January 25, 2010

Mike Sutton: Comeback coach of all time

This story originally appeared in the January, 2010 edition of Basketball Times, and was written by Andrew Skwara and edited by John Akers. Subscribe to Basketball Times at www.basketballtimes.com.

Close your eyes at a Tennessee Tech practice and Mike Sutton sounds just about like any other head coach this time of year. Actually, Sutton is probably a little louder and more involved than most. Rarely does he let a minute go by without some kind of comment, critique or a word of encouragement.

“Don’t flip the ball, snap it,” Sutton barks after a fastbreak drill.

Later on, Sutton, 53, stops practice to ask everyone a question after an errant jump shot: “What’s the first thing we are looking for?”

Nobody responds at first, so Sutton fires the same question at them again, this time shouting it. The entire team responds in unison: “Layups.” 

Five minutes later, a player who holds onto the ball a bit too long draws Sutton’s ire. “Do you know what ball reversal is?” he asks with an obvious touch of sarcasm. 

But, open your eyes, and Sutton looks unlike just about any other coach. Sutton sits on a stool during practice, leaning against a cane that he uses to walk around. Large braces are visible on both ankles. Sutton can’t catch a ball or show his players how to throw a pass or take a shot, which might explain why he’s so vocal.

Sound difficult? Sound unfair?

To Sutton, who is in the midst of his eighth year at Tennessee Tech, it all sounds pretty good these days.

That’s because all Sutton could do four years ago was blink his eyes. Diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the nervous system, in April of 2005 – just a month after guiding the Eagles to an Ohio Valley Conference regular season title and capturing OVC coach-of-the-year honors – Sutton couldn’t even breathe without the use of a ventilator.

What followed were some scary and uncertain moments, years of grueling rehab and a series of steady steps of progress, the latest of which is ditching a wheelchair for the cane.

Through it all, Sutton had one other head coach believing he would make it back to the sidelines.

“I saw Mike when he was on the ventilator, and I said then, ‘If anyone could recover from this it’s him,’” Minnesota’s Tubby Smith said. “He is as mentally tough as any person I know.”

The only person who might know Sutton better is his wife, Karen. Smith hired Sutton as an assistant 30 years ago at Hoke County High in Raeford, N.C., where they actually coached football together as well. The duo later worked together on a staff at Virginia Commonwealth, and Sutton was an assistant on Smith’s staffs at Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky, during what was the most successful time in Smith’s career. Smith amassed a 201-70 record with Sutton as his assistant, a run that included the 1997-98 national title at Kentucky.

Smith’s sons, G.G. and Saul, have both worked as assistants under Sutton at Tennessee Tech. 

“I don’t know anyone who loves coaching more than Mike,” Smith said. “He lives it, he breathes it. He always wants to discuss new strategies and new gadgets that could offer an advantage and absolutely loves teaching young people.”

That was evident in 1994 when Sutton took a hefty paycut and moved his family halfway around the country to join Smith’s staff at Tulsa. The previous season, Sutton had led Meadowbrook High in Richmond, Va., to the Class 3A state championship and the only job Smith had open was as a “restricted earnings coach.”

It was also evident in the days leading up to the discovery of the GBS. That’s when Sutton made the 1,160-mile drive from St. Louis, where he had attended the 2005 Final Four with Tubby, to Portsmouth, Va., to support one of his former players, Willie Jenkins, in the Portsmouth Invitational, an annual tournament for scouts to look at top seniors.

Just days after the PIT, Sutton wasn’t wondering if he’d ever coach again. Sutton was wondering if he could stay alive. Sutton couldn’t speak or even raise his own head, and the doctors had little answers as to why or to what the future held.

“My wife read me a letter of someone else who had GBS and they likened it to being buried alive, and that’s exactly what it feels like,” Sutton said. “The toughest part of all is there is no rhyme or reason to GBS, and nobody knows how much you will recover. It affects each person differently.”

GBS only affects one or two people in 100,000 and while some of those regain all of their physical abilities others never do.

Sutton says the always candid College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins recently asked him if ever wished he could end his own life or that he would simply die when things were there worst.

Sutton said he never considered it, nor did he think about simply giving up. 

Instead, Sutton set some specific goals and began attacking each one at a time.

“At first, all I could think about was getting off the ventilator,” Sutton said. “Next, it was getting through rehab. I had to learn everything all over again. I couldn’t move my hands or lift my arms at first. I had to learn how to walk and how to talk all over again.”

Amazingly, Sutton didn’t have to sit out a single season, returning to the sidelines the following year in 2005-06, where he guided the Golden Eagles to their second straight 18-win season. His top assistant, Steve Payne, filled in and handled much of the on-court duties.

The Golden Eagles upped that win total to19 the following season, but Sutton wasn’t acting like his old self and more difficult times lay ahead. Still constricted to a wheelchair with little use of his hands, he couldn’t raise his voice, which was perhaps the toughest obstacle to deal with.  

“I think Mike’s spirit was always there, but there was a little bit of a lull during his first couple years,” said Karen, who accompanies the team on every road trip. “He was still dependent on me, and he wasn’t able to project his voice.”  

During one practice, Sutton turned his head to dodge a ball and it ended up striking Karen. 

Soon after, Sutton regained his ability to yell, but then the team began struggling. The Golden Eagles finished with 13 wins in 2007-08. Last season they lost seven of their last eight games and ended with 12 wins last season, the lowest total of Sutton’s tenure.

The Golden Eagles were dealt another blow this past offseason when two probable starters left prematurely. Guard Darnell Lindsay shocked many by entering the NBA draft after averaging just 8.0 ppg – predictably, he went undrafted – while forward Alex Davis transferred to a Division II program at West Texas A&M.

That has left Tennessee Tech in the midst of what is supposed to be a rebuilding season. The Golden Eagles were picked to finish seventh in the 10-team OVC in the league’s preseason poll.

But, Sutton isn’t complaining. According to Sutton, only one player who has signed during his tenure at Tennessee Tech has failed to graduate, something Sutton is more proud of than any championship, and he feels his current group of players will continue that impressive trend.

“I really like our kids,” he said. “We have players that want to be here, and that makes it so much more enjoyable. The guys who left didn’t value being here.”

Sutton is coaching with a new-found vigor, too.

“There is absolutely no comparison to how he was handling things four years ago and today,” said Karen, who Tubby and Sutton both credit largely with his recovery. “He was totally dependent on my support early on. Now he’s getting more independent and more assertive.”

A healthier Sutton seems to lead to better recruiting, as well. The Golden Eagles have managed to land a number of talented young players from the metro Atlanta area.

A pair of athletic freshmen, guard Jud Dillard and power forward Terrell Barnes, who were teammates at Riverdale (Ga.) High have already worked their way into the rotation and are among the first players off the bench.

The Golden Eagles have also signed versatile 6-foot-5 guard Javon McKay out of Dunwoody (Ga.) High for next year. McKay’s father, Antonio, was part of a gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team in the 1984 Olympics.

Georgia transfer Zac Swansey, who Sutton says has the potential to be an all-OVC player, will also be suiting up for the Golden Eagles next season – he must sit out this season under NCAA rules. The 6-1 guard, who also went to Dunwoody, played steady minutes for two years at Georgia and hit a game-winning 3-pointer as a freshman to beat Kentucky in the 2008 SEC Tournament and land the Bulldogs an improbable NCAA Tournament bid.

Sutton and assistant Russ Willemsen recruited Swansey heavily when he was coming out of high school, and that prior relationship helped the Golden Eagles beat out the likes of Dayton, which is coming off a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the second time around for his services. 

“Coach Sutton was one of the first people to contact me when I decided to officially transfer,” Swansey said. “He told me he had a spot for me and I would be a perfect fit.”

Swansey says the Sutton who came to visit him in high school and the man who is coaching him now are far different.

“He did a home visit with me my senior year and wasn’t walking real well at the time,” Swansey said. “He had to use the wheelchair some.

“Then, this summer, I saw him and he was 100 percent better. It’s really a miraculous recovery. It shows he’s a real fighter and that’s what I like best about him. He is a fierce competitor and really hates to lose.”

The Golden Eagles are in position not to see much of that side of Sutton soon. With only three seniors, the bulk of the team will return next season, including sophomore guard Kevin Murphy (yet another metro Atlanta product), who was their leading scorer at 14.4 ppg through their first 10 games. Add Swansey and McKay, and Sutton will have perhaps his most talented roster since the program was atop the OVC standings.

Regardless of what transpires at Tennessee Tech in the future, Sutton can’t out-do the comeback that he’s already pulled off.

“Someone told me the other day that I was still on the right side of the dirt,” Sutton said. “I like the sound of that. I’m doing what I love and cherishing every day I’m not on the wrong side of the dirt.”

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