His name may not fill the Razorback record books, but longtime Hog hoops fans will no doubt recall Leroy Sutton as a key member of Eddie Sutton's standout squads of the early 1980s. A native of South Bend, Ind., the 6'6" forward compiled mostly modest offensive stats (although he does currently hold the second-highest single-season field-goal percentage in school history). But on the other end of the court, he shined, often guarding the opponent's best player and combining with All-Americans Darrell Walker and Alvin Robertson to form the backbone of one of college basketball's elite defenses.
These days, Sutton, who was a Razorback from 1979 to 1984, is the minister of music at Full Counsel Christian Fellowship Church in North Little Rock. He is married to Lauvern Sutton, and has three grown children and two grandkids. He was kind enough to chat with me over the phone recently about his Arkansas career. Our conversation touched on a range of topics, including his recruitment, the best team of his time in Fayetteville, the time he accidentally broke Coach Sutton's nose and, surprisingly enough, the dreadful-tasting water he encountered in Lubbock, Texas. This is the first of a two-part interview.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about growing up in South Bend. Were you into both music and basketball from a very early age?
Sutton: I'm a preacher's kid, so I grew up in the church. My dad was a pastor at Greater Holy Temple Church of God and Christ. That's where I learned how to play the organ, piano and everything. That was my training ground, and music was a passion of mine.
I also used to play tennis. I was an avid player, and I won a lot of tournaments. I thought was going to go to college to play tennis. I played basketball, but I probably didn't really mature as a player until I was a sophomore in high school. That's when things just kind of opened up and started happening real fast.
Let's talk about your recruitment. Being from South Bend, did you grow up wanting to play for Notre Dame, and did the Fighting Irish recruit you?
Sutton: I was in the high-school class of 1979. You can go down the list: that class had Isaiah Thomas, Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy. Street and Smith magazine, which was a big magazine back then, had me ranked as one of the top 50 players in that class.
I was heavily recruited. Basically, all the Big 10 schools wanted me. Notre Dame did, too. [Then-Notre Dame coach] Digger Phelps came over to my house, but the thing was, I grew up in South Bend, and I kind of wanted to get away.
I had offers to go almost anywhere I wanted to go. My final two choices were Arkansas and the University of Louisville.
It was funny - I went to Arkansas and then in my freshman year, Louisville wins the national championship (laughs).
Were you doubting your decision at that point?
Sutton: No, I figured I had made the right decision, but it's funny when I look back at it.
What swung the pendulum in favor of Arkansas?
Sutton: I just fell in love with the school: the size, location, the players, Coach Sutton. Sometimes you just - some places just make you feel a little more at home, I guess. Not saying anything was wrong with the University of Louisville - they were good people, too.
Do you remember any particular impression you had of Coach Sutton when he was recruiting you? What was it was about him that drew you to the program?
Sutton: Coach Sutton had the program on an upswing, and I had watched them beat UCLA, I think. Of course, I fell in love with The Triplets, and he was running a system that was comparable to my high school system. He had a lot of players in that 6'4", 6'5", 6'6" range. Plus, he was a great person, too, and I felt that he was sincere about wanting me to be a part of what was going on at Arkansas.
You didn't play a lot your freshman and sophomore seasons, and you redshirted your second year in Fayetteville. But your playing time greatly increased during your junior year, and you were a starter on a really, really good team, one that made it to the Sweet Sixteen and posted a 26-4 record. What clicked for you that year? What accounted for your big step forward?
Sutton: Those early years, I was battling injuries. I had some bad ankle injuries, and that's why I had to redshirt that one year. I stayed healthy for my junior year, and I started my last two years.
I was more of a defensive-type player. They would have me try to hold the opponent's top player, and I made the All-Southwest Conference Defensive Team my senior year, along with Alvin Robertson. We had other guys to put the ball in the basket.
What was the best Razorback team you played on?
Sutton: I would have to say my junior year. We won a whole bunch of ball games, and I think we were ranked as high as fourth in the nation at one point.
We had Alvin and Darrell Walker as our starting guards, and I've always felt that was the best backcourt in the nation at that time. Both of those guys ended up being first-round draft picks.
We played a lot of different teams, and the other guards always had trouble bringing the ball up the court against them because they were so athletic and quick.
As you mentioned earlier, we went to the Sweet Sixteen, and we lost on a tip-in to Louisville. If we had made it past Louisville, we would have had a chance to make some things happen.
Who was the best Razorback that you played with?
Sutton: Wow - there were some good ones, you know? Joe Kleine was a first-round draft choice. Tony Brown was an awesome player, too. He played in the pros for a while. Scott Hastings - he played in the NBA for about 10 or 11 years. But, I'd probably have to say Alvin and Darrell.
Alvin was drafted, I think, with the seventh pick in the draft in '84. His career didn't last that long, with injuries and different issues. If it wasn't for those issues, I think he would have been around for a long time because he made a couple of All-Star teams and had various steals records.
He was such a great defensive guard that even Michael Jordan mentioned that Alvin was one of the players that he hated to play against in the pros because of his physicality.
That's a pretty good compliment.
Sutton: Yeah, he had such strong hands, and he was a physical player. Very quick. I remember I was watching one of those TV shows, and Reggie Miller also said that the player he hated to play against was Alvin Robertson.
Darrell was great, too. Darrell had quick hands, and he was a great defensive player, too.
Who was one of your teammates who you felt was really underrated, someone who perhaps didn't draw a lot of attention from the fans or media and who maybe didn't have overwhelming stats, but who you and your other teammates knew was a really underappreciated member of the team?
Sutton: We had some guys that came there that I felt could have been great players, who maybe didn't pan out because of off-the-court issues. Willie Cutts was one of the guys. If he had stayed on the straight path, I think he really could have been something special. In some practices, man, he would come in and just take over with his different abilities.
In part 2, Sutton discusses the time he broke Eddie Sutton's nose and gives a thumbs down to the water quality in Lubbock, Texas.