Sentimental favorites at the Final Four are usually old or recovering from a serious setback. This year, Eddie Sutton has no competition. He qualifies on both counts.
At 68, Sutton returns with a third and perhaps final shot to win it all, which would make him the oldest coach ever to do so. He's already the oldest ever to arrive here, and like a bouncing ball, Sutton has known many ups and downs. But the last of those will be with him always.
Barely three years have passed since the Oklahoma State basketball family was devastated by the crash of a private plane ferrying two players and eight other members of the program back from a game at Colorado in January 2001.
''It takes time to heal, and we're still healing,'' Sutton said. ''Don't you think those 10 people are smiling down on us right now.''
No one would have blamed him if Sutton called it a career soon after that. He was already one of the game's living encyclopedias and ranked among its winningest coaches. But the tragedy taught Sutton precious things about himself, his family and the kids who remained, and he was never one to waste a lesson.
He was recruited by Phog Allen, he played for Hank Iba and against Wilt Chamberlain in college. He built one national power, Arkansas, nearly destroyed another, Kentucky, because of a recruiting scandal that forced him to resign, then returned to his alma mater, Oklahoma State, a dozen years ago and lifted the program back toward the heights of Iba's day.
Sutton accomplished all those things by getting smarter and not just older, by changing with the game. He still demands that his kids take care of the basketball on offense, and the defensive principles he learned at Iba's knee remain largely intact. But he's never stopped trying to find out what made each successive generation of players tick.
Sutton hugs kids or hammers them, and sometimes both during a single practice. But since the plane crash, he doesn't dare leave anything unresolved. He calls his oldest and youngest sons Steve, a banker in Wichita, and Scott, the coach at Oral Roberts every day. But he doesn't have to reach out to touch the middle son, Sean, who sits with him on the bench as an assistant coach.
''Experience is only as valuable as what you make of it, and for all the time he's been around the game, I don't think he's ever wasted even one minute,'' said Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, who became a good pal after becoming Sutton's chief rival.
''Coaching is a funny business. Mistakes are the greatest teachers, because they get the kids' attention, so in a sense, you wind up learning what not to do. But successful people can't be timid, either. They know when to let go, too.
''Watch how Eddie's kids play for him, and for each other,'' Sampson said, ''and you'll learn what trust on a basketball floor is all about.''
Sutton loved the game unconditionally when he was a kid, and this weekend, the game will have every opportunity to love him back.
He told the story last week of hitchhiking from Stillwater, Okla., to Kansas City a half-century ago to attend the Final Four. Sutton arrived in a chartered jet for this one, but that almost seemed superfluous; he could have been carried along by the sentiments of well-wishers.
Truth is, none of these teams will be lacking for backers. Georgia Tech, the Cowboys' opponent in Saturday night's semifinal, is back with another great point guard and coached by up-and-comer Paul Hewitt. Duke and Mike Krzyzewski are the Yankees of college basketball. Connecticut has the best player in the game and Jim Calhoun, another coaching lifer who won it all in his first Final Four appearance five years ago.
But just about everybody else will be pulling for Sutton.
''I'd love to see him win it,'' said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who is a year older and won his title in 1997 in his fourth try. ''The other guys in there will have other opportunities.''
Sutton may, too. But he's been around long enough to be grateful for the two that went before this one. Growing up in Kansas, he learned about the game by listening to the radio in what has been called ''the golden age of Midlands hoops.''
He still remembers the names of all the great coaches who won titles and fired his imagination back then. What he never forgets is all the great coaches who never made it even this far.
''I've been there three times to the Final Four and some of my best friends have never made it: Ralph Miller, a great coach who recruited me when he was at Wichita, Jack Hartman, Gene Keady, Norm Stewart, great coaches that never had the opportunity.
''Yeah, it'd be great to win it,'' Sutton added, ''but if it doesn't happen, well, I've enjoyed more thrills than I've really deserved.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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