“Todd, always believe in God, yourself, and the Razorbacks.”
– autograph from Eddie Sutton, 1981
College basketball lost a legend Saturday (May 23) when former Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton passed away at age 84. My friends in Tusk to Tail knew Sutton was my favorite coach of all time and asked me to write a retrospective. The memories just flowed.
By Feb. 12, 1980, I was hooked. I vividly remember listening to Arkansas vs. Texas A&M on the radio in my bed in Pine Bluff. I was 10 and supposed to be asleep. The Hogs and Aggies were tied and my favorite player, fellow Pine Bluffian U.S. Reed, took a charge on a desperation heave by the Aggies at the buzzer. Reed stepped to the line and I will never forget Paul Eells’ call. “He eyes it, skies it, and buys it! And the Razorbacks win!”
Sutton came to Arkansas in 1974, hired by another Arkansas legend, Frank Broyles. The Razorbacks’ home court, Barnhill Arena, was a fieldhouse with sawdust on the floor. After Sutton’s second season, Barnhill was renovated to raise seating capacity from 5,000 to 6,200. The 1976-77 Hogs went 26-2 the following season, earning the school’s first NCAA tournament berth in 19 years. In 1977-78, the famed “Triplets” followed that up with a 32-4 record and Hogs’ first-ever Final Four berth. The fire was lit. A second stage of renovations took capacity to 9,000 in 1978-79, and the legendary consecutive sellouts streak began.
The Hogwild Band debuted in that 78-79 season. Sutton had taken music department graduate assistant Jim Robken to the University of Houston to study the Cougars’ nationally known pep band. Sutton gave Robken free reign to come up with the music and atmosphere that helped make Barnhill one of the toughest home environments in the country. The William Tell Overture and Robken’s run around the arena to get the fans to stand up became a legendary staple at every Arkansas home game. There was nothing like it. Sutton posted an astonishing 120-8 record in Barnhill Arena in his 11 seasons as Head Hog.
On March 14, 1981, I was with my family in our den watching Arkansas take on the defending champion Louisville Cardinals in Austin. The Hogs were down 73-72 with 5 seconds left when U.S. Reed dribbled to midcourt and launched a 49 footer. All net. I remember the scoreboard guy at Texas letting the horn go off for what seemed like a minute as the Hogs rushed the court. I ran outside and yelled and some of our neighbors were doing the same.
In the 1980s, we had tickets to the two games played each year at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. From 1978-1992, the Hogs went 28-2 there playing ranked teams like Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio State. I got to go into the Razorback locker room after the games with one of my dad’s friends. There I would get to see my childhood heroes: Scott Hastings, Tony Brown, Alvin Robertson, Leroy Sutton, Darrel Walker, Byron Irvin and Joe Kleine. I got the whole locker room’s autograph, including my favorite walk-ons Eugene Nash and Jimmy Dykes. Of course I got Coach Sutton’s.
Feb 12, 1984, is known as Balentine’s Day at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. That is when Arkansas played Michael Jordan’s No. 1 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. I had waited for this game all season but woke up on game day with a 102 fever. I begged my mom and dad to let me go to the game. No luck. Charles Balentine hit the game winning baseline jumper, and I have yet to forgive my parents.
“The Bluff is famous for its crowds now,” Sutton said in the Pine Bluff Commercial the next day.
I went to Eddie Sutton’s basketball camp in Fayetteville in June 1984. It was the week before the team’s trip to Japan for exhibition games. Coach spoke to us about his three Ds: Discipline, Dedication and Defense. They gave us practice jerseys with that phrase on the back and Arkansas Basketball on the front. I loved that jersey and wish I still had it.
The last game in Barnhill was on March 3, 1993. I was lucky enough to find a ticket. Coach Sutton was in attendance and spoke about the mystique of Barnhill.
“The luckiest thing to happen to the UofA in 25 years was Eddie Sutton,” Broyles said.
“I had forgotten the electricity of this place,” said Sutton. “When we walked in here tonight and looked all around, all of a sudden my heart started pounding like it hadn’t in a long, long, time. This is a special place. There is none better.”
On March 3, 2020, Sutton finally got the call he was selected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame. It was long overdue. We are all sad he won’t be there when he is inducted later this year, but we are thankful he found out before leaving this earth.
I have to share one last memory, from 2014. My wife Robyn and I were expecting our second child. Robyn is a 2003 Oklahoma State graduate and has her own fond memories of Eddie during his tenure there from1990-2006. We had already decided on naming our daughter Emory, but we hadn’t quite found a middle name yet. Looking through names of girls again, we came across one that stood out from the rest. One that had meant something to both of us over our lives. That name of course was Sutton.
Rest in peace, Hall of Famer.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.