In this time of great tragedy, as a pandemic sweeps through the land, we get a kind reminder: Good things, it seems, come to those who wait.
With so much of the nation shut down, basketball’s most prestigious hall of fame finally opened up for the coach who put Arkansas basketball on the map.
After his seventh nomination since 2002, on Saturday Eddie Sutton was announced as a member of the 2020 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It will be the hall’s most accomplished group of inductees ever with headliners like the late Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Rudy Tomjanovich.
Sutton, at last, follows Nolan Richardson as the second former Razorback coach ever elected into the hall. He also follows in the footsteps of his best Razorback player, Sidney Moncrief, who was inducted in 2019.
The numbers speak for themselves — 806 wins (No. 11 all-time), three trips to the Final Four (one with Arkansas in 1978 and later two with Oklahoma State), but it’s Sutton’s enduring relationships with his former players which will linger longest in our collective memories.
“We love him, and we’re happy for him,” former Hog Joe Kleine said. “I’m just happy for the family. Still a little bitter it took this long, but we’ll take what we can get.”
When KATV’s Steve Sullivan asked Kleine, who starred for Sutton’s Hogs in the early 1980s, to detail the loyalty Sutton showed for his players and visa versa, Kleine could hardly get the words out he was so overcome with emotion.
“I was a hard worker, but he made me want to work harder and just held me accountable,” Kleine told the Tulsa World when recalling his time with Sutton. “After I had some success, it seemed like he pushed me harder. But he was always very fair and was always very approachable. He was hard, but not to the point where you were afraid to talk to him or come to him. He wasn’t intimidating to me, but I knew he meant business. You could tell he wanted the best for you.”
Kleine helped lead Arkansas past No. 1 North Carolina and Michael Jordan in Pine Bluff.
For years, Kleine had been outspoken about how wrong it was that his former coach wasn’t in the hall of fame when so many other coaches with similar resumes had gotten in.
“Is Coach Sutton perfect? No, he’s not,” said Kleine, in part alluding to Sutton’s issues with alcoholism in the 1980s and his controversial departure of Arkansas for Kentucky. “But if we’re looking for perfect people to be inducted, then there would be no Hall of Fame.”
“If they’re not going to put Coach Sutton in the Hall of Fame, it’s not a credible Hall of Fame,” Kleine told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Kleine added that he thought there had been an organized campaign to keep Sutton from receiving enough votes to be a Hall of Fame inductee.
“I wish someone would come out and tell me why he’s been blackballed, because that’s what it is,” Kleine said. “It really infuriates me.”
As the news broke on Friday, other former Hogs praised Sutton, too.
“Congrats to Coach Eddie Sutton on being elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame,” Tweeted Ronnie Brewer, whose father played for Sutton in the late 1970s. “Much deserving and well overdue. Congrats to his family as well to see such an honor of a coach that touched so many lives along the way.”
Former Razorback Darrell Walker traveled to Tulsa to visit the 84-year-old Sutton and be by him when he got the phone call with the good news.
No social distancing or shelter in place order in the world could keep him away from his beloved coach:
Felt I needed to be with coach Sutton today. Hopefully today is the day that phone call finally comes. ? pic.twitter.com/gambuYwgdP— Darrell Walker (@CoachWalker_LR) April 3, 2020
There is some bittersweetness in how outspoken Sutton’s players have become for him.
After suffering a stroke, the wheelchair-bound Sutton can no longer easily speak for himself. The official induction ceremony will take place on August 29, and he won’t be able to wax eloquently like Nolan and Sidney did.
“It’ll be bittersweet because he won’t be able to express how he feels, his emotions,” his son Scott Sutton told the Democrat-Gazette before the news. “He won’t be able to thank the great players and wonderful coaches that helped him along the way.”
“My dad certainly will be excited if he gets inducted,” Sean Sutton added. “He’s always had so much respect for the history of the game, and to see himself up there with some of the great basketball players and the great coaches, no question it would mean a lot to him.”
No question, Sutton means a lot to Arkansas fans.
He always will.
Eddie Sutton was hired by @RazorbackMBB 46 years & 1 week ago (end of March 1974). Signed a 5-year contract for $25,000 per year, making him the highest-paid basketball coach in the SWC.— HogStats.com (@HogStats) April 4, 2020
Broyles: I’m calling on our fans to support basketball in the same way they support football pic.twitter.com/9IQmZrPQWR
Sutton would coach four of the top 10 players in Razorback history. More here: