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Eddie Sutton and America's Record Obsession

Note: This column was written for my advanced journalism class in mid-February.

Shortly after Oklahoma State head basketball Coach Eddie Sutton was injured in a car crash, the school announced that any wins the team accumulated this season – even without Sutton coaching – would count towards Sutton’s career win total. The gesture was made largely because Sutton needed only six more wins to reach 800 for his career, a mark that only five Division I coaches have reached.

While it may be a move made out of respect for Sutton, without question one of the best college coaches of all-time, I still found myself disappointed with this decision. What bothered me at first was that this just seemed to be illegitimate (it was not illegal – the NCAA does permit the school to count the wins toward Sutton). It seems to be common sense that if he’s not the one doing the coaching, then he shouldn’t be the one who gets the win. And to me, the fact that he is about to cross a milestone like 800 wins should be all the more reason that the wins shouldn’t count. It’s like crediting a NASCAR driver who runs out of gas on the last lap with the win because he was really close, and somehow we are supposed to feel sorry for him.

And in Sutton’s case, as great as a coach as he has been, it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who is missing the rest of the season because he was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.22, almost three times the legal limit in Oklahoma. There just aren’t any excuses for that, period.

But what hit me later is that this illuminates a broader problem in sports: the obsession fans and experts have with records and milestones. Athletes and coaches are often judged solely on the basis of how many statistical records they have, often at the expense of a more general review of how good they really were.

For instance, if Sutton already had 800 wins, would anyone really care if he won six more games? But now, apparently he needs those six wins to join a “club” – the “800-win club.” In reality, it’s just a peculiarity of our numbering system that he isn’t already in that club. If we called it the 794-win club, he would already be in, along with the same other four coaches in the 800-win club. And if it was the 830-win club, then the other four coaches would still be in it, but Sutton would be far off. So why should 800 be such a milestone that it significantly influences our opinion of a coach’s career?

Other sports have their milestones and records that always come up when an elite player retires. Baseball has its 3000-hit club and the 500-home run club as marks of a truly great player; a player with 2,980 hits and 490 home runs is pretty darn good. But someone with 3,001 hits and 95 home runs? Well, he’s in the club.

If Barry Bonds hits seven more home runs, he’ll pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. Does this mean he’s now had a better career than Ruth? Babe Ruth hit those home runs 75 years ago, back when he was the first player to hit 40, 50, or 60 home runs in a single season. On the other hand, black players weren’t allowed in the major leagues during Ruth’s era. So how much does this mark really mean? Certainly not as much as some will have you believe.

In 1998, Nykesha Sales tore her achilles’ tendon when she was just one point shy of the University of Connecticut all-time scoring record. Since this record meant so much, the team arranged for her to hobble onto the court and shoot an uncontested lay-up at the start of the game against Villanova (Villanova then had an uncontested lay-up of their own to even the score before the real game started). Now, Sales’ picture is in the front of the “Records” section of UConn’s current media guide, with the caption “All-Time Scoring Leader.”

Whether Sales is really a better player than Kerry Bascom (the previous record holder) is up for debate, but why should Sales be given two free points to pass her? The record simply shouldn’t mean that much.

And neither should 800 wins. Fans and analysts alike need to keep that in mind, because his career will be no better or worse if his team gets him those six wins. Even if he is in the club.

Anders Larson Archive