- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Like Eddie Sutton's hairdo, basketball coaches at Kentucky have had a permanent look to them. That's because there have been only three of them in 55 years. Sutton is the most recent, and in his eight months on the job he has already been scrutinized, literally, from head to toe.
From head...The day Sutton was hired a local newspaper columnist wrote, "Kentuckians like their coaches' hair the way they like their bourbon. Straight."
"I knew then," Sutton says, "that the honeymoon was over."
...to toe. Sutton caused a stir by signing a reported $125,000 sneaker deal with Nike, thus ending Kentucky's half-century-long association with Converse. Any schoolboy in the state who wanted to keep in step with the Cats—which is to say just about every schoolboy in the state—had to get new footwear.
In between, critics have also questioned Sutton's heart. Some Kentucky fans wondered over the summer why he took so long to move his family from Arkansas, where he had coached for 11 seasons. Others took issue with the mustaches he has permitted his Kentucky players to wear. Bluegrass businessmen registered their indignation at Sutton's policy of not speaking to service groups. And what in the world was he doing last summer talking to the New Jersey Nets about their vacant coaching position, barely three months after accepting the job he said he would have "crawled to Lexington" to take?
Indeed, when the NCAA announced in October that it would launch an investigation into allegations of booster payments to Kentucky players during the 13-year tenure of Sutton's predecessor, Joe B. Hall, a Sutton inquiry into the Nets job suddenly might have made sense. "Eddie's in a state of shock," one college coach said after the Lexington Herald-Leader detailed the alleged improprieties (SI, Nov. 11). "There's no one in our profession more image conscious than he is. He'd go back to Arkansas in a minute if they'd have him."
Sutton disputes that. "I'm more excited about being here than ever," he says. And the allegations—The Cats' Pause, an independent fanzine, refers to them unflinchingly as "the alleged allegations"—seem only to have drawn his team closer together. There's no truth to the rumor that the defense the Wildcats used in beating Indiana 63-58 on Saturday night is called The Lexington Press. "I've been around Kentucky basketball for four years, so I know that things can change drastically," says guard Roger Harden, who downplays the team's 5-0 record. "If we lose a game we're not supposed to lose, or someone's not playing who some people think should be, the fans will make themselves heard. Those times are going to come."
For now, however, the team has a new attitude. Three current starters who either quit or nearly quit last season over disagreements with Hall—Winston Bennett, James Blackmon and Harden—have tidied up their points of view. "Overall," says Harden, "it's a happier team, a more confident team." And a selfless team. On Saturday night, Bennett and Harden each took crucial charges to foil a late Indiana run.
Indeed, the Cats have shown a looseness that never existed under Hall. At practice one day, there was Robert Lock, the 6'10" sophomore center, reenacting an air ball he threw up last season against Purdue, then adding some self-deprecatory yucks of his own to teammates' laughter. There was Harden, sinking soft jumper after soft jumper while imitating Cawood Ledford, the Wildcats' radio announcer: "Last time Harden hit a jumper was in early January!" More laughter. You would think these guys played for Louisville or something.