Mike Boynton discovered what Eddie Sutton knew: OSU basketball is a hard job

Mike Boynton discovered what Eddie Sutton knew: OSU basketball is a hard job

The deeper we go into the 21st century, the more we realize Eddie Sutton’s truth. It takes a great coach, who arrives at the right time, to make OSU a winner.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 15, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 15, 2024, 6:00am CDT

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

Eddie Sutton tried to tell us. All those years ago, when Cowboy basketball was riding high, and Gallagher-Iba Arena roared like a 1969 Led Zeppelin concert, and the OSU hoopsters were the biggest stars on campus, Sutton tried to temper the future.

“This is a hard job,” Sutton told me multiple times, usually when we’d be discussing a Final Four trip or a Sweet 16 success or another conference trophy docked in Stillwater.

We didn’t believe him, of course. That’s back when the Cowboys stood with Kansas. When visiting teams would prefer being sent to Attica than to play in Gallagher-Iba.

Those were the days, my friend. We were wrong and Sutton was right. Those days did end.

Another Sutton successor bit the dust Thursday. Mike Boynton, as popular as Pistol Pete, as beloved as Homecoming, was fired for the reason that gets most coaches. Lack of winning.

Boynton becomes the third OSU basketball coach let go since Sutton’s retirement 18 years ago. Only Brad Underwood avoided the fate, and he stayed just one year in Stillwater. Underwood seemed like a great fit, had a good team, had a good year and high-tailed it to Illinois, a much better job.

  Henry Iba turned then-Oklahoma A&M into a national power, and his pro​té​gé, Sutton did the same. Their long runs of success created much tradition, and much expectation.

But the deeper we go into the 21st century, the more we realize Sutton’s truth. It takes a great coach, who arrives at the right time, to make OSU a winner.

For Iba, it was grit and discipline in a time (1934-70) when grit and discipline were revered. A time when resources were scarce everywhere, and a new gym like the original Gallagher Hall was a blessing. A time when basketball was a frontier, and a stable and smart coach had the jump on most opponents.

For Sutton, it was basketball smarts and communication and contacts all over the nation, at a time when transfers were just becoming popular, and all kinds of great players sought refuge at Sutton’s Second Chance U. 

Iba became a national brand in Stillwater, and Sutton arrived back in Stillwater as a battered but known national brand that quickly was restored to grandeur.

The rest of OSU basketball history is rather stark. Outside of Iba and Sutton, the Cowboys have exactly two NCAA Tournament victories — Boynton’s 2021 win over Liberty and Travis Ford’s 2009 win over Tennessee. The Saint Peter’s Peacocks had three in nine days of the 2022 NCAAs.

Sutton’s conference record: 144-79. OSU’s conference record since Sutton: 134-187.

Heck, Ford was considered a failure in Stillwater, but his legacy needs another look. Five NCAA Tournaments in eight seasons looks downright good compared to everyone else this side of Iba and Sutton.

What we’re learning is that OSU basketball is more tough-job than good-job, on the power-conference level.

And coaches seem to know it.

Roll call of where OSU has found its coaches since Iba’s 1970 retirement.

Internal assistant coach: Sam Aubrey (1970), Sean Sutton (2006), Boynton (2017).

Mid-major head coach: Guy Strong (Eastern Kentucky, 1973); Jim Killingsworth (Idaho State, 1977); Paul Hansen (Oklahoma City U., 1979); Ford (Massachusetts, 2008); Underwood (Stephen F. Austin, 2016).

External assistant coach: Leonard Hamilton (Kentucky, 1986).

Unemployed: Eddie Sutton (1990).

No Providences on that list. No Oregon States or Minnesotas or Auburns.

OSU does not shop on the power-conference aisle. But power-conference schools shop on the OSU aisle. Texas Christian, hardly a basketball power 40 years ago, hired away Killingsworth. Miami, which barely had a basketball program in the 1980s, hired away Hamilton. Plus Underwood, of course.

OSU isn’t going to entice a Scott Drew from Baylor. Bryce Drew, from Grand Canyon, might be a coup. OSU isn’t going to entice a coach from the Atlantic Coast Conference; maybe the Atlantic-10. OSU isn’t going to entice Grant McCasland from Texas Tech; maybe Anthony Grant from Dayton.

Heck, without an Iba or a Sutton, OSU might be a stepping-stone school. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

Basketball has become an urban game, and OSU is a rural school.

Basketball has become a money game, with name/image/likeness, and OSU is behind on the pay-for-play money, as Boynton pointed out, drawing much friendly fire.

Big 12 basketball has become, more than ever, a pit of vipers. This is not a league for the weak, and this is not a job for the weak.

A tremendous pedigree, like Kentucky-bred Ford; or a tremendous legacy, like Sutton-raised Sean Sutton; or a tremendous character and personality, like Boynton, isn’t enough. OSU is a place that needs a coach. A guy who can find talent and retain talent and develop talent and can take his roster and beat yours or take your roster and beat his.

That’s a hard ask — those guys are hard to find — and that’s what makes it a hard job. Anything less than those requirements means success is slow to come. Eddie Sutton knew it. Now we know it, too.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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