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Eddie Sutton movie explores rise and fall of legendary basketball coach

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

In "Eddie," a film about legendary coach Eddie Sutton, producers David Tester and Christopher Hunt of 1577 Productions highlight the turbulent ride that was Sutton's five-decade career in Division I basketball. The project -- which takes viewers through the highs and lows of Sutton's career at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State via a truly impressive complement of archival footage and interviews -- paints a picture of a standout career, but does not minimize Sutton's flaws.

A recruiting scandal cost Sutton his job at Kentucky in 1989, and a drunk-driving accident and subsequent arrest -- tied to struggles with alcohol that are explored at length in the film -- led to Sutton's resignation at Oklahoma State in 2006. His complicated relationship with son Sean -- who played for Eddie at Kentucky and Oklahoma State and succeeded his father as coach at OSU before battling his own addictions -- also is discussed in what are some of the film's most emotional scenes.

The powerful aftermath of the 2001 plane crash that killed 10 members of the Oklahoma State traveling party, including two players, also receives a thorough examination in the 90-minute film.

Sutton, 84, participated in "Eddie" in the form of some of his final recorded conversations before he lost the ability to speak amid mounting health problems. Cameras also rolled as Sutton and his family received word last April that Sutton -- one of only 10 Division I coaches to win 800 games -- had again been denied induction to the Naismith Hall of Fame.

With Saturday's scheduled announcement of this year's Naismith Hall of Fame class (noon ET, ESPN), of which Sutton is again a finalist, we sat down with the film's director, Hunt, to discuss the project and the Oklahoma native's own views on Sutton's Hall of Fame candidacy:

Myron Medcalf, ESPN: This film does a great job of showing the emotions that surround Sutton. It doesn't seem like anyone, whether they remain critics or they support him, is on the fence about him. Why do you think that is?

Christopher Hunt, director, "Eddie": I've always felt like he, for whatever reason, elicits strong emotions from people. What surprised me, honestly, was whenever I went and spent time in Lexington, Kentucky, I was expecting people to have that visceral reaction and that really wasn't the case. The media, the guys that used to cover him, were fantastic. The players, the former players that I ran into, were really good. I was probably talking to people who had a positive opinion of him, but his players loved that man and I mean, I don't use the word lightly. They truly loved him. They all acknowledge he struggled with alcohol. The scandal was brutal there. Nobody's denying that, I know that pissed off a lot of people out there and I think for a certain generation of [Kentucky] fans, Eddie is still ... they're not over it, man. I do think that that group is a minority now and I feel like, if you look back at his career, he's one of the great coaches in college basketball history.

ESPN: You got Bill Clinton and Jerry Jones to sit down for this film. Who was tougher to get?

Hunt: Bill Clinton was a friend of Coach Sutton's from their Arkansas days. President Clinton was formerly a law professor there. They became friendly when he was there and Eddie was coaching. They've maintained their friendship through the years. I made one call to the Oklahoma Democratic party's contact [at Clinton's office]. Sure enough, we were able to get President Clinton's handlers or media people. I think it was a nine-month process to get him on board, just due to scheduling. One day, we got an email that said, "President Clinton can sit down with you for 30 minutes. Can you be here?" Absolutely. We dropped everything and flew to New York.

And then Jerry Jones. [Sutton and Jones are] still friends. When former Arkansas football coach Frank Broyles passed away, I accompanied [Eddie's son] Steve Sutton to that memorial service in their arena. We did get to meet Jerry briefly then, just like three minutes, and said, 'here's what we're doing.' I think it was a year later I finally sat down with him. Just getting onto his schedule, it was harder than Bill Clinton for me. I actually had a cut of the movie without Jerry Jones because I didn't think he was going to be in the movie. But I thought he added a ton to the film.

ESPN: The most revealing component of the film is the portrayal of the relationship between Eddie and Sean, and the challenges between them that most people don't know about. How do you think their relationship shaped the film?

Hunt: I knew the things that probably most college basketball fans might have known about Eddie. I did have a front-row seat, being in Oklahoma and watching his career at Oklahoma State. I'm too young to remember the '80s, but I watched what he did in Stillwater and it was truly incredible. The father-son aspect of it was something I didn't really know going in. At least I didn't know the level of the relationship going in. They are a private family. They've always been a private family. Eddie had a very public job but family matters were kept private. I give so much credit to Sean for opening up to me. I'm confident that was the first time that had ever happened. I do know that this film has been therapeutic for their family. I think it has opened up conversations privately. I think they're very proud of it. Some of the subjects are very hard to talk about, but they're worth talking about. They can truly inspire change. I think enough time has passed that they're willing to talk about it.

ESPN: How do you think the stigma around addiction, when Sutton was coaching, impacted his bout with alcohol?

Hunt: I think people are more willing to be honest about things now and willing to seek help when help is needed. I think there was a certain element of this kind of manliness. This ego. That's in there -- "I don't need help, I don't have a problem." I think probably all of the institutions he coached at, there was an element of enabling that went on there. ... But I also think, at the end of the day, Eddie is responsible. At the end of the day, it's his responsibility to take care of himself. As the film shows, even as an [older] man, retired, he still didn't want to talk about it.

ESPN: After talking to Sutton and others for the film, how do you think the 2001 plane crash affected him?

Hunt: I know that played a role [in his struggles]. I just know it did. It was brutal. That was part of the story I kind of sensed people didn't know and had possibly forgotten. Not many coaches have to deal with something like that. Any coach that has to be a leader in that situation deserves so much credit and respect. Eddie was a huge part of that. I hope the movie showed just how much of a rock he was for the university and the state of Oklahoma.

ESPN: Today, every coach is a TV and social-media star. You probably can't do that job today without having a high profile. Sutton was using TV and cameras to his advantage back in the 1970s. How do you think he inspired modern coaches who are now the collective faces of their programs?

Hunt: He was a pioneer, using media to promote the game. If you go back, and I hope the film did a good job of this, to the mid-'70s and his Arkansas team, the Southwest Conference was a football conference. You had Arkansas, you had Texas, you had Texas A&M and it was a very well-regarded football conference. Their basketball in the Southwest Conference at the time was not. It went football, spring football and basketball. Eddie came in and really changed that. Eddie came in with some style, with some swag, and he rolled out some great teams. It really made basketball fun. He created a pep band at Arkansas. He created this environment inside Barnhill Arena that straight-up rocked and it kind of was the thing to do. Eddie became a very relatable media figure.

ESPN: What would it mean to those around him if Sutton earned a spot in the Hall of Fame?

Hunt: There are a lot of people that have thought, 'Well, he'll get in after he passes away.' [In my opinion], it's already too late. You're talking about a guy who was so charismatic, had great stories and could really speak and inspire people and that gift has been taken away from him. I don't even know if he can enjoy it anymore. He's physically unable, and that's super sad. Even if he does get it on [Saturday], I'm not trying to sound like super sour grapes -- for a lot of people, it's just too damn late. That's one of the reasons I'm happy for this film. At least his legacy won't be forgotten.

For more on "Eddie," visit eddiesuttonfilm.com