Success under the radar

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

There is more than a little poetic justice that in the same week that Eddie Sutton didn't even get nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, his Oklahoma State Cowboys ascended to No. 7 in the polls and handed out another double-digit beat down on a Big 12 rival.

This defensively ferocious team will soon deliver a 750th career win, a 25th NCAA tournament bid and, maybe, just maybe, a third Final Four to its coach – all accomplishments that should be enough to get Sutton to Springfield. Not that the 67-year-old is losing sleep over the snub. Not when he'd rather talk about his team.

"In no way are they selfish," said Sutton. "They just have a great outlook. They really understand shot selection and defense has really carried us."

The above quote doesn't have much pizzazz. It certainly doesn't convey that State is 20-2, 10-1 in the Big 12, on a 10-game win streak and has won all of its last five by nearly 20 points.

But that's Sutton, the soft-spoken, self-deferential Bucklin, Kan., native who in 34 years as a head coach has done lots of winning and very little self-congratulating. Oh, once he may have been into some of the "me stuff" that overwhelms college basketball, but that was decades ago.

Ever since he took over at his alma mater in 1990 he's cemented his legend as one of the game's all-time best, even if it's gone unnoticed and unappreciated. Before he got to Stillwater, the once-great program of Henry Iba had made one NCAA tournament appearance in 25 seasons. The Cowboys are about to go for the 12th time in 14 seasons, including a trip to the 1995 Final Four.

"Oklahoma State gave so much to me," said Sutton. "It's just been an honor to rekindle the tradition Mr. Iba had at one time."

The 10th winningest coach of all time, Sutton should be a big-time star in college basketball, a celebrated icon. But he just commands so little attention. He'd rather talk about his players than himself. He is neither young nor hip (although his hips bother him these days). He works in a crowded conference, surrounded by big programs (Kansas) and big personalities (Bob Knight).

If Sutton coached in New York, Boston or Philly he would have been inducted into the Hall five years ago. But Stillwater isn't exactly crawling with national media.

"If you look at the coaches who have gotten in (to the Hall) recently, other than (Arizona's) Lute (Olson) they are all from the East," Sutton surmised.

Sutton has twice been nominated and twice failed to garner enough votes. His supporters hope that when he reaches 800 victories in a couple seasons, he'll be impossible to keep out. Although, they thought 700 would do that too.

It is possible Sutton can't overcome the end of his coaching tenure at Kentucky. There was a losing season in 1989 (the only one of his career), a cash-filled Emory envelope (that Sutton still says he knew nothing about) and a major NCAA infraction. But the Hall of Fame is full of coaches who ran into trouble with NCAA. And after 14 scandal-free seasons at Oklahoma State, you'd think his rep would be restored.

"Maybe it has a bearing," he shrugged. "No one ever talks about it anymore though."

His current team may be capable of doing what the coach refuses to these days, shine a spotlight on his ability. It is a classic Sutton group – a bunch of transfers and junior college guys (but not a single prep All-American) that has absolutely maximized its abilities.

The players defend and rebound well and are brilliantly efficient on the offensive end. Picked to finish in the second division of the Big 12, they have the inside track on the title.

Not that the old-school coach is too quick with the praise.

"They have a chance to be a good basketball team," he said.

A chance? They are only chasing down a No. 1 seed.

But that's all the hype you ever get from Sutton. He'll humbly let his credentials speak for him even if he might be better served speaking for himself.

So, coach, what do have to say?

"Well, I was a little surprised I wasn't nominated," he said. "I don't think any coach isn't interested in it. But I don't know how it works."

Well, maybe no one does. Because if Eddie Sutton, still as great as he's ever been and with his team near the top of the polls isn't even worthy of a nomination, then however the system works, it ought to work better.

What to Read Next