On Monday night, ESPN will air “EDDIE,” a documentary about Eddie Sutton, the legendary college basketball coach who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame less than two months prior to his death in May. He was 84 years old.
Sutton’s life was marked by his glorious achievements on the court and his struggles beyond it. He was the first coach to take four different programs to the NCAA tournament. He reached the Final Four three times. And he’s one of the winningest coaches in Division I history with 806 victories in a career that spanned 37 seasons.
But an NCAA recruiting scandal that preceded his resignation at Kentucky and a drunken driving accident in his final week at Oklahoma State, his alma mater, lingered as shadows that many believe prevented him from being selected to the Hall of Fame until his seventh nomination.
“EDDIE,” directed by Christopher Hunt, examines those highs and lows, including the ways Sutton’s family was touched by the icon’s struggles.
Sean Sutton, who played for his father at both Kentucky and Oklahoma State and succeeded him as head coach of the Cowboys, said he wanted Hunt to be honest in his portrayal and hopes the film offers a full picture of his father’s life.
Now an adviser at Texas Tech under Chris Beard, Sean recently spoke with ESPN about both the film and his father’s life.
ESPN: Sean, it has been about a month since you lost your father. How is your family coping?
Sean Sutton: We’re doing OK. I think, looking back, my dad had a great life. And it was tough to see him live the way he had to live the last three or four years of his life after he had those three strokes. One good thing is he stayed in the house the whole time, and he had 24-care around him. He’d lost his ability to speak [at the end]. That’s tough for a person who enjoyed visiting with people. It was one of his best tools. Communicating is what made him what he was as a person. Although you’re never ready to say goodbye, I know he was ready to be with my mom [Sutton’s wife, Patsy, died in 2013 following a stroke]. I think the family appreciates the good times with him.
ESPN: There were some emotional moments for you and your family in this documentary. What was it like to film the documentary and open your life to the film crew?
Sean Sutton: It was a long process. I did three separate sit-down interviews, probably over three hours each. I probably interviewed somewhere between nine and 10 hours over a six-month period. You have to put yourself in the mind frame of when all those different events occurred, circumstances around his career. Certainly, there were a lot of great achievements. There were a lot of highlights, but there were some difficult times our family went through. With each, I think it made our family a little bit stronger. And our mother, Patsy, was the rock of the family through everything.
It taught us at a young age that adversity is part of life. You either rise above it or you crumble with it. Dad was a great example of that to me and my brothers. My mom refused to let us buckle under those circumstances. It probably prepared us for other things down the road. It wasn’t easy to go back and kind of relive it. But you can’t tell the good without the bad. There was some really good, bad and ugly. That was my dad. That was my life. To open up and talk about some of the things that went on behind the scenes for the public to view, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was easy, but it was important. It was important to get an accurate depiction of his life and career. I think the film paints a pretty accurate picture of his life, his career and everything that our family went through together.
“To open up and talk about some of the things that went on behind the scenes for the public to view, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was easy, but it was important. It was important to get an accurate depiction of his life and career.”
ESPN: The film showcases his big personality. He really understood the power of TV and used it to promote the teams he coached. Where did that swagger come from?
Sean Sutton: I’m not sure. He’s kinda like a pioneer in terms of that, especially at Arkansas. He really promoted that brand. He promoted his program. He promoted himself. He was ahead of his time in terms of doing all of that. He had radio shows, television shows. He’s one of the first people to get a pep band to play at games. He always believed in himself and believed in what he was doing. He also understood in order to win you have to have one of the best home-court atmospheres and home-court advantages in college basketball. I think he understood that fans play a huge part in a program’s success, and because of that I think he felt like he wanted them to know how much he appreciated them. He also wanted them to get to know him on a more intimate basis, to show his personality.
ESPN: In 2001, a plane crash killed 10 people, including eight members of the Oklahoma State basketball community and two pilots, following a road game at Colorado. Your father played an instrumental role as the entire state healed, in a chapter examined in the film. How did the crash affect him?
Sean Sutton: I’ve never been more proud of my dad than I was during that time after the plane crash. Nothing in coaching prepares you for that type of tragedy. The people on that plane were people we all loved and cared about. It didn’t seem real at the time.
I’ll never forget the phone call. He called me that night. The movie talks about it. I remember going up to his office that night and watching him call all those family members. It was painful. It was so hard on him because he felt such remorse. He carried a lot of guilt with that because, ultimately, he’s the one who assigned the [people] on the different planes. It’s amazing how strong he was during that whole process. It was such a sad experience, but I think what it did is it made him really appreciate every day. He called me and my brothers and his grandkids every day at some point in the day. Tragedies occur, and he didn’t want to leave anything left unsaid.
ESPN: What was it like growing up with a father who struggled with addiction, a subject the film tackles and something you later wrestled with in your own life?
Sean Sutton: There were lots of highs and lows throughout our relationship. When I was young, I put my dad on this huge pedestal. I idolized him. I wanted to be a coach and be like him. Certainly, things started to change when I was 13, 14 years old. It was probably in the midst of his alcoholism. There were things said during those times at home, especially to me and my mother, that weren’t easy to hear. He turned into a totally different person. He went from this person that was so happy and so giving to someone you didn’t recognize. He became so frustrated sometimes.
Me and my mom got the worst of it. He would find things that he thought would hurt you or sting you the most and do that. At the time, I was so conflicted because it didn’t resemble who he was. He was more mad at himself, but he was deflecting that on me and my mother. Because of that three- or four-year period … it complicated our relationship. I even thought, ‘I’ll never allow something to take control of my life,’ and then, of course, as I planned it and guarded against it, in the end, it did. I had a totally different type of relationship with my kids [when I was addicted to pain pills]. It’s unfortunate. Addiction is a family disease. I think it’s probably most important to me to break the addiction cycle in my family. The pain and the destruction and heartache of addiction is just a bad place to be. I hope it ends with me.
ESPN: Your dad reached the 800-win mark during a short stint as an interim coach at San Francisco during the 2007-08 season. What did that number mean to him?
Sean Sutton: I don’t know. All of a sudden, he got fixated on that number. At the time, not many coaches had done it. I don’t know that he set out to achieve it, but the closer he got — at the time, maybe only five or six coaches had ever done it — somehow it became very important to him. It wasn’t anything he really talked about until the very end. He coached because he loved the game. That number, however, he got fixated on it. In some ways, it started becoming about that in the end [of his coaching career].
ESPN: What do you hope people learn from this film?
Sean Sutton: I think they’ll see somebody who had an extraordinary life. He had some tough obstacles to overcome. But he’s one of the last people who can go back to the great generations. He played against Wilt Chamberlain. He coached against Larry Bird, coached against Michael Jordan, coached against Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s one of the last guys you can trace back to when college basketball really started to take off in the 1940s and 1950s. He certainly played for one of the great coaches [at Oklahoma State] in Henry Iba. I think they’re going to see somebody who had some tough obstacles to overcome. But he lived a full life.