TULSA — Multiple sources told The Franchise that some of what was said Wednesday during a 25-minute press conference at Oral Roberts University to explain the firing of popular basketball coach Scott Sutton was not entirely true.
ORU president Billy Wilson and athletic director Mike Carter read statements, expressed talking points and took questions in an attempt to give their side for why Sutton, 46, was fired Monday after 18 seasons and a school-record 328 victories.
Wilson and Carter said the process actually had been underway “for some time” and that Sutton on Sunday was given what Carter called “several options” regarding his future, including one scenario in which he would coach next season and then resign, and ORU would honor both years remaining on his contract.
But when Carter called Sutton on Monday to request another meeting, Sutton didn’t answer his phone.
The result, which has been widely reported, is that Sutton, while watching his oldest daughter play a tennis match, learned from others at the courts that he had been fired, that his wife Kim found out on social media, and that his daughter heard it from a friend. Just before 5 p.m., ORU made its announcement.
It’s a heinous look, especially for a school based on the Christian faith.
“I think he was painted into a corner to make a decision — do something about family — and he did what he felt was right.”
Why not just keep calling Sutton? High-level decisions are made after business hours all the time; why not request a face-to-face meeting that night? Why not wait until Tuesday morning and bring him in then? Why not go to his house? Why not meet him in the parking lot of the tennis courts? Does a coach of 18 seasons, a coach who’s never violated NCAA rules, a coach who’s won more than anyone else in school history — three of the program’s five NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference coach of the year awards, eight postseason trips — not merit that kind of professional courtesy?
Instead, Sutton, an integral and popular part of the ORU community for 22 years, got a voicemail, an email and a pink slip. ORU employees, including some respected and decorated faculty, surely have their doubts about the school’s leadership in a time of crisis.
“There were some things said in the community about why we didn’t do this face to face and why it came about the way it did. It was very unfortunate,” Carter said. “We would have very much preferred to let Scott know face to face. But the way this played out, he notified us Monday morning, shortly before noon, that he was rejecting the offers, and he knew that when he rejected the offers, that his services would be terminated at that point.”
“I was there through the whole thing. At first, the president did not want tattoos. He’s old-school. … He just didn’t think it was right, it was a privilege to play at ORU, you represent something different.”
Carter and Wilson immediately met with the men’s basketball team and informed them Sutton had been “released.” Carter said expediency became a priority because he didn’t want to see it get out on social media.
Instead, in a catastrophic public relations blunder, news got out on social media anyway.
Also, Carter and Wilson said any negotiations between them and Sutton did not include having to fire his brother, Sean, from his coaching staff.
But multiple sources told The Franchise that simply wasn’t true. Scott’s only chance to stay at ORU, one source said, was if he fired his brother.
“That was the deal,” a source close to the ORU program said.
Sean Sutton was fired from his head coaching job at Oklahoma State in 2008 after two largely unsuccessful seasons, and was arrested in February 2010 and pleaded guilty to federal drug charges after trying to illegally obtain prescription medication. Scott brought him to ORU as an unpaid advisor in October 2010, he joined the coaching staff in June 2011, and charges were dismissed in August 2011, his record expunged. Sean Sutton has since been an effective spokesman about the dangers of prescription medication.
“Is there a more solid dude around (than Scott Sutton)? Especially in the coaching world.”
Still, sources said, Sean Sutton fights personal demons every day, and for ORU, it was simply easier to maintain a pristine image if the top assistant for the men’s basketball team didn’t have such issues. In cleaning up the mess left behind by former president Richard Roberts (ORU was a fiscal wreck, ultimately forcing Roberts’ 2007 resignation), Wilson and some ORU trustees have been overzealous at times, a source said.
For example, Wilson was on the ORU Board of Trustees from 2008-2013, but Sean Sutton was hired before Wilson became president in 2013. Wilson never approved of Sean Sutton being on staff, a source said, and has been looking for a way to get rid of him ever since.
“I think Scott was put in a very, very difficult situation when (Wilson) came on board,” one source said. “He’s a loyal, loyal person, and he was not gonna do anything to jeopardize his brother. And I know Sean’s been looking. Sean’s been trying to get a job. But he can’t get one.”
Another source said Sean Sutton is “a quirky guy. But at the end of it, he’s a very good basketball mind and a good person. I’ve worked with people before that are shady and behind the scenes and hard to get along with, but that’s not the case with Sean. Once you get to know him, he’s just quirky.
“What I’ve learned is it’s a daily battle. You don’t get healed. You fight it daily. I think that contributes to his quirkiness. I don’t think there’s any evidence of him dealing with that again. I just think it’s a daily battle.”
Apparently, it’s a battle Wilson didn’t want to deal with any more.
“Division I college basketball coaches lose jobs across America all the time. This is not a new thing in our culture.”
— ORU president Billy Wilson
It also has been widely reported this week — erroneously so, Carter and Wilson said — that Wilson forced Sutton to stop recruiting prospects who had tattoos, and only allowed him to recruit prospects who had professed their Christian faith. That, it was presumed, led to the two-year decline in Sutton’s teams, from 19 wins in 2015 to a 14-17 record last year to an 8-22 mark this season.
Losing was only part of the reason for Sutton’s dismissal, Wilson said.
“This shouldn’t reflect bad on Scott,” Wilson said. “It’s just the end of an era to a certain extent at ORU. Of course, if we had excelled and won the Summit League three times in a row and been to the NCAAs, that would have been a different story. But the decision wasn’t made just on that factor. Just looking at it for the future of the program, it was time for a change.”
“You can tell a lot about someone by how they treat people. Have you ever heard of Scott Sutton treating somebody poorly? No.”
Wilson also said that while ORU employees are forbidden from having tattoos, “we do not presently have a tattoo policy for ORU athletics.”
That is accurate, one source said, but also omits one important detail.
“I was there through the whole thing,” the source said. “At first, the president did not want tattoos. He’s old-school. … He just didn’t think it was right, it was a privilege to play at ORU, you represent something different.
“But as it went further up the totem pole and they got to the Board (of Trustees), they were like, ‘We’re not gonna do that. Times have changed. Things are different. We’re not gonna ask that of our student-athletes. And it sounds bad.’ So it quickly was not a big deal any more.
“So it was implemented for a little while — not implemented, but it was talked about, a change in recruiting and checking tattoos and all that stuff, but as quickly as it went up to the Board, it dissolved and it wasn’t a problem.”
A source also said the school’s “Whole Person” campaign — a composite scorecard for incoming students based on academics, social skills and spiritual vitality, and for athletes, their athletic ability — presented no real problems in recruiting players the basketball coaches wanted.
“You need to understand,” Carter said, “just like the enrollment process here at ORU, not every student has to be a Christian. That’s never been the criteria.”
Carter said Wednesday afternoon that he’d already received some 40 resumes, and although the quality of the applicants was “tenfold” what it was when he promoted Sutton in 1999, he wanted to have the process finished by the end of April. That quality, he said, would make it hard for he and his six-person search committee to narrow the field to 10.
For now, first-year assistant coach Rodney Perry has been named the interim, and Carter said he’s on the list of candidates for the job.
“There will be a lot of people that still want the job. Doesn’t matter,” said one source who’s close to the situation. “Right now, it’s still a Division I basketball job. But there’s no question in my mind they’re gonna hire somebody who doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing. The decisions the leadership has made just to get rid of Scott just reek of making a bad hire.”
“You need to understand, just like the enrollment process here at ORU, not every student has to be a Christian. That’s never been the criteria.”
— ORU athletic director Mike Carter
Wilson also said he was surprised by the public blowback against Sutton’s firing. That’s a strong indication of how little insight he has into his own basketball program.
“You know, Division I college basketball coaches lose jobs across America all the time. This is not a new thing in our culture,” Wilson said. “So I think we’ve been surprised a little bit at some of the energy and innuendo and some of the things that have gone on on social media.”
Clearly, Wilson underestimated the power of the Sutton name in Oklahoma and the public sentiment that Scott Sutton has cultivated. Also, that statement is ignorant and arrogant. Coaches who have won 57 percent of their games and have hung banners in their gym and have set school records and have never been in NCAA trouble and are universally beloved and respected absolutely do not lose jobs all the time. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Wilson’s “no big deal” commentary adds a strong element of alternative facts to his narrative.
“That’s what’s sad about it,” a source said. “Is there a more solid dude around? Especially in the coaching world. He’s like the CEO of a mid-level law firm that just hits it right down the middle every time. Nothing waivers on either side. He’s just solid. Treats people — that’s the biggest thing; it’s probably like this in every business, but you can tell a lot about someone by how they treat people. Have you ever heard of Scott Sutton treating somebody poorly? No. And he’s dealt with hundreds and hundreds of people.”
“Scott Sutton is a very, very, very good person,” said another source. “I can’t say enough good things about him. And I feel terrible this happened. But I think he was painted into a corner to make a decision — do something about family — and he did what he felt was right.
“And I think he’ll be OK because he did it.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.