STILLWATER, OKLA. -- This city calls itself "the place where Oklahoma began." It also happens to be the place where Eddie Sutton started, and in all likelihood, will end his college basketball coaching career.

"This will probably be the last job I coach," said Sutton, sitting in his spacious and extravagantly decorated office at Oklahoma State.

But coaches always say that. It's like saying saying they're going to take one game at a time. Sometimes it turns out to be true. Most times it doesn't. Yet Sutton, 54, says this convincingly.

"That's the attitude one ought to have when you go in, that this is the last job I'm going to have, and if something does happen you can leave," he said. "I'm not going to coach that much longer. Coaching has been very good to me. Had this job not opened up, I might not have gone back to coaching."

Sutton is back coaching after a year off that he didn't plan. He might have spent the rest of his career at Kentucky, where he arrived in 1985 after coaching 11 years at Arkansas. But in 1989, the NCAA completed a long investigation of the Kentucky basketball program, during which Sutton maintained his personal innocence.

After learning that the school's athletic board had enough votes to fire him, he announced on national television on March 19, 1989, that he was leaving. Soon afterward, the NCAA placed the Wildcats on three years' probation. Sutton wasn't named in the findings.

He was eligible to coach again without his new employer fearing NCAA reprisal. But he turned down all inquiries -- from major colleges and NBA teams he won't identify -- until his alma mater, Oklahoma State, was shopping for a coach last March at the Final Four. When he was hired, Sutton said he had a horrible experience at Kentucky, but that it taught him to be a better manager.

"It had been tough on him," said son Sean, who played for his father at Kentucky and now is a junior guard with the Cowboys. "When you do something for 30 years and take a year off, it's tough. He learned a lot from it and enjoyed it at the time, but I think he wanted to get back into coaching."

"Even though I was raised in Kansas, I always thought of myself as kind of being an Oklahoman because I spent so many years here," said Sutton, who played for the legendary Henry Iba at then-Oklahoma A&M. "Coming back here was kind of like coming back home."

By the time he was 31, Sutton, who was born in Bucklin, Kan., about 70 miles from the Oklahoma border, had spent about half his life in Oklahoma, as a player and graduate assistant under Iba, then as a high school coach in Tulsa. Sutton tried to return to Oklahoma State as coach in 1973, after his fourth season as coach at Creighton. But OSU hired Guy Strong away from Eastern Kentucky University.

The roles were reversed in 1977, when Oklahoma State coveted Sutton after he led Arkansas to a 26-2 record. This time, he wasn't interested. Sutton took the Razorbacks to the Final Four the following season and in 1985 he left for Kentucky.

There were good years in Kentucky -- including a 32-4 record in 1985-86 -- before things turned sour. That left Sutton to return to a previous dream, that of coaching his alma mater. He returned to Oklahoma State to succeed Leonard Hamilton, one of his assistants at Kentucky. Hamilton quit to fill the vacancy at Miami.

It's like old times in Stillwater for Sutton and his wife, Patsy, an Oklahoma State graduate. Her parents still live here, as does her brother and sister-in-law. The relatives live close to the Suttons' new home, adjacent to the second fairway at Stillwater Country Club.

And when you're talking family and Oklahoma State basketball, that means Iba, who at 85 regularly attends Sutton's practices.

"I was looking forward to him coming back," Iba said. "He was excited about it, and I was excited about it."

"The people here have treated me extremely nice," Sutton said.

Some preseason polls are predicting the Cowboys -- who return four starters, including all-conference center Byron Houston -- to finish third in the Big Eight behind Oklahoma and Missouri.

The team is adjusting to Sutton's disciplined style; each practice begins with a defensive drill. Sutton's teams -- his Wildcats scored only 72.5 points per game -- never have been scoring machines. But Sutton is the 10th-winningest active coach with a 430-164 record. He never had a losing season in 20 years until his last Kentucky team went 13-19. He was named national coach of the year three times.

"They all have faith in {Sutton} and believe in him," Sean Sutton said. "The bottom line is they want to win. They look at his past record and figure he must have done something right."

Said university president John Campbell: "After I talked to some of his fellow coaches, they said so many wonderful things, I can't wait to see this guy coach."

Campbell never had any doubts about Sutton's coaching ability, but he did check Sutton's background more thoroughly than anyone else he had ever hired, he said.

Campbell was besieged with calls and letters from people in sports, politics and private business -- mostly outside Oklahoma -- urging him to "check this and check that" about Sutton. In addition to the NCAA flap at Kentucky, Sutton admitted in 1987 to an alcohol problem.

But Campbell also heard from many Sutton supporters, including former Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins. Sutton's return has received a favorable response around the OSU campus.

"I took everything they said to me very seriously," Campbell said. "We feel like we're the winner in having Eddie Sutton come back to Stillwater."