By David McGee
Central High School, Tulsa, OK, Class of ‘67
In 1959 Tulsa, Oklahoma, was in the midst of a post-war boom that had made it something more than “The Oil Capital of the World,” as it had designated itself decades earlier. T-town became a magnet for young, striving middle-class families. In great numbers they came, expanding the city’s boundaries in all directions while straining the educational system’s ability to accommodate all the young students entering the secondary school system.
In response, as the decade neared its end Tulsa opened a number of new schools, from the elementary level on up to high school, two of the latter being named after Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale and General Raymond Stallings McLain, a self-educated native Oklahoman whose formal schooling ceased in sixth grade but who flourished in service to his country—General George Patton once extolled him to a group of officers as “a man to whom I can give the impossible task and know it will be done.” Joining the two new high schools in having open coaching jobs in their athletic departments was the city’s second oldest high school, Central High School, located amidst the banks, restaurants, movie theaters, department stores, parking lots and mom and pop businesses in downtown Tulsa, the most interesting campus in the entire city.
One of many applicants for these coaching jobs was Eddie Sutton, a recent Oklahoma State University graduate who had gone from being a starting guard on some fine Hank Iba-coached OSU teams (he scored 18 points in the Cowboys’ legendary upset of then-No. 1 juggernaut Kansas, lead by Wilt Chamberlain, in an epochal 1957 battle), to being a highly regarded Iba assistant after graduation. Upon receiving word that Tulsa public schools would offer only assistant, not head coaching, jobs to recent college grads, Sutton made plans to go into the service, travel the world with his wife Patsy and coach a military team before returning to private life, ideally in a head coaching position somewhere. Before Sutton could effect his plan, Central High called, offering a job teaching five history classes along with serving as an assistant football coach and head basketball coach. “They were willing to pay me $4,250 for nine months,” Sutton recalled. “I almost fell out of my chair because I would be their head coach at 23 years old. So I jumped for joy.” His wife Patsy–Eddie’s college sweetheart at OSU (“I had to run hard to catch her,” Eddie said)–got a job at Monroe Junior High teaching Home Economics “and we moved to Tulsa.”
Central sweetened the financial pot after school started by offering Eddie an extra $250 to coach the school golf team. Hesitating only because he had never played golf in his life, Eddie advised the principal that he knew nothing about the game, only to be told his only duty would be to drive the golfers to the Tulsa Country Club, where two resident professionals would then instruct the players. “What he failed to tell me was that I would have to wait five hours to take them back to school,” Eddie recalled. “So that’s how I started playing golf, because they let me start playing every day with them. I never did win a championship [at Central] in basketball, but I did win a golf championship.”
Eddie Sutton career retrospective posted on YouTube by Oklahoma State Athletics
Eddie quickly established himself as one of the top high school coaches in Tulsa, as his Hank Iba-centered system—focused on fierce, unrelenting defense and a ball control game that was only possible in the pre-shot-clock era and gave opposing teams fits when it went into delay mode (“If you think it’s hard to execute this offense,” Eddie once advised, “try playing defense against it.”)—invigorated the Central Braves’ program and transformed the team into a dangerous opponent, especially on its home court.
As a three-sport athlete in my school years and a voracious consumer of magazines, books and newspapers—especially our home town Tulsa World—I took note of the increasing success of the Central Braves and the acclaim being accorded the team’s young head coach. I saw photos of Eddie and what always struck me was the fire in his eyes, even when he was smiling. I found something intimidating in his mien, while at the same time being intrigued by him as I learned more about his system, his teams and him in the newspaper reports during basketball seasons. But my family lived on the north side of town, literally the other side of the tracks that ran behind Hinderliter Heat Treating on Harvard Avenue (the nearest main thoroughfare to our home on Florence Avenue), where the world seemed to change as neighborhoods transformed from the placid, solid middle-class environs to the south into pockets of poverty and menace sprinkled among young families moving in and laying down upwardly mobile (that is, into the middle class) roots in the post-war years. I, and the friends I played sports with and attended classes with at Celia Clinton Elementary School, expected we would all be together right through high school, which in our district meant Will Rogers High School. Then, during Christmas break of my ninth grade year, 1963, at Cleveland Junior High, my parents bought a house on West 4th Street, near the University of Tulsa, and we left the north side for bucolic but less soulful environs a few miles on the supposedly right side of the tracks. In that instant, I learned I would be attending not Rogers but rather Central High School, where I could count the number of other students I knew on the fingers of one hand, only one of them being a close friend. It was not an easy adjustment, but one I accepted, because that’s the way it was, while at once realizing that if I played basketball, I would play for Eddie Sutton.
Cut to the spring of 1964, near the end of the academic year. I had filled out my schedule for my upcoming sophomore year at Central, and applied as a basketball prospect for what was then called “sixth hour,” meaning the last hour of the school day and beyond, when those playing on school athletic teams would gather for practices. Lo and behold, a few days later, Coach Sutton materialized in the Cleveland gymnasium, sitting solemnly at table with our phys ed instructor, Gerald Hicks, as sixth hour candidates joined them for one-on-one interviews with Eddie. When my turn came, I stood nervously before the coach (how I wasn’t visibly shaking in my shoes I’ll never know) as he studied a paper on which copious notes were written below my name, as Mr. Hicks gave Eddie a quite flattering appraisal of my potential and of his experience with me in his gym classes. Eddie stared in silence at the paper as Mr. Hicks spoke, until finally he looked up at me. With those blazing eyes boring right through me, he spoke the first words I ever heard from him:
“Son,” he began, “do you think you could put on a little weight over the summer?”
Well, the answer to the question was the same as it would be today and to all those who have said to me over the years, “For God’s sake, drink a shake!” But I did promise Coach Sutton that I would get to work on the weight thing.
Fall, 1964: It is now the beginning of pre-season practice for the basketball team. We are loaded. From the previous year’s squad, two high school All-Americans (Phil Harmon and Joe Smith) are returning, along with seasoned guards Bobby Banfield and Terry Morehead, with solid center Ralph Conrad back for his senior season as well. Pre-season rankings predicted city, conference and state championships for the Braves and all manner of personal awards (the former was named All-City, All-Conference, All-State, All-American and Oklahoma Player of the Year). The grace, fluidity and firepower of the starting five was something to behold, and of course their ability to shut down an opposing offense was awe inspiring.
Before the first practice began, Eddie gathered the entire team—sophomores, juniors, seniors—together for what I learned was an annual pep talk, if you will, about the upcoming season’s goals and challenges. Looking back on this moment, I realize Eddie knew exactly what he was putting on the court and how fearsome it would be when all the parts congealed. Over the course of 15, 20 minutes, then, he spoke not a word about winning games. He spoke instead about pride—pride in your team, pride in your school, pride in the way you conducted yourself on and off the court, pride in the way you wore your clothes and to never think less of anyone because their clothing doesn’t come from Clarke’s or Renberg’s (upscale shops only a few blocks from Central), pride in the discipline of practice, practice, practice, pride even in the way you carried your books in the Central hallways—pride in the most minute details of what makes you who you are, which in turn will make you a person in full, more fulfilled than you could ever imagine otherwise and irrespective of what material or financial gain could provide, a transcendent feeling of being in sync with the world around you, of experiencing something spiritual, even holy, in the turning of the earth.
I was fortunate to have parents and an older brother, a Marine, who instilled in me the value of discipline, along with respect for everyone, regardless of race, creed or color, and an unflagging work ethic. These have all served me well as I’ve aged, but what I was taught at home needed what Eddie told us that day to complete a philosophical and moral transformation that continues to this day. I was indeed transformed by those few minutes listening to Coach Sutton in the Central gym, and to my way of thinking, all the good things that have happened to me since that day link to that moment, that indelible moment of what Dickens called “the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” So profound was the wisdom in Eddie’s message that, truth be told, I cannot imagine what my life would have been but for the fateful move my parents made in the middle of my ninth grade year that put me in Eddie Sutton’s orbit, however briefly. My only regret is that I never had a chance to tell him in person what he had done for me, what he meant to me, and to thank him, as if that were enough gratitude one could pay for having their life altered forever and for the better,
“I had a sound philosophy thanks to Mr. Iba and I borrowed some things along the way from some other coaches,” Eddie said in his oral history interview with Voice of Oklahoma (September 10, 2010) in response to a question about why had had been so successful in the big time when so many others had failed. “I had outstanding assistant coaches and I had some outstanding players. The one thing I think probably helped in my relationship with my players is that I told all of my assistants that we want to treat our players just like they were our own children. I think our players knew that we were always behind them. We wanted them to be the best players that they could be. We urged them to listen and to develop their God-given talent. But we were also behind them 100 percent whether it was in helping them get their degree or helping them with personal problems. Letting them know we dearly loved them as people and not just players. We would help them in any way that we could. I think the one thing that we always tried to impress was that in some way the relationship you had with your players, you helped them certainly become better players, but you also hoped you helped them in some way to become a better person. I think that probably helped in my relationships with all of the assistant coaches that I had. I told all of my assistant coaches I would try to teach them everything and when they got ready to get a head coaching position that I would do everything in the world to help them get it. I think I had 13 or 14 guys go on to be head coaches. The one thing that helped me more than anything, because it kept my perspective probably the way it should be, was my wife Patsy. I think she was probably the best assistant coach I’ve ever had.”
Given his generous, inclusive nature, I would be remiss, especially in this turbulent time, if I failed to mention another quality Eddie embodied. When he arrived in Tulsa in 1959, the city was still healing, as it is now, from an open wound inflicted by the race massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921, when mobs of armed whites, reacting to a dubious report of an incident between a young black male and a white woman in an elevator in the Drexel Building at 3rd & Main in downtown Tulsa, reduced to rubble the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood (so rich in so many ways—financially, culturally, politically—as to have earned the nickname “The Black Wall Street”). As described on the Tulsa Historical Society website, In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
Coach Sutton assumed his post in the very year when Tulsa school district boundaries were redrawn in the wake of McClain High School opening on the north side, resulting in both McClain and Central taking in African-American students that otherwise would have attended the all-black Booker T. Washington High School, also on the north side. This, Eddie said, was an interesting time for him because of his limited exposure to the black populace while growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, where he was born on March 12, 1936, and spending his later childhood in Bucklin, Kansas, where his father—an electrician, mechanic and plumber—had found work. As Coach Sutton’s star rose at Central, he was offered, and declined, several jobs at the college level. Asked in his Voice of Oklahoma interview why he stayed at Central instead of making a reasonable move up the ladder, his answer revealed the man his players knew him to be, to wit:
I never had a black player on my team at Oklahoma State. We were all Caucasians when I played. So the first African-American students came [to Central] and the first young black man [on the team] was named Rollie McCaskill. We had a lot of black students. I think that was a time when it was interesting to see a lot of white students, who had never had any kind of a relationship with the black students, find out that we are all the same. It was a very, very healthy time, I thought, for a coach to be in a position to help kids in so many different ways. So I turned down a lot of jobs.
Eddie Sutton, a man in full, died in Tulsa on May 23, 2020, after being in hospice care. His wife of 55 years, Patsy, predeceased him on January 7, 2013, following a stroke. I met Patsy only once, and briefly, but to me, she and Eddie, tooling around T-town in a baby blue T-bird convertible, were the city’s coolest couple. Three children survive them—boys Steve, Sean and Scott (the latter two became college coaches themselves following their playing days at Oklahoma State; Steve—“the smart one,” Coach once said jokingly, became a banker)—and nine grandchildren. In his 36 years of Division 1 basketball coaching, Eddie became the first coach to take four schools to the NCAA tournament and one of only eight major college men’s basketball coaches to record more than 800 career wins (retiring with 804). After leaving Central following the 1966 season, he began his college career by founding the men’s basketball program at the College of Southern Idaho. Moving on to Creighton University, he made his first coaching appearance in the NCAA tournament in 1974; four years later, 1978, he returned to the tournament with his University of Arkansas Razorbacks juggernaut. With Kentucky, he made the Elite Eight in 1986. In 1990 he got his dream job as head coach of his alma mater’s basketball team, the Oklahoma State University Cowboys, where he became the second-winningest coach in OSU history, after his mentor Hank Iba; made 13 NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Four appearances; was a four-time national Coach of the Year; and finally, on November 20, 2011, was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1979, his Arkansas team, clearly one of the top three teams in Division 1, lost a tough, hard-fought Elite Eight game to Larry Bird-led Indiana State. With a win, Eddie felt, Arkansas would have prevailed in the Final Four semifinals and faced off in the title game against Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans. But it was not to be. Indiana State emerged victorious, not on the strength of a Bird bomb, but rather on a desperation heave by a Sycamores player who, trapped by Razorbacks defenders, threw the ball at the basket, where it bounced, bounced again, bounced again and fell into the net as the buzzer sounded. Asked later what he said to his team after this heartbreaking defeat, Eddie’s response was simply classic Eddie, and bigger than the game: “When you know deep in your heart you’re giving your best, whether it’s in basketball or you’re getting ready for a test or whatever it might be, if you know you’ve done your best then you can accept that. It’s when you don’t give your best and that happens that you live with a life of regrets.”
On his new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan has written a powerful, reflective song titled “I Contain Multitudes.” Eddie Sutton contained multitudes. His was not a life of regrets. Here’s hoping a baby blue T-bird convertible and a certain beautiful woman with a dazzling smile were awaiting him when he went to his reward.
This tribute to Eddie Sutton continues below with an even more personal reminiscence by my fellow Central High Class of ’67 classmate, Steve Miller, who played for Coach Sutton at Central and at the College of Southern Idaho, and maintained a lifelong friendship with the man who affected him deeply on multiple levels. Steve had a productive college and international basketball career, and retired from the Air Force with the rank of Colonel. He and his wife of 51 years, KaJean, live in San Antonio, TX. They have three children (Krista Tedrow, Lindsey Cancino and Nathan Miller). Although in Steve’s senior season there were juniors on the team that had experienced Coach Sutton, to my way of thinking Steve was the last pure product of the Eddie Sutton system to wear a Braves uniform. The team struggled to an 8-14 record, but many of the losses were by five points or less, and Steve did carry Central to a second place finish in the McLain Tournament and third place in the Memorial Tournament of Champions. He was selected to the All-Tourney Teams for both tournaments, and was also named to the All-City Team by the Tulsa Tribune. Exclusively for Deep Roots, he shares his thoughts on his long, loving friendship with Coach Sutton.
Thank You, Coach: A Tribute to Eddie Sutton
By Steve Miller, Central High School, Class of ‘67
As this is written, it has been one week since I got the phone call from the oldest son (Steven) of Coach Eddie Sutton. Steven simply said, “Steve, this is the phone call I did not want to make. Dad is not doing well, is failing fast and probably not going to make it through the weekend. We as a family consider you family, and wanted to make sure you knew first before the news got out.” Living in San Antonio I knew I could not make the trip to Tulsa to have my final words. Steven knew that and asked if I wanted to speak with the coach, who could hear via the speakerphone. I will be eternally grateful to the Sutton family for allowing me the honor to share my gratitude and love with my coach, my mentor, my father figure and my friend.
What do you say about a man who has been an integral part of your life for 56 years? Even now the memories are endless and immeasurable. The words of tribute at this time from around the world have been pouring in and most certainly will continue for a long time. His Division I basketball coaching victories and awards are legendary and well known. I had the pleasure of being a part of the early years at Tulsa Central High School and the College of Southern Idaho. As a teenager in the ninth grade I knew I was going to go to Central High School and wanted so much to play for Coach Sutton. One night I just called him, and every time since that night, he spoke with respect and kindness to me. I simply asked him what I need to do to get play for your team. He very simply said, “You work your butt off, learn the fundamentals of basketball and never give up on yourself.” I would never forget our first phone call and now my last one. I had been quoted by a Tulsa newspaper a few years back concerning Coach Sutton in stating, “I had access to him in the ninth grade and I have it now.”
In 1965, my sophomore year in high school, we were the number one team in Oklahoma. I will never forget the first game that I started as point guard for Coach Sutton in my junior year. It was a testimony of that what he taught and shared with me that night in our first telephone conversation. It was a treasured honor for me to play as point guard for Coach Sutton in his last game as a coach in high school and his last game as a coach in junior college. I would later finish my career at Texas Tech University, where his son Sean is currently an assistant coach. He introduced me to so many areas: discipline, respect, integrity and character. He introduced me to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Clearly, he introduced me to passion for what is important and accountable. I witnessed and experienced the Eddie Sutton “scowl” before the “scowl” became cool. You did not want to play Coach Sutton in a game of HORSE. He eventually got the upper hand with just fundamentals in shooting. Whatever accolades I received through the game of basketball found their genesis in the fundamental teaching and coaching of Eddie Sutton.
I desired so much to be just like Coach Sutton in teaching and coaching. As a player and as a person I wanted him to be proud of me. But the Lord had other plans and I became a fighter pilot in an Air Force career lasting over 30 years. All that he taught on the court was applicable for winning in the game of life. Thank you, Coach, for stressing the importance of staying focused on that which is high in priority—faith, family, friends. Thank you, Coach, for demonstrating loyalty, encouragement and accountability. Whenever I would see you, whether in person or on TV, no matter what school you were coaching at or the situation being referenced, with honor and respect I would say, “That is my coach. He is still the same man, and I love him.”
Over the many years since high school we would get together. My family got to see you coach in Texas, Alaska, Alabama, and of course, Oklahoma. We were there for the Final Four in 2004. Thank you, Coach, for your love for my entire family. You were there when we talked about my career change, going to grad school and coming back in the Air Force. When we talked about that difficult time for you and the Oklahoma State family in January 2001, I could deeply understand because I had been in the same situation as a commander in the Air Force. Like you, my life totally changed after that tragedy.
In the early summer of 2012, my sisters and I were cleaning our parents’ house in Tulsa in preparation for an estate sale. Coach Sutton had moved back to Tulsa and even stopped by to see how it was going. I had found a program with the College of Southern Idaho basketball team in 1969 with a team photo on the cover. I found two of them and gave one to him. He was so grateful. It brought back memories of the program he founded and made into a powerhouse for junior college basketball. Later that summer, while still cleaning the attic, I came across a box which contained, among other things, my first basketball letter certificate in high school signed by Coach Sutton. But I also found my notebook that had all the coaching notes he made us take while in high school and in junior college. I would later show this to him, and he laughed because he could not believe I took the notes, much less still had them. I would later have them copied and bound into a notebook for his sons Steven, Sean and Scott. Coach Sutton was so proud of his sons and how they have handled themselves in life and with all its challenges.
One of the greatest rewards in knowing Coach Sutton was the joy of being in the presence of Patsy Sutton. A lady of class, dignity and beauty, and yet she put you so at ease in her company. She was the reward in his life as wife, mother and grandmother. Thank you, Patsy, for being there with my wife KaJean and I during our first year of marriage in Idaho. We were young and clueless, but you never questioned us but always was there with encouragement. And now after 51 years of marriage, your memory is so cherished and brings a smile to our faces. Coach Sutton and I used to jokingly say, “We both definitely married up.”
In the retirement years of Coach Sutton, we would regularly talk on the phone. Whenever I was in Tulsa, we would have lunch or talk at an ORU game, where his son Scott was the head coach and his son Sean an assistant. When it got to the point when traveling was difficult, I had the privilege to visit and share with him at home in just conversation or a meal. We always had prayer together and I’d tell my coach I loved him because he was in the habit of telling me the same thing. This is the Coach Sutton I knew and remember from the early years. His relationship with me for 56 years never changed but only became more precious.
In 2013 I was presented an opportunity I thought would never come my way. I was asked to coach a high school basketball team in a private school league in San Antonio. It was a short notice request and I initially balked at the opportunity because I did not know if they really wanted a 65-year-old man who had played basketball in college, internationally and in the Air Force, but never coached high school kids. It did not matter they took me anyway. Because of the short notice I took my 45-year-old playbook from high school, the one found in the attic and with the passion of Coach Eddie Sutton began to apply its fundamentals. My team never knew about the playbook until after my two-year stint as their coach. We would win 53 games in two years, win multiple tournaments, were district champions, went to state both years, and in each year we had the player of the year. All of this is to say that the fundamentals that Coach Sutton gave me in high school still work after all these years. Thank you, Coach.
A strong desire in my life is to leave a legacy that will honor my God, my family and my country. Thank you, Coach Sutton, for the legacy of loyalty to your God, your family, and the basketball community worldwide. You would say how much you appreciated your players for the accolades you would receive. Well, Coach, you are appreciated for who we are because of what you demonstrated in your teaching about life. Thank you, Coach Sutton, for being not just someone I cared for but someone I could trust. May I leave that same kind of legacy.
Although you would not dwell on or even discuss much about the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, we as your family of players certainly discussed this topic. The word attitude is defined for me as “the atmosphere we choose to live in.” Speaking as a former player, the attitude you set as a coach is what defines a Hall of Famer. Your players know this, and we are grateful you were able to see this finally recognized by others. Thank you, Coach, for setting the atmosphere. Thank you, Coach, for being a winner on and off the court. Thank you, Coach, for finishing well.
With a hurting but grateful heart and immense love for your family, I thank the Lord for you, Coach Sutton, for an eternal impact on my life. I so look forward to our reunion; maybe then I can finally win a game of HORSE because there are no losers in heaven.