What if? We ask this question all the time. In our jobs, in our lottery tickets, and especially in our Razorbacks. This summer, I'll be answering the what-ifs in Razorback sports. No negatives, like 'what-if Hunter Henry doesn't make the heave,' but a few fun ones and maybe some big ones, but in a fun way.
What if Eddie Sutton hadn't crawled to Kentucky?
In 1974, Frank Broyles was on the precipice of starting his 16th year(Note: Previously this was listed as 26th, but Frank only coached 19 years) as head coach of the Razorback Football team, a position he would hold for three more years. 1974 was the first year in which he was named Athletic Director, a position he would hold for 34 more years ending in 2007. 1974 was an important year for Broyles, with a secure coaching legacy he began his sometimes-controversial relationship with Razorback basketball by replacing 4-year coach
LarryLanny Van Eman (39-65) with Eddie Sutton. At the time, Sutton had only been to the NCAA Tournament one time, but Arkansas wasn't well-known for basketball at the time, and Broyles saw what Sutton had accomplished at Creighton and thought it might be able to translate to the Southwest Conference.
Sutton proceeded to coach at Arkansas for 11 seasons, winning four Southwest Conference regular season championships, three Southwest Conference Tournament Championships, and posting nine trips to the NCAA Tournament including a Final Four, an Elite 8, and two Sweet 16 appearances.
In reality, he left Arkansas to become the head coach at Kentucky following the decision of Joe B. Hall to retire at 56. Hall was quoted as saying he "didn't want to be an old coach" and he left after 13 seasons in Lexington (an amazing accomplishment as he was the coach that replaced Adolph Rupp). Another quote lived in infamy among Razorback fans when Sutton was announced as the new head coach in Kentucky.
"When (Kentucky President Otis Singletary) called me, believe me, I would have crawled all the way to Lexington," he said. "Fortunately, I was already here for the Final Four."
After coaching one of the lowlights of his 11 seasons in Fayetteville, Sutton left a bitter taste in the mouths of Hog fans with this quote.
Arkansas went on to get their first National Championship in basketball under replacement Nolan Richardson nine years later, and Sutton would go on to say he would regret those words he used when leaving Arkansas.
So, what if Kentucky hires Gene Keady or Dave Bliss, and Sutton stays at Arkansas? How would the next few years have played out? Would things be any different today?
A lot could be said on this. Eddie Sutton felt like his alcohol abuse had become a problem during his time at Arkansas, but there is little evidence to support that it derailed his coaching ability at all. His time in Kentucky ended in disgrace and though he was ultimately cleared of wrong doing, he was forced to resign and had to sit a year out in the midst of a pay-to-play scandal in 1989.
I think it's safe to stay he would've retired at Arkansas had he not left in 1985. While he did butt heads with Frank Broyles, I can't see him leaving Arkansas for anything less than Kentucky. His alma mater Oklahoma State was fortunate to get him in 1990 once his scandal had faded.
Sutton showed his longevity at Oklahoma State. The man coached until he was 70. He made more NCAA tournaments (8) after he was 60 than Arkansas has had in the last 15 years (4). His Arkansas winning percentage (77%) was the highest of his entire coaching career, and if he had carried that win percentage, Arkansas would've had ~500 wins from 1985-2006 (Arkansas had 451 wins during that time... this is all assuming he coached the same amount of time). With those 500 wins, Sutton would've had 760 wins at Arkansas. His name would've never been tarnished in a Kentucky recruiting scandal, Arkansas would've retired him as a legend with little controversy at the end of his time coaching, and likely wouldn't be embroiled in the mediocrity we have endured over the last 15 years.
I'm not ever going to demean the players and coaches that were at Arkansas in these what-ifs. Nolan Richardson is the winningest coach in Razorback history, and the accomplishments of the 1994 and 1995 teams leave me aching for anything close to that level of success again.
Does Sutton win a championship with Big Nasty in 1994? I think so. Corliss Williamson, from Russellville, would've been at Arkansas with Eddie Sutton. While Scotty Thurman and Corey Beck are bigger question marks being from Louisiana and Memphis, it's safe to say that Sutton could've formed a team around Corliss.
Still, the wild card in all of this would likely be Frank Broyles. The legendary head coach butted heads with a few coaches during his 33 years leading the athletic department. If Sutton had had the kind of sustained success we'd all imagine he would've had, then could Broyles have handled another legendary coach at Arkansas? We'll never know.
Sutton is still to this day not a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. His legacy and 806 wins will forever be tarnished by the shame of a scandal in Kentucky in 1989. It took Arkansas maybe too long to raise his banner in Bud Walton after Sutton "crawled" to Kentucky. Sutton's coaching legacy will forever be a big what-if, but his impact at Arkansas was indelible. It's because of Sutton that we bemoan a 16-16 team and even care at all about Basketball in Fayetteville. If you don't have Sutton, you don't get Bud Walton Arena, and you certainly never get Nolan Richardson's National Championship in 1994.
I love asking the question what-if. If Eddie had stayed, he would be one of the biggest legends in college basketball and an even bigger legend in Fayetteville. The question on the flip-side is where Arkansas basketball would be had Eddie never come. Thankfully, that's a question we don't have to answer.
If you have a great Arkansas what if, then post it in the comments for consideration on the next Arkansas Fight what if article.