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Eddie Sutton lived ‘full life’ amid triumphs, troubles; short tenure at UK rocked by 1989 recruiting scandal

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Eddie Sutton’s short tenure at the University of Kentucky was rocked by a recruiting scandal that brought the state’s flagship school to its knees.

The Wildcats eventually recovered from the disaster and Sutton also found success after resigning as coach of the Wildcats following the 1988-89 season.

Those ups and downs followed Sutton at Oklahoma State and his ability to overcome adversity was well-documented in “Eddie,” which aired Monday night on ESPN.

The two-hour presentation displayed the good, the bad, and everything in-between as Sutton endured a roller-coaster ride of success and struggles during his life on and off the court.

Eddie Sutton endured a roller-coaster ride of success and struggles during his life. (Oklahoma State photo)

“There were a lot of highlights, but there were some difficult times our family went through,” Sutton’s son, Sean, told ESPN in an interview. “With each, I think it made our family a little bit stronger. And our mother, Patsy, was the rock of the family through everything. It taught us at a young age that adversity is part of life. You either rise above it or you crumble with it. Dad was a great example of that to me and my brothers. My mom refused to let us buckle under those circumstances.”

Sutton said those struggles proved to be learning experiences.

“It probably prepared us for other things down the road,” Sean said. “It wasn’t easy to go back and kind of relive it. But you can’t tell the good without the bad. There was some really good, bad and ugly. That was my dad. That was my life.”

Sutton didn’t lack self-confidence and, while at Arkansas, he was a pioneer when it came to the game-day experience. His permed hair also became a trademark.

“He was ahead of his time in terms of doing all of that,” Sean said. “He had radio shows, television shows. He’s one of the first people to get a pep band to play at games. He always believed in himself and believed in what he was doing. He also understood in order to win you have to have one of the best home-court atmospheres and home-court advantages in college basketball.

“I think he understood that fans play a huge part in a program’s success, and because of that, I think he felt like he wanted them to know how much he appreciated them. He also wanted them to get to know him on a more intimate basis, to show his personality.”

That personality shined when he dealt with the adversity of a plane crash the killed 10, including eight with ties to the basketball program at Oklahoma State in 2001.

“It was so hard on him because he felt such remorse,” Sean said. “He carried a lot of guilt with that because, ultimately, he’s the one who assigned (people) on the different planes. It’s amazing how strong he was during that whole process. It was such a sad experience, but I think what it did is it made him really appreciate every day.”

Rex Chapman at UK.

Sutton’s addiction to alcohol become apparent, especially during his second season at Kentucky, and that’s when Rex Chapman noticed a difference in his college coach.

“I’ve never told anybody this, but most of my freshman year he was drunk,” Chapman said in the documentary. “He didn’t drink in public. At games, there were times he was all right, but never great my freshman year.”

Sutton entered rehab in 1987 and Chapman said things changed for the better the following season. He reportedly had the addiction under control before entering rehab again in 2006 following an automobile accident.

In the end, Sean Sutton hopes the documentary showed how his father, who died earlier this year at age 84, lived an “extraordinary life” amid the ups and downs on and off the court.

“He had some tough obstacles to overcome,” Sutton said. “But he’s one of the last people who can go back to the great generations. … he lived a full life.”

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com.

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