photo credit Jamie Vaught
By Dr. John Huang
Did anyone catch the Eddie Sutton documentary last night? One person sure did.
Roger “Get the ball to Kenny Walker” Harden was glued to the tube as memories of his beloved coach flooded onto the big screen. He shared his customarily candid thoughts with Michael on the just-completed radio show this morning.
Honest. First-class. That was the way the former Kentucky point guard described the two-hour ESPN feature. After all, he should know. Roger played for the Hall of Fame coach during that fabulous 32-4 run during his senior season. You may have forgotten that Roger also served as an assistant coach for Sutton two years later and stayed in contact with him until Sutton’s death on May 23 of this year.
For those of us old enough to remember his playing days, Roger was All-World when he signed on to play for the Cats in 1982. Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, Parade All-American, McDonalds All-American—the guy could hoop. As comfortable on the urban asphalt as he was on the rural hardwood, the guy had street cred with all his basketball brethren. Together with “Sky” Walker and Todd May (Yes, remember the superstar from Virgie?), this was a recruiting class that was destined to return the Wildcats to the Promised Land.
According to Roger, Eddie’s downfall at Kentucky was due as much to him banning the big shots as it was to him battling the bottle. At the time, the coal operators, horse farm owners, financiers, bank presidents, politicians—all the bigwigs—were constant fixtures in the team locker room. They all had keys to Wildcat Lodge. When Sutton kicked them out and limited their access, they turned on him. That’s what happens when you get on the wrong side of the Kentucky Basketball establishment.
Playing his son, Sean, didn’t help Sutton out either with the Kentucky fan base.
“I thought Sean was a backup point guard at Kentucky,” Harden admitted. “I think any time a coach, particularly at the University of Kentucky, tries to recruit and play their son, I think you’re asking for trouble. Internally, it kind of throws the mojo (off) inside the locker room. Sean handled it extremely well. He didn’t get the credit for the player he was. He played with a lot of heart. He played with a lot of desire. He was a great team player.”
Those of us here in BBN were well familiar with Sutton’s alcohol problems during his tenure at the helm. At around the 50-minute mark of the ESPN documentary, Rex Chapman tackled the issue head on.
“Most of my freshman year, (Sutton) was drunk…,” King Rex was quoted as saying. “We lost respect for him as a coach. The trust was broken.”
Roger remembers it a bit differently.
“Eddie Sutton was a very good man,” he reminded us. “When he drank, he pretty much was a closet drinker. He wasn’t one of these guys out partying. He drank alone, which kind of gives you a little insight into his addiction. He was a great family man. Parents loved him. They trusted him. The team believed in him. When you went to the huddle and Eddie Sutton was your coach, you knew he had the answer. You knew you were going to be prepared. He made you believe in yourself. He made you believe in what you could accomplish.”
Within the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Roger Harden—the person—pretty well. He even bought my breakfast the last time we chatted. God, family, and Kentucky Basketball are the things he’s passionate about. He’s a great ambassador for both the Kingdom of God and the Big Blue Nation.
Roger Harden was a great player, but he’s an even better man. If the success of a coach is defined by who his players have become, then Eddie Sutton has to be smiling down from heaven.