December 23, 2007 12:04 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
In March 2005, Tennessee Tech head coach Mike Sutton was suddenly stricken by Guillain-BarrÃ© Syndrome, a disease that can only be described as "mysterious." It laid siege to his central nervous system, leaving him paralyzed and clinging to life in a hospital for 10 months. Immobile and attached to a ventilator, his weight plummeted and his only method of communication was blinking his eyes. A month after his return home that November, he was at the end of the TTU bench in a large wheelchair. A year later, he was strong enough to use a walker to get around. He continues to undergo extensive physical therapy in order to retrain his musculature, slowly regaining the type of normal everyday body movement that you and I take for granted.
Sutton is, quite simply, the most alive person I know, and is the first person I think of whenever something comes up that seemingly can't be done. He was also one of the first head coaches to publicly admit he read this site several years ago, and he remains a good friend of TMM despite that time I called him Eddie by mistake (maybe we really do need an editor). We caught up on Thursday evening and discussed the Golden Eagles' up-and-down start to the season, the cost of broken backboards, his continuing recovery from an ailment that nearly claimed his life, and what it's like to coach from the visitor's bench at Kentucky after spending years there as an assistant.
TMM: Tell me a little about your start, how's it been going so far?
MS: Well, we've been on the road, we're 4-7 right now. We've played good in spots and not good in a couple of games. We didn't play well against North Carolina Central, shot it poorly and didn't deserve to win. Northwestern State, we played pretty well but just didn't finish the game. So those were a couple of road wins we thought we could get. And we've played Florida from the SEC, Syracuse of the Big East, so we've played a really tough schedule. Pac-10 team in Oregon State, still have Kentucky. We've had a very challenging schedule, but hopefully it'll help us once we get into the heart of OVC play.
TMM: But you beat Oregon State last weekend. We got a couple letters from your fans who wanted to make sure that upset was mentioned on the site.
MS: Our seniors, Amadi McKenzie and Anthony Fisher, were outstanding in that game. Our whole team just played really well. We have a few nagging injuries, but guys fought through and played and contributed. We did a very nice job... they didn't shoot the ball particularly well and we managed to control the game. Eleven points were as close as they got in the second half, and we finished pretty well. We were really pleased to get a win over a BCS conference school, and the Pac-10's probably rated as the highest league in the country right now.
TMM: You mentioned earlier that Amadi broke his fourth backboard of his career recently. Was it in that game?
MS: No, no, that was against Austin Peay at home on Dec. 1. So it cost us money when he broke that backboard!
MS: The excitement of the dunk and the shattering backboard was taken away by the hour and 20-minute delay afterward. And then we lost by three, and we had plenty of chances to win, we had the ball down one on an out-of-bounds play and Anthony turned it over. But those backboards, I'm just tired of Amadi breaking them. He doesn't hang and pull down or anything. We don't know what he's breaking them with, but I wish he'd stop because it's costing me way too much money.
TMM: How much does a backboard cost?
MS: It can be anywhere from $1000 to $2000 depending on the type. The problem in our facility is that we don't have another whole system that we can just roll out and set up, we don't have the storage space. We have to take the backboard off and put another one on.
TMM: You've been under two of those broken backboards, too. That part can't be pleasant either.
MS: Yes, I've been under two of those.... he broke one in practice two years ago, and that same year he broke one at College of Charleston during a shooting drill. I was in the wheelchair, and when he shattered it I got glass in my hair, all over the place. It's safety glass, though, so it's not that big of a deal. But it does put a damper on practice, because you can only play half-court after that.
TMM: About that wheelchair... how is your recovery going?
MS: Good, good. It's about 3 1/2 hours of physical therapy, three times a week, so we're working at it. I did two days of therapy in a row this week because we're traveling this weekend. I'm continuing to improve. My doctor just switched me from one type of walker to another, to force me to use less of my arms and more of my legs, which is a good thing. I'm continuing to progress, just trying to get a little better each and ever week.
I'm getting stronger. What we look for is incremental improvement. I just want to do something this month that I couldn't do last month. That certainly gives me optimism, and hopefully I'll become less and less dependent on assisted devices to walk. I'm going to have some surgery in the spring that will hopefully will help me with my hand. Actually, a former basketball player from Vanderbilt is going to do it. If he operates as well as he could shoot, I'll be in good shape!
TMM: You've always got to go with shooters to make the incisions, not the centers. If given the choice.
MS: When I went in to talk to him about it, we talked more about basketball than we talked about my hand. It's called a tendon transfer... there's another name for it, but that's the layman's term.
TMM: Is the relative slowness of your progress, waiting for surgery, is that frustrating at all? Or having gone through this process for a couple of years, is the speed something you've come to peace with?
MS: You can't change it. The doctors are very positive, they say "you're doing good," but they can't speed up the way the body works. The nerves regenerate at such a slow rate, only a centimeter a month. I'm on month 32 now. If I think back to remember last year, or the first year I was in the hospital, I couldn't move my hands at all. If it ever gets depressing, I think back to where I was then, and thank God that I'm blessed enough to be able to do what I'm able to do now.
TMM: All these stories of baseball players regenerating (and generating) cellular material with growth hormones, I've been wondering. Was hormone therapy part of your recovery at all?
MS: No, nothing like that. The medications I used early on were pain medications. I'm don't do any medications now, except for the occasional aspirin. It's mostly vitamins, that sort of thing. Fiber. Lots of fiber. No prescribed medicines, and I think that's a good thing.
TMM: So all of your nerve and cell re-growth in the past two-and-a-half years wasn't spurred along by anything other than natural processes.
MS: There aren't shortcuts or miracle cures. Patience and pace, you just have to live with it. Which is better than the alternative.
TMM: I hear you.
TMM: So I'm hoping to come back down to Cookeville in January. I find it's the kind of town that gets better every time you visit. Great people, peaceful, nice countryside, and the weather can't be beat. What do you love about it?
MS: The people. When you go to a place, you have to get a good feeling from it. Cookeville felt right, Tennessee Tech University felt right. You know what I'm talking about, a comfort level, a gut feeling. In coaching, you sometimes do things in your practice or make decisions based on watching film, but then you get in a game and have to make a decision based on your feelings, and your experience. I've been fortunate to have been in a lot of places, but this is a great community, with lots of wonderful people. Karen and I really love it here.
TMM: One of those places you've been was Kentucky, where you'll be this weekend. What's it like when you go back to Rupp Arena?
MS: It's always tougher when you sit on the other side. I've been involved in 80-some games there, and the ones when you're the visitor aren't nearly as fun as the ones where you're the home team. The Kentucky guys are always great to me. I love seeing the fans... overall, they're the greatest fans there are in terms of college basketball. They love the Wildcats, they travel well, they have a great passion for basketball in that state, they're very knowledgeable. It's as good as it gets there. Obviously, you get a few people who are off the wall a little bit, the fringe people who say things and cause problems, but that's typical of anywhere. It's just a lot more magnified with the way people can communicate nowadays, with the internet and call-in shows, things like that.
There are a lot of tremendous people there, I made a lot of friends and I look forward to seeing them again. I don't look forward to playing Kentucky though.
Not surprisingly, Tennessee Tech lost at Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, by a 69-47 count. The Golden Eagles are now 4-8 (1-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference)
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