OSU coach still going strong despite memories of tragedy
Monday, November 19, 2001
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Before Eddie Sutton leaves his house each day, he sticks a pin in the lapel of his sports coat. It's a black square with an orange ribbon and the numeral 10, a reminder of those killed when an Oklahoma State plane crashed in January.
"I'm going to put it away one of these days," Sutton says, shuffling the mail on his office desk. "I don't know when. I just feel like it's still, in a way, honoring those people who went down."
Nine months after the crash that killed two players and eight members of Oklahoma State's basketball traveling party, Sutton began his 32nd season as a Division I basketball coach Friday night as the Cowboys beat Cincinnati. He gave some thought to retiring after last year, but decided he still enjoyed the game and his players, and that at age 65, he still has something to offer.
"That's one of those experiences that you're not sure you're going to be able to handle it," said Sutton, whose squad is off to a 2-0 start after beating Austin Peay Saturday. "But I felt like I did an adequate job, and I hope I don't have to go through anything like that again. It wasn't an easy task at all."
The Beechcraft King Air 200 carried a pilot and co-pilot, two players, the team's play-by-play announcer, a radio engineer, a trainer, a student assistant, the team's director of basketball operations and a member of the sports information office.
The plane was one of three small airplanes the Cowboys used to fly to Colorado on Friday, Jan. 26. They lost to the Buffaloes the next day, then headed home in light snow with 1 mile visibility.
When he arrived back in Stillwater, Sutton was told that the third plane apparently had experienced some trouble and had returned to Denver.Confident in pilot
"I wasn't that alarmed because it goes back to the guy that was flying that plane," Sutton said of pilot Denver Mills. "I had more confidence in him as a pilot than any pilot I've ever flown with. I knew if there was a problem that he would certainly get that plane back."
Sutton was at home when he received the phone call telling him the plane apparently had gone down. He called his other coaches and went to the office, where he began the task of calling the victims' relatives to tell them the tragic news.
If the crash had happened 20 years ago, Sutton said, he isn't sure he could have handled it. But he has been steeled by the experience of beating a drinking problem and surviving a recruiting scandal that cost him his job at Kentucky.
"I think that's the thing I admired the most about the way he handled it," said Sutton's middle son, Sean. "He met it head on. He refused to let it get him down to a point where you just shut down."
Three days after the crash, the Cowboys returned to practice and Eddie Sutton held his first news conference. He answered every question, including those about why small planes are used to transport the team. He defended the practice and still does, saying it saves the school money, keeps the players from having to miss as much class time, and is safe.
Sutton attended six of the funerals, five of them in a span of three days. He also attended an emotional memorial service at Gallagher-Iba Arena, and spoke in an unwavering voice about each of the victims.
Pillar of strength
"I don't know if there's a coach in America or a person in America who could have done a better job," said Illinois coach Bill Self, who spent three years as an assistant under Sutton at Oklahoma State. "He was a pillar of strength, I think, for the community and, most importantly, the families going through the mourning."
There was a point soon after the crash, Sutton said, when he wasn't sure his team would be able to finish the season. But he and his coaches encouraged them to play on.
"Certainly we all mourn for a while and we'll always think about 'em and they'll always be a part of our lives," he said. "But at the same time, I tried to explain to the guys that life goes on. Accidents happen. Adversity happens to all of us and you can't dwell on something forever. I think our guys have done a pretty good job of doing that."
The Cowboys returned to the court Feb. 5 with a stirring victory over Missouri. They went on to receive an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the first round to Southern California. Their record: 20-10.
This year, Oklahoma State began the season ranked No. 18 and is expected to contend for the Big 12 Conference title. These Cowboys are as talented a group as Sutton has had in some time, and there are enough newcomers on the roster to keep him busy and inspired.
"He really set out a goal this year that we really need to have a good year," forward Fredrik Jonzen said. "I thought this was going to be his final year as a coach. But now he's kind of starting a new motivation for him to maybe coach five more years. I think he still feels that he has a whole lot more to give and to teach young kids."
While the memories of last year will never be far away, Sutton is moving on.
"I don't know, I could wake up a year from now and say, 'Well, I guess I ought to step down,' " he said. "But right now, I'm looking forward to the upcoming season."