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Legendary Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton dies at 84

Eddie Sutton led Arkansas to the 1978 Final Four and won more than 800 games as a Division I head coach.
Eddie Sutton led Arkansas to the 1978 Final Four and won more than 800 games as a Division I head coach. (Arkansas Athletics)

Eddie Sutton, the man credited with building Arkansas into one of college basketball’s premier programs, has died at age 84.

Less than two months after he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as one of only eight major college men’s coaches with more than 800 wins, the legendary coach passed away peacefully of natural causes Saturday evening at his home in Tulsa, according to a statement by the family.

Hired to coach the Razorbacks’ men’s basketball team in 1974, Sutton inherited a program with just two winning records in the 11 seasons prior to his arrival and proceeded to lead it to a remarkable 260-75 record during his 11-year tenure in Fayetteville.

Sutton’s teams at Arkansas finished first or second in the Southwest Conference in all but one season and reached the NCAA Tournament in each of his final nine seasons, a stretch in which he won at least 21 games every year.

Led by the famed “Triplets” of Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph and Sidney Moncrief, the Razorbacks reached the 1978 Final Four in Sutton’s fourth season. Although they never reached that point again with him at the helm, they did make it back to the Elite Eight the following year and reach a pair of Sweet 16s - in 1981 and 1983.

In a career that spanned five decades, Sutton’s first job was as an assistant at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, in 1958. He was there for a year before becoming the head coach at Tulsa Central High School, where he coached seven seasons.

Sutton broke into the college ranks at the JUCO level, leading Southern Idaho to an 84-14 (.857) mark in three seasons. That helped him land his first Division I job at Creighton.

The Bluejays won just 14 or 15 games in Sutton’s first four seasons, but broke through with a 23-7 record in Year 5. They became the first of four different schools he led to the NCAA Tournament that season, which also sprung him into the Arkansas job.

His aforementioned tenure in Fayetteville ended when he infamously “crawled” to Kentucky and took over the Wildcats’ program. During his short stay in Lexington, Sutton reached an Elite Eight and Sweet 16, but his tenure ended in scandal.

Following a 13-19 season in 1988-89 - just one of two sub-.500 seasons during his 37-year career as a DI head coach - Sutton resigned amidst an NCAA investigation into the program related to a player receiving payments.

Sutton returned to his alma mater in 1990 and - much like he did at Arkansas - completely revived the program. Oklahoma State had made the NCAA Tournament just twice in the 32 years prior to his arrival, but promptly made back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 in Sutton’s first two years as head coach.

The Cowboys went on to reach the Final Four in 1995 and 2004, making Sutton one of only a handful of coaches to lead multiple programs to the national semifinals. He was also the first coach to lead four different programs to the big dance.

The final stop in Sutton’s career was as an interim coach at San Francisco during the 2007-08 season. By coming out of retirement and going 6-13 with the Dons, he officially joined the 800-win club.

His 806 wins - which includes two vacated victories - still rank 25th among all men’s basketball coaches, regardless of division, and ninth among Division I coaches. Twice named the AP national coach of the year (1978, 1986), Sutton was also an eight-time conference coach of the year selection (SWC x4, SEC, Big Eight, Big 12 x2).

After his retirement, Sutton had the court at Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena named after him, as well as the court at Arkansas’ practice facility. He has also been inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, UA Sports Hall of Honor and Oklahoma State Sports Hall of Honor.

The ultimate honor of being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame came just seven weeks before his death. A five-time finalist before finally getting the nod, Sutton will be the Razorbacks’ third inductee, joining one of his former players in the 2019 class (Moncrief) and his successor as Arkansas’ head coach in the 2014 class (Nolan Richardson).