OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Eddie Sutton has had some tough times during 31 his years as a Division I basketball coach. A recruiting scandal forced him out at Kentucky and he admits to overcoming a drinking problem prior to arriving at Oklahoma State.
Nothing, however, compares to this year.
"Those were traumatic experiences, and I felt like in both of those experiences I became a better man and became stronger," said Sutton, who turned 65 Tuesday. "But I've never been faced with a situation as tough as this."
On Jan. 27, one of three small planes bringing the team back from a game at Colorado crashed in a field near Denver. All 10 men on board died -- two players, six others associated with the program, and the two pilots.
Sutton spent that cold, rainy night in his office in Stillwater, calling the relatives of those killed and trying to comfort those who survived.
"The toughest thing I've ever encountered ... was when I had to call those parents and call those wives and tell them what had happened," Sutton said three days after the crash.
"They certainly haven't taught this in coaching 101, how to handle something like this."
But Sutton and his staff figured out a way. Nothing has been the same since -- the dates of some games had to be changed, the practice schedule has been altered -- but once again the Cowboys are in the NCAA tournament. It is their ninth trip in Sutton's 11 seasons at his alma mater.
Oklahoma State (20-9) is the No. 11 seed in the East regional and will play Southern California on Thursday at Uniondale, N.Y.
"I think a team with less character and less courage certainly wouldn't have made it," Sutton said. "For a few days, I think even the people close to the program could sense that this group of guys were so despondent, they weren't sure we were going to be able to continue. But they pulled themselves together."
Sutton and his players attended a university memorial service for the victims on the Wednesday after the crash. Later that week, Sutton made it to six of the 10 funerals, including five in a three-day span.
The Cowboys returned to the court on Feb. 5 and beat Missouri 69-66 in an emotional game that left Sutton and many players in tears.
Oklahoma State lost on the road against Nebraska and Kansas, before putting together its best performance of the year, a 72-44 home victory against Oklahoma on Feb. 14. But a home loss three days later to Texas left the Cowboys with a record of 15-7 and without much leeway if they hoped to get an NCAA bid.
Oklahoma State proceeded to win four in a row to get to 19-7, then finished the regular season with a loss at Oklahoma. It went to the Big 12 tournament figuring it needed to win at least one game to solidify its NCAA tournament chances. The Cowboys beat Texas Tech, then lost by a point to Texas.
On Sunday afternoon, they were rewarded.
"I don't think anybody can fully comprehend how difficult it has been for these guys, losing their teammates, and the other eight people were like family," Sutton said. "I'm just so proud of them that we got into the NCAA tournament."
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association will present its Most Courageous Award to the school during the week of the Final Four.
Sutton said he expects his players to have no trouble handling the questions that are sure to come their way when the team arrives in New York. They have answered plenty of questions already.
"I doubt if there's a day goes by that something doesn't come up that makes us realize what has happened," Sutton said. "It's been five weeks, but this is something that is going to be with all of us for a long time."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.