There's only one curious thing about this idyllic picture. If you were to visit Fayetteville, where Sutton built the Razorbacks into the Southwest Conference's preeminent team and kept them there with his salesmanship, hard work and sound coaching, you would hear alarming tales about his final season at Arkansas. Guiding a young team that would lose 13 games, Sutton overreacted to officials' calls, even retreating into the stands in protest on a couple of occasions. He developed a bad back, ulcer symptoms and occasional numbness in both legs as his team's travails mounted and he frequently found "peace of mind" by using the back door to his office to escape the pressures of his job.
So far Sutton has had no such problems at Kentucky, and he fits the profile drawn up by the school's search committee when it was seeking a replacement for Hall. According to athletic director Cliff Hagan, Kentucky officials wanted someone with a national reputation, untainted by scandal and easily identifiable as an "institutional" figure. And, because of the frequent criticism directed at Hall's strategic decision making, he had to be respected as a bench coach. Sutton was their man. But he was contacted, interviewed and hired in 27 hours during the hectic Final Four weekend in Lexington last spring, and only after negotiations with Arizona's Lute Olson and UAB's Gene Bartow broke down.
When Sutton left, Arkansans took the "crawl to Lexington" remark hard, particularly because he had told the state legislature a week and a half earlier that he planned to finish his career in Fayetteville. Then Sutton twice said publicly that he would love to have Andrew Lang, the Razorbacks' talented center, join him at Kentucky. Suddenly, the Eddie Sutton revered by Razorback fans seemed to have changed into Willie Sutton. "Some people in Arkansas feel that I abandoned them," Sutton says, "but one day they'll say, 'He built the program.' "
Of course, there's no building to be done in Lexington, where Adolph Rupp was chief contractor for 41 seasons. Sutton has, however, renovated a little bit. He has banned boosters from his locker room and practices. He has chalk talks with the team two mornings a week before classes. He has let it be known that he wouldn't hesitate to go regularly with an all-black starting lineup, something that would Rupp-ture a hoary Kentucky tradition. Indeed, for 54 soulful seconds in the first half on Saturday night, Sutton had five black players on the floor against the Hoosiers.
Sutton has gotten on well with his predecessor. For his part, Hall, now a vice-president of a Lexington bank, has given Sutton his public support, something Hall himself hadn't enjoyed from Rupp, whom he succeeded in 1972. The Baron kept an office and his TV show after he retired and openly second-guessed his former assistant. Kibitzers, of course, are still in abundance. "Once you're hired, there is a honeymoon," Sutton says. "But then there's a constant downhill slide, because you're not going to please everybody. The angle of the slide is dependent on how much you win."
Sutton's terrain remained gently sloped with the defeat of Indiana. Playing without star guard Steve Alford, who was sitting out a one-game suspension levied by the NCAA for lending his name and image to a sorority fund-raising calendar, the Hoosiers nearly pulled the game out. When rubber-legged freshman Ricky Calloway knocked in two of his 22 points on a jumper with 1:44 left, Indiana pulled to within 59-56. And as Stew Robinson, who played the entire game in Alford's stead, came barreling toward the basket moments later on a breakaway, IU was poised to pull even. But Harden hurried back on defense, determined to try out the skill that Sutton teaches in practice with a special drill. Said Harden, "I told my feet, 'Feet, don't fail me now.' "
Harden slipped into Robinson's path just as the layup was let go. Whistle, charge, no basket. Instead of facing a likely tie game, Kentucky took its three-point lead downcourt again, where, with the Hoosiers concentrating on All-America forward Kenny Walker (16 points), Harden broke baseline past Robinson for a clinching layup.
The Hoosiers sorely missed Alford down the stretch. Never mind that the Gamma Phi Beta sorority is a nonprofit organization, or that proceeds from calendar sales were to benefit underprivileged girls (the sorority hurriedly recalled 3,000 unsold copies last week), or that Alford wasn't paid a cent, or that Indiana itself had called the misdemeanor to the attention of the NCAA, or that Alford had recently done antidrug TV spots on the NCAA's behalf, or that the suspension affected one of the few programs in college basketball not suspected of wrongdoing just as it went up against a school that has been one of the most suspect. Alford's mom ripped the NCAA in the Louisville Courier-Journal for "picking on a very strong Christian boy." Indiana coach Bob Knight wouldn't say more than, "It's a decision they'll have to live with."
Sutton and Kentucky will have to live with each other's decisions, too. But Sutton has made some good ones, beginning in 1967 when he decided to leap, Knievel-like, from a high school job in Tulsa to a brand-new juco near the Snake River Canyon called the College of Southern Idaho. Success followed him there, as it would to Creighton and to Arkansas. At Kentucky he settled into the roomy rear office in the basketball suite for a few months—the only room with a back door. "But after going back there," he says, "I didn't like it that much." So now he's out front, just off the reception area, where the traffic streams by and probing eyes look in.
The folks back in Arkansas, Sutton has said, "know they've lost a good friend, but he has gone to heaven." They may have, and he may have. But as Sutton understands by now, there's no peace of mind in this particular firmament. And no back door.