COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- When I arrived at Tennessee Tech's Eblen Center, head coach Mike Sutton was waiting for me. He was stationed next to the pass desk; with my head down, I walked right past him and his motorized wheelchair. When he finally got my attention, he extended his hand, a meaty hook with fingers that don't bend like fingers should. I grabbed hold with a polite pincer grip.
"C'mon, I can do better than that," he said, thrusting the heel of his hand forward and forcing me into a proper shake. "How've you been, Kyle? Are you sticking around afterwards, can we visit after the game's over?"
Coach Sutton doesn't use the wheelchair during games any more, and hasn't for a few years now. These days, he sits on the sideline on a high stool, and holds a cane that he uses when he feels compelled to come out on the floor after the officials. It's been almost five years since March 2005, when he was struck with Guillain-BarrÃ© Syndrome
after leading TTU to an Ohio Valley Conference regular season championship and being named conference Coach of the Year. While at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Virginia, he suffered a sudden attack on his nervous system that denied him the use of his extremities, and very nearly killed him.
For weeks and months, Coach Sutton struggled to stay alive and relearn nearly every basic motor skill
. Once he returned to the sidelines a year later, he had to be carried on and off the team bus, and non-ADA compliant hotels had to remove doors in order to to accommodate him. Over time, he graduated from the wheelchair to a walker, and now to a stool and cane. Sometimes, he'll perch on the padded end of the scorer's table.
Now, stories about overcoming tough odds are as old as print journalism itself. But there's a certain type of short-attention-span journalism that uses broad strokes and an economy of words to endlessly reproduce the template -- only the names and diseases change, and it's cheap enough that nobody minds anymore when it's used for parody. Where the trend all started is a question for the researchers; maybe it was ABC's infamously dewy "Up Close and Personal" Olympic stories back in the 1980's, with those slow descending piano figures playing in the background. Maybe Paul Harvey was to blame.
While Coach Sutton was in the early stages of battling GBS, the national media jumped on the story, shoehorning him into the standard template. I was even responsible for a couple of those, back when I was a real actual national sportswriter. There are still a few journalists who come around.
"A guy from Nashville came up last week," he told me. "He was here to talk about the health aspects. He wanted to watch our practice, and that happened to be the day I got my new orthotics, and was just getting used to them. I was wobbling around like a Weeble the whole time."
But the health story is a much harder sell now, since the Golden Eagles aren't winning games. There hasn't been the requisite happy ending the template requires, with Sutton being lifted by his team after winning a conference championship or an NCAA first round game. Instead, Tennessee Tech's most recent three campaigns ended quickly in the early rounds of the OVC tourney. TTU won only 13 and 12 games, respectively, over the past two seasons. There have been rumblings on message boards (and in Mid-Majority chats) that perhaps the basketball program should go in a different direction, despite Sutton's condition and the sensitive implications of replacing him. It's a delicate situation, but the head coach insists that still he has the administration's full support as his team tries to return to the league's upper division.
The school is definitely building for the future. That's obvious by the new bank of skyboxes and offices that exists where a high bleacher section used to be. The new space is all glass and blond wood, overlooking the Eblen Center court. After the Golden Eagles dropped a heartbreaking 91-90
double-overtime, 150-minute decision to Evansville of the Missouri Valley, Coach Sutton gave me the grand tour. In his office, he sat down and showed off those new orthotics that allow him to walk just a little more normally; there are black braces that extend up out of his shoes and up his pantlegs.
But that was the end of the health talk. Coach Sutton wanted to talk about basketball. He let his wife Karen, who's been his primary caretaker since his GBS diagnosis, go home and rest; he'd get a ride home from a staff member. Them he grabbed a remote control and switched on the North Carolina-Michigan State game on a flatscreen wall-mounted TV set. It was the final few minutes, and UNC was trying to finish the Spartans off. He made a few comments about the Tar Heel players, about Tom Izzo, and it wasn't until he asked me my opinion of the MSU defense, he realized I wasn't following. I admitted that it had taken me a few minutes to realize that this made-for-TV games was, in fact, a rematch of the 2009 NCAA championship game.
"You don't watch any
BCS ball?" he asked me.
"No, sir," I replied.
He looked at me sideways. That I completely organized the ACC and Big Ten was a foreign concept to Coach Sutton, just like the idea that I was out on the road because my readers were sending me money over the internet. ("I love your Basketball State website," he said as he showed me a thick pile of printouts about upcoming opponents, then took on a convincing deadpan. "What's that other crap site that you write for? Mid-something?")
"Where are you Saturday?" he inquired. "Big Blue and Kentucky at Rupp... tell me you can't get excited about that!"
"I'll be at Butler," I answered simply. "They're playing Valparaiso. Horizon League game."
"Well, if it's an afternoon game and your schedule works out, Lexington's a quick drive from Indianapolis," he said before raising a hand to the side of his mouth. "If you want to go incognito, I can definitely get you in the door with a ticket. I know a lot of people at UK."
Coach Sutton was a Wildcat assistant under Orlando "Tubby" Smith from 1997 through 2002, before he took his first D-I head coaching job at TTU in the wake of Jeff Lebo's departure to Chattanooga. He still has an oversize Kentucky ring on his desk, listing all of the program's national championships.
With the game on TV over, with Dick Vitale going hoarse again after an evening of impassioned yelling, the film staff called Coach Sutton's cell phone to let him know that the Evansville game was freshly loaded into the digital video system, broken down by numbered play. The head coach rifled through the end of regulation and two overtime periods, controlling the speed of the film with his laptop as the images flickered forwards and backwards on the big screen. He furtively attempted to figure out the exact play that would have made the difference between the win and the loss, the one close call or missed ball screen would have made the Golden Eagles 4-4 on the season, instead of 3-5.
After 15 minutes or so, he navigated back to the main menu of the video system punched up Tennessee Tech's guarantee-game loss from the previous weekend, a 112-75 blowout
. There were the Golden Eagles in their purple roadies, hanging tough with the team that was ranked at No. 1 in the national polls. "Watch Cole Aldrich here," Coach Sutton noted. "We had him blocked out, and he just pushes through his man and gets to the basket for a dunk. Look at that!
That's why he's a first-rounder. And Sharron Collins killed us all night. Oh, there he goes again!"
There was no sense of longing, jealousy or spite in his voice, feelings that, quite honestly, abound in the Other 24. Coach Sutton was simply enjoying the opportunity to appreciate and admire basketball excellence from a fan's perspective, even if it was at the expense of his own team and the players that he recruited. He's lived above and below the Red Line, and has a healthy perspective on life on both sides.
Coach Sutton might never make it back to the other side of the Line, if he even wants to return. It's not assured or guaranteed that he'll ever make it to the NCAA Tournament as Tennessee Tech's head coach, to complete and resolve the storyline that would bring the journalists back in droves to file their paint-by-numbers 1,000-word profiles. But his existence isn't predicated on being a part of a generic, preset comeback-kid story template. That certainly isn't what drove him forward in his battle to stay alive, and in his continued struggle to regain total mastery of his own body.
Back in March 2005, Coach Sutton was blindsided by a completely unforeseen setback, introduced to a dangerous and unwanted intruder that he's had to live with every day since. Every day is a hard exercise in pushing that guest one step closer to the exit. There isn't anything Joseph Campbell ever said that details the journey to just make it back to the day before the journey began. The simplicity of not being treated differently than anyone else doesn't make for the stock happy ending that the public requires.
He's just trying to get to the point where he's free to be known as Mike Sutton, college basketball coach and great lover of Our Game, and nothing more or less.