How close did Eddie Sutton come to coaching Kansas?

Guerin Emig
Tulsa World
It came up almost immediately after Saturday’s game went final —Mike Boynton is 1-0 as OSU coach in Allen Fieldhouse, whereas Eddie Sutton’s Cowboys went 0-11 in the fabled arena.

Well what if Sutton never coached the Cowboys at Kansas? What if, instead, Sutton coached Kansas at Kansas all those years?

It was something that struck me as I read Blair Kerkhoff’s terrific Kansas City Star story last week on KU’s eight coaches, and how those men got one of the most coveted jobs in college basketball. Blair mentioned that Larry Brown got the gig in 1983 after then-KU athletic director Monte Johnson also considered Sutton.

It wasn’t the first time I had read that, but I had never stopped to really consider the possibility. Before last week, I had never reached out to Johnson about it.

“I knew Eddie from back in our playing days. I played for KU about the same time he played at Oklahoma State,” he told me by phone from his Lawrence home. “I kept track of him over the years and had a lot of respect for him. When looking at replacing Ted Owens, I looked at anybody that might have had Kansas ties.”

Sutton was born in the tiny southwest Kansas town of Bucklin.

“As we got through the interviews in Albuquerque at the Final Four that year, I was trying to narrow it down to see where we stood with about 10 candidates,” Johnson continued, “and Eddie was one of the top people I considered from that pool. I wasn’t sure what his timetable was going to be. I knew what mine was. I had to do something as soon as I could.”

Johnson said Sutton sounded interested when the two visited in Albuquerque. When he returned to his office at KU ...

“I got Eddie on the phone,” Johnson said, “and I kind of had a feeling he wasn’t sure he could do what I was asking him to do. It was just a matter of timing and how quick could he make a firm decision.”

Sutton had just gone 26-4 in his ninth season at Arkansas with Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson and Joe Kleine. The Razorbacks were rolling. The Jayhawks, 26-30 the previous two seasons, were not.

Sutton had too many reservations. And so ...

“I told him, ‘Eddie, I have great respect for you and want you to do what’s best, but I have to get on with my job,’” Johnson said. “We agreed to let it go at that.”.

Johnson told me that as he was finishing his call with Sutton, the chairman of KU’s search committee, a law professor by the name of Lonnie Rose, heard from Brown. Brown was coaching the New Jersey Nets and originally indicated he was happy in the NBA.

Now he wasn’t so sure — the vagabond in Brown had struck again — and before long Kansas was introducing him as its sixth basketball coach.

“Eddie came to a game in Lawrence a few years ago. He sat behind the Oklahoma State bench with his wife, Patsy,” Johnson said. “I went down from my seats, said hello to him and said to his wife, ‘I bet you don’t know how close this man came to being coach of the Jayhawks.’ We all smiled and laughed. Just wonderful people.”

Think of it. If Sutton jumps on the KU job before Brown’s change of heart ...

Think of Oklahoma State. Think of Kansas and Danny Manning and Oklahoma and Billy Tubbs and 1988 and the Big Eight Conference. Geez, think of the Big 12. Think of Kentucky.

That should keep your mind wandering the rest of the week.
"Those Places (UNC, UCLA) Are Great, But There's No Place Like Kansas"
---Larry Brown to Bill Self.