Eddie Sutton put Arkansas basketball on the map.
And there’s not really a discussion to have on that.
Yes, Nolan Richardson took the program to new heights, even getting the ultimate prize. There’s no argument to be had about that, either.
But there would never have been a Richardson era at Arkansas without Sutton’s first.
Mainly because nobody would have cared about coaching the Razorbacks, including Nolan.
On Feb. 20, a banner with Sutton’s name will be raised at Bud Walton Arena.
It will be appropriate. No, it should not have been up there before Nolan’s banner. Sutton took the Hogs to a Final Four in 1978, but he never won it all like Richardson did.
“When he arrived, Barnhill Arena still had dirt floors under the bleachers,” athletics director Jeff Long said Tuesday in the announcement. “By the end of his tenure at Arkansas, Barnhill Arena boasted a Final Four banner and a rabid Razorback fan base making it one of the toughest places to play in the nation.”
Yes, there were dirt floors in Barnhill when Sutton got to town from Creighton in 1974. It was hard to find Razorback games across the state on the radio.
Media coverage was sparse. Many in the media at that time didn’t really know enough about basketball to do much more than give the final score, leading scorers and quotes from the coach.
Nobody complained, either.
When Sutton hit the ground in Fayetteville, he hit the ground moving at full tilt. There was no event he wouldn’t speak at.
“Coach Sutton not only transformed our program, he introduced the game of college basketball to Arkansans across the state,” Long said in his statement.
And he started teaching immediately.
“How many here have ever been to a Razorback basketball game?” Sutton asked a packed gym in Warren for the All-Sports Banquet on a sultry spring night back in 1974.
Two hands were raised. A prominent booster and his wife, close friends with Frank and Barbara Broyles, were the only ones to raise their hands. A young girl leaned over to the person next to her and whispered, “I didn’t even know they played basketball.”
There was no air conditioning, a couple of hundred people in attendance and Sutton was sweating when he walked into the gym. It didn’t appear to bother him one bit. He probably shook every hand he could get to that was in the gym.
But he did appear a little taken back at the lack of hands raised at his opening question.
“I can tell you right now in just a very short time, most of the hands in this room will be raised when that question is asked,” Sutton said.
After his talk, Sutton was even willing to talk to a high school kid that was doing a story for the local newspaper.
“Can we go outside?” was his only request about the interview. “It’s hot in here.”
The interview didn’t last long. There weren’t any earth-shattering questions asked. He did proceed to explain what his plans were for Razorback basketball and how he was going to go about doing it. It was the first of many over the ensuing years, some on the record, some off the record. Most were educational. You could always ask him why or how he did something. At that time, he was never short or rude with the media.
Sutton was the right person at the right time for Arkansas.
To say he taught an entire state the game of basketball is not an understatement. His television show on KATV was turned into his personal teaching platform and he used it very, very well.
Winning helped with the fans.
The Hogs reaching the Final Four in 1978 raised expectations to a level that maybe were a little too high, but nobody ever thought about that. It was those expectations that caused Richardson’s early years to be a little rocky. Going 260-75 over his 11 years established Arkansas as a basketball contender.
It was Sutton’s little details like the pep band and Jim Robson running all over the place, creating an atmosphere that turned Barnhill Arena into a full-blown madhouse on game nights. It was so deafening at times that opposing coaches literally hated the place. Texas A&M’s Shelby Metcalf even walked out and stomped on the Hog at midcourt one time.
Sutton created all of that.
Hanging a banner for him at Bud Walton is right in so many ways. It doesn’t detract from the others already there.
No, he didn’t win a national championship at Arkansas.
But he did lay the foundation for the program.
The secret suspicion from this corner is Sutton is proud of all he accomplished in his decades of coaching. Yes, there were some mistakes and things he wished he could do over differently.
But that’s probably not his proudest achievement.
Eddie is probably prouder that he was a teacher. He taught his players lessons on the court and off the court. He taught his assistants how to be head coaches. Even one of his student managers ended up being a head coach at a school in the Big 10. He taught a media that basically only knew a basketball was blown up, not stuffed, about the game.
And he taught virtually an entire state a new sport.