Sports salvation

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

In college sports, it is often the athletic program that brings scandal upon the university, not the university that brings scandal upon the athletic program.

But here was Scott Sutton, who had turned Oral Roberts basketball into one of the premier mid-major programs in the country (it wrapped up its third consecutive NCAA tournament bid Tuesday), opening up the newspaper every morning last fall to new and wilder revelations.

The Tulsa, Okla., school was founded in 1963 by Granville Oral Roberts, a legendary evangelical Christian who started preaching at tent revivals and through radio and television built an empire. He started conservative Oral Roberts University, he said, on order from God, one of many divinely inspired projects.

But last fall, with Oral semi-retired in California, scandal surrounded his son Richard Roberts, the school's president at the time. There were lawsuits alleging misappropriated funds, lavish spending, patronage, political shenanigans and unfair firings.

The thing got ugly. Fingers were pointed, lines were drawn and the school admitted it was $52 million in debt. That led to speculation that the school might close down after the academic year.

Sutton said he never thought the school would actually shut down, he had too much faith in its institutional strength, trying times or not.

Still, of all the things to deal with on the recruiting trail – let alone your own locker room – rumors of a school closing?

A lot of crazy things can happen on various campuses, but no one ever says they might shut down, say UCLA or Oklahoma or Duke.

Every day, the public perception of ORU seemed to be dragged deeper into the mud. The media attention was relentless. Campus was one giant gossip fest. These were trying times.

Over in the basketball offices, Sutton, the 38-year-old son of coaching legend Eddie Sutton, wasn't sure what to do other than focus on his own job.

"We had great leadership from our athletic director, Mike Carter," Sutton said Wednesday. "He came in and said, 'hey, you can't worry about it. It won't affect you. It won't affect your program. Just stay focused on your team and on academics.'"

So Sutton did.

"I don’t think we ever let it affect our team," Sutton said. "I felt bad for certain people and the perception it caused the university, but I think we did a good job keeping it from affecting this team. We just did our thing."

By November, Richard Roberts resigned. The school then worked to separate the finances of the ministry and the school and reorganize the administration. Finally, in January, Mart Green, an Oklahoma City resident who made a fortune running Christian supply stores, donated $70 million to clean up the school's books.

"Let's straighten the ship," Green told reporters. "Let's get integrity. Let's get trust built back and the rest will go away."

So there Oral Roberts University was on Tuesday night, right there on national television showing that "the rest" was, indeed, going away.

There was its stalwart basketball program serving as a point of pride and public relations that was needed perhaps now more than ever.

When Oral Roberts founded the school, he was so intent on building a big-time hoops program to spread the word, he used to go on recruiting visits. He was good at it too, as you might expect from a preacher of that stature.

But he may not have been as good at it as Sutton is now. In nine seasons he's built a true "program" – one that was capable of winning 26 games, its fourth consecutive regular-season crown and its third consecutive NCAA appearance despite losing its two best players to graduation.

"This one was a little bit of a surprise," Sutton said. "It was different guys each night."

It succeeded the way its school is now trying to – not with a single star, but with everyone pulling together, stepping up in different ways at different times and continuing to believe that if it believes in itself, anything is possible.

After two consecutive first-round defeats, Sutton wants a victory in the NCAA tournament in the worst way. If there was ever a year for it to happen, maybe this is the one. The Eagles should get a reasonable seed (13 or 14) and after the past six months, focusing on overcoming long odds will not be a problem.

Tuesday night, after beating IUPUI for the Summit League championship, a crowd of students stormed the court, jumped around and just months after its darkest and most uncertain days, chanted their school's name with joy.

"O-R-U," they sang. "O-R-U."

Leave it to the basketball program to help pull the school right back up on its feet.

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