, you have hiccups along the way. I'm not judgmental in any way."
Reaction to Calipari's invitation has been mixed among Kentucky fans, some of whom still have a hard time forgiving how Sutton left the program at the end of his otherwise successful four-year tenure. He resigned under pressure after a 13-19 season in 1989 amid allegations of recruiting violations that ultimately resulted in three years of probation for Kentucky and a two-year ban from postseason play.
The parting ultimately led to bigger and better things for both sides as Kentucky became a powerhouse in the 1990s again under Rick Pitino and Sutton flourished as head coach at Oklahoma State. Nonetheless, Sutton's only public appearance at Kentucky since his departure came in 1992 when his Oklahoma State team played in a regional semifinal game against Michigan.
In 2011, Sutton addressed the recruiting violations that led to his departure, telling the Kansas City Star the incident that led to his firing at Kentucky was "a set-up." What Sutton is likely referring to is the surfacing of an overnight package full of cash addressed to the father of then-prized recruit Chris Mills and allegedly shipped by then-assistant coach Dwane Casey.
“Who would send money like that?" Sutton told the Star. "And an overnight package somehow opens up? You need a crowbar to open those things."
Suspicious or not, the incident was part of what led to Sutton's ouster, what landed Kentucky in hot water with the NCAA and what created a rift between Sutton and his former school.
Has enough time passed to tear down those walls? Calipari apparently thinks so. It will be interesting to see if Kentucky's always vocal fan base agrees with him.
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- John Calipari
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