Even as Hagan exited, Sutton's fate threatened to become the focus of a statewide political struggle. Former governor and nonagenarian power-broker Happy Chandler let slip that Sutton and Governor Wallace Wilkinson had met at Chandler's Versailles estate, a meeting at which Wilkinson purportedly pledged his support for Sutton. At present Wilkinson is weighing three new appointments to the university's board of trustees, the panel that hired president David Roselle, and whose support Roselle needs as he tries to transform the university into an institution along the lines of, say, Duke—which also happens to be Roselle's alma mater.
So, was Wilkinson aligning himself with Sutton in an effort to curb the power of Roselle, whose pledge to purify the Wildcats' basketball program is considered by many Kentuckians to be the sports equivalent of unilateral disarmament? Evidently not. No sooner had Chandler spoken than Wilkinson was backing away from any pro-Sutton promises like a Kentucky guard in the face of a Duke two-on-one. Even Oscar Combs, the avuncular editor and publisher of The Cats' Pause, a fiercely loyal weekly devoted to University of Kentucky sports, was speculating openly about Sutton's departure. "For Eddie to lose Oscar on this," said one Lexington insider, "is like LBJ losing Cronkite on Vietnam."
Meanwhile, Sutton has issued increasingly tepid statements of support for Dwane Casey, the assistant coach who sent that overnight package, and has continued in other ways to try to distance himself from the mess. As practice opened in October, Sutton said, "I know I'm innocent. I just hope the program is." More recently, he said he didn't want to be "the recipient of past sins." Last week he added, "Certainly any head coach has to shoulder part of the responsibility—a large part, you might say. But you can't be held completely responsible."
In fact, if the corruption among Kentucky boosters is as pervasive as many basketball insiders believe it to be, it is unfair to hold Sutton entirely accountable. But in a place where the basketball coach is an absolute monarch, folks frown on uncertain rule. Attendance at the Cats' preseason scrimmages in backwaters around the commonwealth, normally SRO affairs that set bandbox gyms a-rockin', was alarmingly low. In Rupp Arena on Nov. 14, a smattering of boos sounded when Sutton was introduced before Kentucky's exhibition against a Swedish club team. And the running joke in Lexington these days refers to Sutton's team as "the young and the Rexless."
There's a clause in Sutton's contract stating that any violation of NCAA or league regulations "shall be cause for termination." It's not an uncommon provision in college coaching contracts, and was at the root of a comment by ESPN provocateur Dick Vitale as the broadcast of Saturday's game got under way. "The perception of Kentucky basketball is at an alltime low," Vitale said. "And something has to be done. They need a new fresh breath of air. They should have made a change when Mr. Hagan went to the sideline and resigned. The president should have asked for the resignation of the coaching staff as well."
Vitale had agonized over whether to make that remark and had wanted to tell Sutton of his intention to do so. He couldn't reach the coach on Friday, but he found assistant James Dickey at the hotel the day of the game and told him of his intentions. Then, just minutes before the tip-off the next afternoon, Dickey waved Vitale over to the Kentucky bench, indicating that Sutton wanted to speak with him. Sutton pleaded with Vitale not to go on the air with his opinions and argued that in light of Vitale's influence, his remarks would have outsize ramifications. Sutton asked Vitale whether he still intended to call for his resignation. Vitale said yes, and an agitated conversation ensued. "Eddie was upset," says Vitale, who after the final buzzer hurried off with a police escort to catch a flight.
Having Vitale on his case may be just what Sutton needs to generate sympathy among the Wildcat faithful. But the plight isn't Sutton's so much as Kentucky's, and it's Roselle's opinion, not Vitale's, that counts. No one will turn Kentucky into another Duke; in Durham they think Prop 48 is an antique airplane. But Roselle is committed to making changes that go beyond merely finding a new overnight-delivery service. He admires how Krzyzewski runs his program and, however disingenuously, can't understand why the Wildcats can't run theirs the same way.
Just what is it about those Dookies? "The key word is perspective," Krzyzewski says. "If it weren't, I'd have been fired after I went 11-17 [in 1982-83]. Danny Ferry has played great basketball for three years, but they're not erecting statues to him on campus."
Ah, perspective. A statewide poll conducted a couple of years ago by the Louisville
asked 800 Kentuckians to name their favorite aspect of winter. The most popular answer? Basketball. In second place: the holidays.
"What's next for you guys?" someone asked Krzyzewski after Saturday's game.