SAN FRANCISCO – Eddie Sutton rose from his chair as if weighed down by a bag of cement. Looking slightly less stiff than a flatboard, he moved across the hardwood gym floor as if he belonged in a retirement home rather than coaching a college basketball team. Yet there he was, the legendary coach having come out of retirement at the age of 71 for … this?
The 5,300-seat arena was less than half-full.
The signs of success were faded photos of past stars.
The University of San Francisco basketball team was, as usual, losing. And now it was Sutton's team and Sutton's problem.
In late December, after the team's head coach abruptly stepped down, Sutton stepped in, agreed to stay for the remainder of the season and forged one of the most unique relationships in college basketball. The young players need help from the aging coach to help them turn around the season. The aging coach needs the players to help him burnish his legacy.
They now have two and a half months to get it done.
Sutton needs two victories to join Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Jim Phelan as the only Division I coaches who have won 800 or more games. He's been sitting on 798 victories since he first retired almost two years ago.
"Even when you win today in college coaching, there's still a lot of roadblocks and stumbling blocks and it makes it more difficult than it once was,'' Sutton said recently. "But, boy, when you're going to lose, coaching's not worth a damn.''
In other words, things are getting pretty damn tough for the San Francisco Dons and their temporary coach. The Dons haven't won a game in more than a month, leaving them on a seven-game losing streak and 0-4 since Sutton arrived.
Only a trip to the War Memorial Gymnasium, where the Dons play their home games, could help explain why one of the team's players recently declared, "We're making drastic changes. I'm very excited and I'm very certain that we can surprise a lot of people.''
Step inside War Memorial Gymnasium, with its wooden bleachers and old-style concession stands, and it's clear a program that flourished in the 1950s with stars such as Bill Russell and K.C. Jones needs a jolt. The first jolt came about 20 minutes before San Francisco and Holy Cross were set to tip off in Sutton's home debut as the Dons' new coach.
The coach prompted enthusiastic applause from about 100 boosters when he stepped inside a banquet room in the Coliseum for a short pregame "chalk talk." And he won over the old-timers when he recalled sneaking into a gym as a youngster and watching Russell and Jones play together on San Francisco's championship team in 1954. But lest they expect him to assemble another national championship team for San Francisco …
"I'm no miracle worker,'' Sutton warned, and soon the diehards were jolted again … jolted back into reality after watching the Dons make four of 28 shots from the floor in the first half. Sutton could hide his disgust no more than he could hide his motives when he took this job.
In addition to making history, he also wanted to revise his personal history.
Sutton's coaching career ended as abruptly as his comeback began. In February 2006, then head coach at Oklahoma State, Sutton was charged with drunk driving after his blood-alcohol had been found to be more than three times the legal limit. Addiction had the coach back in its clutches.
In 1987, when Sutton was coaching at Kentucky, he underwent alcohol abuse treatment at the Betty Ford Center. After the drunk driving charge in 2006, he stepped down as coach, entered a rehabilitation center and underwent surgery for chronic back and hip pain that Sutton said contributed to his alcohol problem.
His leave of absence that year lasted longer than expected. In fact, it turned into retirement. Sutton officially gave up the head coaching job in June 2006. Fast forward 18 months.
When the University of San Francisco put out an S.O.S. for a basketball coach in late December, an intermediary set up a phone call between Sutton and San Francisco athletic director Debra Gore-Mann. The AD knew all about Sutton's personal baggage, which included NCAA violations that cost him the coaching job at Kentucky in 1989. But when they talked on the phone, Sutton impressed Gore-Mann with his passion and candor.
Sutton, who talks openly about attending Alcohol Anonymous meetings and counseling others suffering from addiction, told Gore-Mann about his work for two treatment centers in Oklahoma. It eased her concerns.
Sutton also talked about basketball as passionately as a fresh-faced graduate looking for an entry-level coaching job.
On Dec. 26, it became official: The school announced Jessie Evans had stepped down as the team's head coach because he was taking "a leave of absence,'' and later that day the school confirmed it had hired Sutton.
He took the job without visiting the campus. In fact, he went straight to Utah, where he caught up with San Francisco's basketball team. Twenty minutes after meeting his new players, Sutton was directing them through practice. Not any practice, but Sutton practice: heavy emphasis on the details and plenty of running.
After the Dons lost both games that weekend, Sutton began two-a-day practices. After the fourth day of the sessions, he held a press conference and offered an evaluation of the squad.
"This is the least amount of talent I've ever had,'' he said, suddenly gaining momentum.
"Some of these guys have almost developed a defeatist attitude.''
"They're not a good defensive ballclub right now. They're not a good rebounding ballclub."
Oh, and one other thing. Sutton was not coming back for another season.
Citing his work with the two substance-abuse programs and a desire to be closer to family – his wife stayed behind at their home in Oklahoma and they have nine grandchildren – Sutton said his coaching comeback would extend no further than this season.
"I'm giving my walking papers when this season ends,'' he said.
But halftime of his coaching debut in front of San Francisco's fans seemed like an ideal time to call it quits. The Dons trailed by 15 points, and the dismal performance made perfect sense to two of the school's former stars.
Dick Lawless, who played with Russell on the team that won the 1955 NCAA championship, said he wondered whether players would play hard for a temporary coach. He stood next to Ed Thomas, another former San Francisco standout, who recounted details of a turbulent week – the departure of one coach, the arrival of another and sudden news the new coach was around for only a few months – and said, "My first thought was about the kids. How are the kids going to react?''
They looked at the scoreboard: Holy Cross 33, San Francisco 18.
As if things could get any worse, on the first possession of the second half, San Francisco guard Myron Strong committed a turnover. Suddenly Sutton looked 20 years younger and free of his chronic back pain.
He sprang from his courtside seat in anger, and soon his team sprang to life.
The Dons scrambled for loose balls, scrapped for rebounds and sunk open shots. The deficit began to shrink. The crowd began to cheer – louder, and louder still – because the Dons had stormed back and forced overtime.
As his team gathered on the bench for a brief rest before the five-minute overtime began, Sutton grinned. Take that, said the grin, as if it were aware of doubters in their presence.
The Dons scored the first six points but before anyone could say win No. 799, the game slipped away. Two turnovers in the final minute cemented a heartbreaking loss. Yet Sutton looked less than heartbroken when he arrived for the postgame press conference.
"I told our guys at halftime that if I were a season-ticket holder I'd tear my tickets up and go home,'' Sutton said. "That's how bad we played.
"I got on them pretty good, but I pointed out some things that they needed to do.''
He stood up and began to leave when two of San Francisco's players entered the room. One of the players was Dion Lowhorn, who had played for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech before transferring to San Francisco. A reporter asked Lowhorn what it was like playing for Knight compared to playing for Sutton.
Before Lowhorn could answer, a raspy voice rattled from the back of the room. It belonged to Sutton.
"He cusses more than I do," Sutton said of Knight, prompting laughter. "It's true, make sure you tell them that."
A minute later, Lowhorn started to describe his experiences with the two coaching legends. He confirmed that Sutton indeed cusses less.
The San Francisco players were listening and even learning.
Now they need to finally win for themselves and their interim coach.