Coach on call: Oklahoma State’s Sean Sutton latest example of assistant coaches designated as head coaches
Oklahoma State men’s basketball head coach Sean Sutton started hearing the rumors in the late 1990s.
In 1995, his father, the legendary coach Eddie Sutton, led the Cowboys to the Final Four for the first time in more than 40 years at the age of 59. Soon after, then-OSU assistant coach Sean Sutton found himself having to soothe fears of concerned recruits and parents: Has Eddie Sutton accomplished all he has ever hoped to accomplish? Has he lost his drive to coach? Is he retiring?
‘A lot of schools were using my dad’s status against us,’ Sean Sutton said. ‘It used to be quite a bit that, ‘He could retire in a year now, and you don’t know who’s going to be your coach.”
In 2003, the Cowboys named Sean Sutton their head coach designate, meaning he would take over his father’s post when the elder Sutton finally retired. Two years later, Sean Sutton hauled in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to Stillwater, Okla.
After Eddie Sutton retired at the end of last season, Sean Sutton took over. He coaches his first game as head coach against a ranked opponent Tuesday against No. 15 Syracuse in the Jimmy V Classic in New York City.
In recent years, other schools around the country have also implemented formal succession plans to replace head coaches thought to be nearing the end of their careers. Tony Bennett and Matt Painter took over at Washington State and Purdue, respectively, after each serving a year as head-coach-in-waiting. Pat Knight will take the helm at Texas Tech when his father, Bob Knight, retires.
The coaches have each discovered what a difference the move makes. Recruiting becomes easier. The off-the-court responsibilities of a head coach don’t seem so overwhelming once they’ve been groomed. The future is set in stone for them and their families.
‘There’s continuity and that’s an important thing,’ Bennett said. ‘Continuity is the No. 1 thing (for a program).’
Continuity sells a program to its potential recruits. Texas Tech named Pat Knight head coach designate in October 2005 amid growing speculation about how much longer his father would coach.
Last summer, Pat Knight and Bob Knight visited potential recruits together, assuring they would not have to change their style of play if the elder Knight retired. The Red Raiders would continue to run Knight’s patented motion offense, with little reliance on structured plays. Pat Knight would introduce some zone defense, but he would stick mostly to his father’s tenacious man-to-man style.
Texas Tech attracted what the Knights consider its best recruiting class since Bob Knight arrived in 2001.
‘You don’t want to go a school and have a stranger come in (and coach),’ Pat Knight said. ‘Now the kid’s left out hanging and might not get the minutes (he would) under the old coach.’
Sometimes, a program has no choice but to name a successor simply to ward off a media storm of rumors. During Dick Bennett’s second year at WSU in 2004-2005, he said he would retire ‘this year or next year,’ igniting rumors of an imminent retirement.
Suddenly, potential recruits weren’t sure if they would have to learn Bennett’s famous ‘Pack-Line’ defense to stop penetration to the low post, and then a totally different system mid-way into their WSU careers. Cougars athletic director Jim Sterk decided to take action, naming Bennett’s son, Tony, as the successor to his father’s post.
‘(People said), ‘Dick Bennett’s not going to last,” Sterk said. ‘It can be very negative for the program.’
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim recently celebrated his 62nd birthday. His age led ESPN.com columnist Andy Katz to speculate last summer that the Orange might soon consider assistant coach Mike Hopkins as Boeheim’s eventual successor.
Athletic directors also believe establishing a formal succession plan allows the eventual head coach to acclimate himself to the pressures of the position. Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke lured Matt Painter away from his head coaching job at Southern Illinois to serve as longtime Boilermakers coach Gene Keady’s understudy.
Painter had played for Keady, so Burke had no doubt Painter understood Purdue’s playbook. But Burke believes a head coach’s toughest responsibilities have nothing to do with basketball.
He felt Painter needed to grasp the way Purdue’s booster clubs and alumni societies raised money for the team. Painter needed to understand the academic demands the players shouldered. He had to learn to deal with the West Lafayette, Ind., media.
‘All of a sudden, there’s 15 requests to have you speak at events,’ Burke said. ‘You’re sitting in a chair beside one of your players who’s broken the law.
‘Quite frankly, you can’t simulate it.’
The coaches also appreciated the chance to gradually get used to viewing themselves as a head coach. Sean Sutton and Tony Bennett were stepping into their first head coaching jobs, and Pat Knight will be as well.
Bennett found himself analyzing Cougars games a lot more on the floor last season. His father still called the plays, but he began to wonder what he would do in different situations.
Also, Bennett made a conscious decision to crack down harder on his players during practices. As an assistant coach before, he felt it was his job to be a big brother and lift the players up if his father treated them harshly. He could no longer play that role as the eventual head coach.
‘You can’t, in my opinion at least, be buddy-buddy all the time with your players,’ Bennett said. ‘I tried to think more as a head coach because I knew it was coming.’
In some cases, coaches have passed up what would appear to be better positions at other programs while waiting to assume their eventual head coaching positions. Painter had spent one year as Southern Illinois’ head coach when he left the Salukis to be Keady’s understudy at Purdue.
Burke recalled a long conversation he had with Painter in the athletic director’s living room before he hired Painter. Burke presented Painter with a choice: continue leading a mid-major school, or serve for a year as the No. 2 man so he could take over a program with more Big Ten titles than anyone else.
‘He understood the opportunity he had as a 36-year-old taking over his alma mater’s program,’ Burke said. ‘That’s worth the wait.’
Pat Knight faced a similar quandary last season when he interviewed for and received three offers for head coaching positions. Various reports circulated in March linking Knight to the Fresno State vacancy.
Despite the uncertainly surrounding how much longer his father would remain at Texas Tech, Knight decided to stay. A surefire job awaited him in Lubbock, Texas, and he could not pass that up.
‘That’s just a beast in itself-the whole process to get a job,’ Knight said. ‘There’s a whole lot of bullshit involved. Not to have to go through that-that’s a big relief.
‘(But) I’m not stupid. I listened to the three people last year, and it just wasn’t a better situation. I’m planning on being around, but if somebody comes around, I’m going to have to listen.’
While the head coach designate position implies a vote of confidence, Knight has learned it can also translate to high expectations for him to emulate his father’s success. He’s read stories that hammer him for not being a qualified candidate to replace his father. He’s heard talk shows that point out his lack of head coaching experience.
‘It’s kind of scary; I’m not going to lie,’ Knight said. ‘(But) hey, it’s not my fault. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t campaign for it. They offered it to me. Who would turn it down?
‘You’d always be kicking yourself in the butt. Why didn’t I try it?’
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