New ESPN documentary showcases most amazing part of former coach’s run with Hogs
Eddie Sutton will forever be known as the man who put Arkansas basketball “on the map.”
In his 11 years at Arkansas, he accomplished many things, most notably leading the Hogs to five SWC championships and a Final Four appearance in 1978. While those feats are elite, they do not stand out from the program’s other great coaches. For instance, Arkansas had already been to Final Fours in the 1940s and would be led to three more in the 1990s by Nolan Richardson.
And it wouldn’t surprise many observers if Eric Musselman leads Arkansas to another Final Four in the coming years.
But Sutton, who died May 23, did accomplish one thing at Arkansas that no other Hog coach will likely ever match: lead the nation in home winning percentage in a stretch of more than a decade.
From 1974 to 1985, Sutton’s Hogs won 93.8 percent of their games at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville. That’s better than other top “blue blood” programs like Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA.
Here are the college basketball teams with the best home winning percentages from 1974-85 (research by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette):
1. Arkansas, Barnhill Arena .938
2. Kentucky, Memorial Coliseum/Rupp Arena .907
3. North Carolina, Carmichael Auditorium .907
4. UNLV, Las Vegas CC/Thomas & Mack Center .901
5. UCLA, Pauley Pavilion .885
6. Louisville, Freedom Hall .882
7. Indiana, Assembly Hall .854
8. Georgetown, McDonough Gym/Capital Centre .841
9. Houston, Hofheinz Pavilion .839
10. Kansas, Allen Fieldhouse .815
11. NC State, Reynolds Coliseum .795
12. Duke, Cameron Indoor Stadium .713
This stat is more impressive when considering that Sutton’s successor Nolan Richardson, who would win a national championship in 1994, had a home .845 win percentage (201-37 [78-15 at Barnhill and 123-22 at Bud Walton Arena]). That is behind some in the same time frame, including Kansas (.919), Duke (.901) and Kentucky (.897), according to WholeHogSports.com’s Matt Jones.
And the stat is even more impressive when considering what kind of environment Sutton walked into when he took the job in 1974.
At that time, the best one-word description of Arkansas’ arena in a solidly football state would have been “podunk.”
“There were 5,000 seats and many went unused each game,” Jones wrote in the Democrat-Gazette. “In order to get to that capacity, portable bleachers from the football stadium next door were placed on the south end of the arena in front of a sawdust workout area for the football team. A dirt track encircled the floor.
“In-season basketball practice was conducted while offseason football conditioning was occurring just feet away. During basketball games, two arena workers would sweep sawdust off the floor that had been circulated by the heating unit.”
In 1993, Sutton said, “You almost needed to wear a mask to keep from choking because there was so much dust in the air. And when you walked into Barnhill at 7 o’clock on a game night, you could shoot a gun into the stands and not hit anybody.”
How he turned such a ghost town into one of the nation’s most molten sports scenes played a big role in Eddie, the documentary about Sutton’s life that debuted recently on ESPN.
Besides Sutton’s success at Arkansas, the movie will also delve into his time at other programs — as well as the alcoholism, which many think kept him out of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame until this past spring.
Sutton’s son, Sean Sutton, sheds some light on this in an ESPN.com interview:
“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 at times.
“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.”
Jim Robken and the Hogwild Band
Today’s Razorback fans are amazed at how savvy Eric Musselman has proven in promoting his program through social media (even raising the ire of fellow SEC coaches).
Sutton proved equally adept at promotion in his own time. One of his master strokes was enlisting the help of Hog fans through the magic of Jim Robken.
“In his early days at Arkansas, Sutton observed “show-me-something” fans that waited for big moments to make noise,” Jones wrote.
“Sutton wanted a crowd that understood momentum and their place in helping to create or sustain it. He needed to teach them which moments were important but couldn’t while he was coaching a game.”
“The next best thing would be to teach someone else, and let that person teach the crowd. He identified the perfect candidate: a graduate assistant in the music department whose responsibility was to lead a pep band for home basketball games.”
And what a job he did.
One of the biggest reasons for Barnhill’s intimidation factor was the frenzy into which Hogwild Band director Jim Robken regularly whipped crowd crowds. During Robken’s 13-year run as band leader from 1978 to 1991, Arkansas won 88.7 percent of its home games.
Robken could often be seen running around the crowd, personally inciting them to get hype, not unlike the shirt-waving shenanigans for which Musselman was known in Nevada. The entire Hogwild band experience, coupled with the elite product on the court, often gave Hog fans chills.
Robken recounted to HawgBeat.com:
“I got back up to the top and the whole place was just…awesome. You could only have this in Barnhill because of the intimacy, where the sound was physical, where you felt the crowd, the cheering.
“You couldn’t talk to each other because it was that loud. There’s nothing like it. What a thrill. It’s primal, you know?”
A Meeting of Arkansas Basketball Royalty
Before Sutton passed, he returned to Fayetteville in one of the most special moments in Arkansas sports history. In October 2019, Sutton joined Nolan Richardson to be honored at the Red-White game before the 2019-2020 season.
The contest occurred in Barnhill Arena in front of 4,600 fans, who enjoyed a “throwback” themed Saturday as they wore all kinds of late 1970s through 1990s gear in an homage to the arena’s past. They cheered loudly during a ceremony when Sutton wheeled up to center court alongside Richardson and Musselman.
The final score of the Hogs’ annual preseason game — one side beating the other side by a score of 62-54 — didn’t matter as much as the many ways current players and staff connected to the rich tradition of the program through the presence of its two greatest coaches.
On a basic level, there was the fact the two sides were named in the coaches’ honor — a “Team Eddie” and a “Team Nolan.”
“I liked it a lot,” said then-sophomore Reggie Chaney, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “It was tradition in there. That’s why I played so hard — just giving back to those guys.”
Musselman already reminds many older fans of the way Sutton came onto the scene in 1974. He exudes the same level of passion, and like Sutton has long crisscrossed the world in the name of basketball.
Whereas Sutton arrived in Fayetteville as a 38-year-old who had spent his whole career in college basketball, Musselman arrived in the spring of 2019 as a 54-year-old who has spent decades at all levels of professional basketball as well as Division I college basketball. He is unquestionably the most experienced first-year coach in the history of Razorback basketball, football or baseball.
Musselman, who as a teen had watched Sutton’s famed “Triplets” of Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph, knows the importance of the past. He said he and his players appreciated the opportunity to do a photo shoot with Sutton and Richardson after the game.
He added the team would soon “dive into the history of both coaches and what they did for this program. It’s really cool. I’m new to the area, but I understand the significance of what both men did for this state and for the university.”
Evin Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories. An earlier version of this article ran in BestOfArkansasSports.com.