It doesn't take much to understand Arkansas basketball Coach Eddie Sutton. Just a clear view of right and wrong.
With his head of frizzy hair and thick-lensed glasses, Sutton looks more like a schoolteacher than a basketball coach. He's not flamboyant, he's not a yeller, he doesn't windmill with his hands. There is a feeling that in another life he might have carried a yardstick and a piece of chalk in each hand. At Arkansas, the Razorbacks follow his earnest work ethic or else. You mark your lip, keep your curfew and do your studies.
"We follow the three Ds here," Sutton says. "Dedication, discipline and defense."
Sutton's teams at Arkansas over the last 10 years have been all of a kind. Invariably experienced, a strong back court and a man-to-man defense that will leave you with a full-body floor burn. They have won the Southwest Conference five of the past nine years, their dominance interrupted only by Houston and Akeem Olajuwon.
This season, Sutton is dealing with a new problem: youth. The Razorbacks (13-7) start two freshmen in the back court and another at forward, and are currently third in the conference. They play Georgetown (18-2) today at Capital Centre at 1 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9) in a nationally televised game.
The Razorbacks are being carried by Joe Kleine, the 6-foot-11 center who is averaging 22 points and 8.4 rebounds. Kleine and forward Charles Balentine are the only seniors in the lineup, and Balentine is the only other player averaging in double figures, with 12.9 points a game. In the back court are freshmen Allie Freeman and Kenny Hutchinson, and at forward is freshman Andrew Lang.
"We're dealing with a lot of young guys," Sutton said. "Some days they're up and a lot of days they're down, like a yo-yo. It's kind of like being a parent. You just have to be patient."
Still, ask any Southwest Conference coach and he'll tell you the Razorbacks are the team to beat, despite their inexperience. Ask them why, and they'll tell you Eddie Sutton.
"He doesn't complicate the game," said former UCLA coach John Wooden, an admirer. "They play a very disciplined game. The more you do that, the closer you are to excellence."
Sutton is a finicky coach with moralist leanings. He has little use for problem athletes and an eye for sleepers. He will pass up a media star in favor of someone who will do what he's told. When Sutton recruits, he talks to a player's high school principal, guidance counselor, coach and teammates.
"Gym rat" is what Sutton calls his favorite players, the kind who stay late in the gym and like sweat better than aftershave. He has turned out some of the hardest workers in the game, and some of the most talented: Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker.
"We don't have any bad actors here," Sutton said. "They're all nice folks. You want good athletes, but you don't want bad actors. We just want some guys who will go out there and play hard and be willing to listen to the staff. A guy that will come in the gym in an offhour and shoot the ball or look at film."
An erudite history buff, Sutton likes to improve the Razorbacks' minds as well as their bodies. The day before a recent game against Virginia in Charlottesville, the Razorbacks visited Monticello. The morning of the game, they toured the campus Thomas Jefferson built.
On the occasions when Sutton has had discipline problems, they have been brief. Sophomore forward William Mills, the team's third-leading scorer, recently was given a three-game suspension. Sutton won't say why, another reason he is known as a coach who is exceedingly loyal to his players. He will take an occasional gamble with a problem athlete, usually with success. Walker, now a starting guard with the New York Knicks, was one of Sutton's projects.
"He recruits the type of player he wants," Walker said. "The guy could be a star, but if Eddie doesn't think he'll fit in, he won't recruit him . . . He demands a lot of respect and he gives it back."
Walker says that in his early days at Arkansas, he had problems with Sutton. A carefree sort who had problems making curfew, he, too, was briefly suspended his sophomore season. But Sutton managed to change Walker's attitude, turning him into one of the premier guards in the country. Walker, like Moncrief, phones Sutton about once a week with the words, "This is your adopted son calling."
"It was a maturity thing with me," Walker says. "I was a little wild, a little crazy. But he had enough guts to stick with me and talk me through. I'm glad I listened to him and I'm lucky."
Another characteristic of Sutton's teams is that they don't seem to be particularly talented. His on-court philosophy is like his recruiting, with a tight man-to-man defense and a studied, slow-down offense that doesn't leave much room for hot-dogging. The performers are overshadowed by the scheme.
"He gets excellent talent for what he does," Wooden said. "It's not the flashy talent that some teams have. Sometimes you have some extremely flashy players who are maybe not contributing as much. Eddie's talent might not be good talent for Guy Lewis at Houston, but neither is Houston's talent good for Arkansas."
His teams are frustrating to play, as Southern Methodist Coach Dave Bliss can attest. The Mustangs lead the Southwest Conference while Arkansas (6-3) is in a four-team scramble for second place. But Bliss says he can't help but look over his shoulder at Sutton and the Razorbacks.
"He's one of the four best coaches in the country," Bliss said. "The team is more evident than the individuals. They don't beat themselves. We're in first place, but there's no doubt they're our toughest competitors."
Former Texas coach Abe Lemons was irritated by the Razorbacks' dominance of the conference, but then became another admirer. He attributed Sutton's success to a tight rein over his team.
"He has complete control over his program," Lemons said. "He controls his own destiny and he can run things without going to two or three people to ask if it's all right."