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The emotions in Stillwater stem from a strong sense of family. That began when Sutton played guard for Iba from 1955-56 to 1957-58, and then embarked on a coaching career that was successful at every stop until the nasty scandal at Kentucky in 1989 put the Wildcats on NCAA probation and put Sutton out of work.
He spent a year out of coaching before going after the Oklahoma State job last spring. The position had been vacated by former Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton, who left his rebuilding program in Stillwater to take on the same task at the University of Miami. Sutton admitted to Oklahoma State officials that his difficulties at Kentucky included alcohol abuse. (He had already sought treatment.) He also convinced them that when it came to the NCAA charges against Kentucky—they included academic fraud and payments to the father of recruit Chris Mills, now at Arizona—he had gotten a bum rap. In truth, Sutton was at least guilty of extreme neglect at Kentucky. Yet his powers of persuasion, along with the support of Iba and Sutton's 430-164 career record, got him the Oklahoma State job.
In Stillwater, Sutton inherited some frustrated, but talented, players—including the multitalented Houston, three other starters from last season's 17-14 team and a late-blooming giant in the seven-foot Pittman—who simply needed an extra push to fulfill their potential. To this group Sutton added his son Sean, who had been his starting point guard at Kentucky two years ago.
Since Sutton's arrival, Pittman has slimmed down from 285 pounds to 250, which has helped improve his endurance and quickness. Now, he holds his own in the pivot—except when it comes to free throw shooting. A career 54% foul shooter heading into this year, Pittman converted just over 25% from the line in 1990-91. Guess who doesn't dare touch the ball in the final minutes of close games?
Pittman's foul shooting is so bad that Oklahoma State students often put their hands together and hold them overhead, as if in prayer, when he steps to the line. This doesn't bother Pittman as much as the idea that he can't find a stroke that works. He recently reverted to a one-handed, tilting-to-the-right stance that makes him resemble a shot-putter.
"I've tried everything," he said after missing six of eight from the line in the Cowboys' 80-69 victory over Nebraska on Feb. 27. "I get a lot of advice, mostly from people who never played the game. I don't know what's wrong."
Otherwise, it has been a terrific winter in Stillwater. Sean, who improved his outside shooting in his year on the sidelines, deftly runs the half-court offense and the active man-to-man defense that has served his father so well over the years. And the Cowboys have responded to the crowds that have turned 6,381-seat Gallagher-Iba Arena into a frenzied zoo by going 14-0 at home, sparing themselves the punishment that Sutton had promised at the start of practice last October.
"He told us that if we lost at home, we would have to come in at 5 a.m. the next day and run five miles," says Sean. "I guess we can put our running shoes back on the rack, at least until next season."
That's the kind of work ethic Sutton learned from Iba, 86, who still shows up for Cowboy home games and an occasional practice. On the first day of workouts last fall, when Sutton told his old coach that he was going to have a three-a-day practice session in his honor, Iba snapped, "Good—but make it four."
Iba won 655 games while coaching Oklahoma State from 1934 through 1970, but he never had a player quite like the 6'7", 235-pound Houston, who this season became the third player in Big Eight history to collect at least 1,000 points, 700 rebounds, 150 blocks, 100 steals and 100 assists in a career. However, Houston isn't widely admired around the league because of a wrecking-ball playing style that some observers view as borderline dirty. Rumor has it that floating around the league office is a bootleg videotape known as Byron's Greatest Hits. Naturally, Sutton defends his wide-body star.