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Chuck Landon: Longtime coach has parallel to MU history

Mar. 17, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

TULSA, Okla. -- A discreet glance at the name on the credential dangling from his neck wasn't necessary.

It was unmistakably Eddie Sutton.

The one and only.

The well known retired coach was watching the Conference USA Tournament here in the BOK Center from a vantage point on press row when I settled into my designated seat right beside him.

It didn't take long for Sutton to initiate a conversation.

"Oh, that's really pretty country," said Sutton, after asking where I work. "I've been down through eastern Kentucky many times."

The reference clearly was toward his four years as the University of Kentucky's head basketball coach in 1985-89.

What Wildcats' fan can forget that?

After succeeding Joe B. Hall, Sutton eventually was involved in a recruiting scandal that was punctuated by UK assistant Dwane Casey sending an envelope with $1,000 cash enclosed to recruit Chris Mills' father. As a result, the NCAA placed Kentucky on three years probation, while also banning the 'Cats from post-season for two years and live television for one season.

Sutton and athletic director Cliff Hagan were forced to resign.

But that was then and this is now.

And, now, Sutton is an aging former coach who just celebrated his 77th birthday last Tuesday and still enjoys watching the collegiate game he loves.

"What year was that tragic plane crash?" asked Sutton, referring to the horrific Marshall airplane disaster in 1970. "Those are such awful things to deal with. I was involved in that when we had a plane crash in Colorado."

Sutton was referring to one of three planes carrying Oklahoma State's basketball traveling party crashing during a snowstorm on Jan. 27, 2001, near Byers, Colo. All 10 passengers were killed including two players, two coaches and the Cowboys' play-by-play radio broadcaster.

"It is so tough to tell parents that their son is dead," said Sutton, who was Oklahoma State's head coach. "That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

Obviously, Sutton could identify and empathize with Huntington's pain.

But he also has some fond memories of Marshall people he has encountered.

A prime example is Sonny Allen.

"I haven't seen Sonny in years," said Sutton. "Where is he now?"

After learning Allen was doing well in Reno, Nev., the reminiscing began.

"I remember coaching against Sonny when he was at SMU and I was at Arkansas," said Sutton, who became increasingly animated. "It didn't matter if Sonny won or lost, five minutes after the game was over he always had that smile on his face. I've looked over at his bench before and seen him clapping when one of my players made a good play.

"That's just the kind of good guy Sonny always was."

As the conversation revolved around basketball and people we had in common, former Marshall star and current Los Angeles Lakers' coach Mike D'Antoni's name was mentioned. After a moment or two, I thoroughly entertained Sutton with a anecdote involving the D'Antoni family.

Explaining that the West Virginia High School boys basketball tournament was going on, I informed Sutton that D'Antoni's father, 99-year-old Lewis, tossed up the ceremonial opening jumpball.

"Oh my gosh!" exclaimed Sutton.

Yes, it was a trip down memory lane.

And this time, no one called Eddie Sutton for a violation.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at 304-526-2827, or clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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