FAYETTEVILLE – Of all who played or coached under Eddie Sutton during his 11 Razorbacks years only one did both.
Jimmy Counce when he played for Sutton in those first four Arkansas seasons from 1973-74 through 1977-78, Jim Counce when he assisted Sutton in 1980-81 and ’81-82, and then Dr. Counce thoracic surgeon as he remains today in Northwest Arkansas, Counce saw the Hall of Fame coach from many sides.
Sutton, 84, passed away Saturday night after having been long debilitated by a series of strokes that eventually robbed him of his speech.
“It was wonderful not only to play for Coach Sutton, but to experience his influence from the aspect of coaching with him from the other side of the curtain,” Memphis native Counce said when asked Sunday to discuss the biggest influence of his Arkansas life.
How different to coach with him than play for him?
“In many ways it was the same,” Counce said. “He wasn’t a different person in the coaching locker room or away from the players than he had been when you were exposed to him out on the floor in the games. He was still the same man. That was wonderful because I would have been very disappointed if I found he was two different people. But that wasn’t the case at all.”
Sutton’s influence cast lifelong.
“He always played a role,” Counce said. “All his players would say in some significant way he changed their lives. Certainly it was a positive the years we played for him, but it extended into our adult lives, too.”
Sutton wasn’t perfect. Alcoholism marred his final year at Arkansas leading to a falling out with Frank Broyles, the athletic director who made the then unheard of Southwest Conference commitment as a football coach to big-time basketball hiring the up and comer from Creighton and renovating dingy, dusty Barnhill Fieldhouse into what visiting teams dreaded as the overflowing homecourt hell called Barnhill Arena.
Falling out with Broyles led Sutton to Kentucky. His alcohol problem was ongoing though finally resolved
It reemerged at the close of his of his 16 years coaching at Oklahoma State likely brought on by the lingering stress of the OSU plane crash that killed 10.
Through it all his teams won 806 games. Sutton was inducted in 2011 to the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and belatedly elected last April to the Naismith Hall of Fame for a now posthumous August induction.
Sutton took Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State, to the NCAA Tournaments including his last nine Arkansas teams. He posted one Final Four and an Elite Eight and a 260-75 Arkansas career record.
He went 88-39 record for four Kentucky seasons with one 32-4 Elite Eight team and at Oklahoma State two Final Fours and an Elite Eight and 368-151 record.
At Arkansas Sutton immediately reaped respectability with 17-9 and 19-9 seasons then caught fire with the fabled Triplets, Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph and defensive demon Counce.
They went 26-2, unbeaten in the Southwest Conference team in 1977 and became 32-4 Final Four team in 1978 and the Moncrief led Elite Eight team of ’79.
Broyles’ faith was rewarded.
“You didn’t have that many athletic directors emphasizing basketball,” Pat Foster, the eventual Lamar, Houston and Nevada-Reno head coach and Sutton’s first Arkansas assistant, said. “The financial side came from football making it possible for the other sports even to have an existence. But Eddie made it a revenue producer and did it fast. That was big.”
Great players, U.S. Reed, Scott Hastings, Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson and Joe Kleine among others, would follow.
Sutton made them greater.
“He taught people how to play,” Foster said. “ He didn’t tell them how to set a screen he showed them how to set it and how to come off it. He showed physically every phase of the game how to do it. Mentally he was great at getting every player in his area of strength.”
Sutton’s practices were as tough as they come yet without profane bluster and always publicly open.
“You could bring your family to one of Coach Sutton’s practices and not be embarrassed by the way the team was being coached and what was being said,” Counce said. “It was often done firmly. Always done straightforwardly and in a demanding fashion, but it was never in an unnecessarily harsh or profane way.”
Obviously the players responded.
“Guys want to see results from their hard work,” Counce said. “We all immediately saw good results from it and so we were all in.”
After Sutton, Nolan Richardson (1985-2002) coached Arkansas to its zenith with the lone basketball national championship and basketball runner-up in school history.
Richardson always credits “Eddie building the monster” that Nolan said he had to feed.
Their Arkansas impact remains uninterrupted even by Sutton’s death.
“Coach Sutton’s been gone from Arkansas for 35 years and yet his presence and influence still resonates largely throughout the state today,” Counce said. “Really remarkable.”