Late Hall of Fame coach Eddie Sutton grew legend with win over Michael Jordan and No. 1 North Carolina

Joe Kleine’s first memory of Feb. 12, 1984, is inside Dallas’ Anatole Hotel.

The 6-foot-11 center watched a half hour of film with coaches before he got his ankles taped. He put on his Arkansas warmups. He walked through the hotel’s lobby and got on the team bus headed to the airport for a chartered flight.

Kleine had no clue he was just hours from winning the biggest game in Arkansas program history.

“Landed in Pine Bluff, walked over to the bus, got on the bus, went to the Convention Center, threw our stuff in the locker room, went into layup line and beat an undefeated, No. 1-ranked team in the country,” Kleine said.

“Looking back, it was amazing how that all transpired.”

On that cold, stormy day 36 years ago, Eddie Sutton became an Arkansas legend. His Razorbacks beat Michael Jordan and red-hot North Carolina in front of a capacity crowd in Pine Bluff’s Convention Center.

A week after Sutton’s death at 84 years old, the Hall of Fame coach remains celebrated across the country. He won 806 games, coached in three Final Fours and took four programs to the NCAA Tournament.

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Before he became an Oklahoma State legend and Hall of Famer, Sutton took down arguably the game’s greatest player of all time with little preparation.

Arkansas beat talent-rich North Carolina 65-64 on Charles Balentine’s 5-foot jumper with 4 seconds remaining.

“They were loaded,” said Jimmy Dykes, who was on the bench as a player that day. “But I tell people all the time: They didn’t have Eddie Sutton.

“We had good players, too. It just came down to that belief in him, that belief in how we played the game, there was never any question in how we were supposed to play and that was a phenomenal, phenomenal Sunday afternoon in Pine Bluff.”

•••

When Eddie Sutton arrived in Fayetteville in 1974, Arkansas’ basketball program was an afterthought.

Football was the big show in town.

The Razorbacks’ football team actually used Barnhill Arena as a practice facility. A sawdust workout area for football players and a dirt track surrounded the court in the center of the arena.

“There was no one in that building that first year,” Dykes said.

But Sutton made Barnhill Arena valuable property with his fierce competitiveness and defensive mentality.

The Hogs went 36-18 the first two seasons. “The Triplets” — Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer — combined to become a force.

In 1976-77, Arkansas lost just twice, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first of nine straight seasons. By the next season, Barnhill Arena seats were prime real estate as Arkansas made the Final Four.

“It was the biggest show on earth in this state,” Dykes said. “He became literally like a rockstar in this state because of what he did with that basketball program.”

•••

Arkansas players and coaches just wanted to wrap up a long road trip.

The Razorbacks won 59-58 at Southwestern Conference rival Texas A&M on Feb. 9. Two days later, Arkansas won another conference game at SMU.

A neutral-site game against undefeated North Carolina awaited the next day.

But storms in Arkansas that night led Sutton to elect to stay in Dallas one more night. The team would prepare for the game in their hotel the next morning before a shaky flight home in stormy weather.

“Coming in, there were a couple guys who got sick,” Kleine said.

There was no specific strategy for defending Michael Jordan. It was Sutton and his coaches saying, “You got him, you got him, you got him, you got him,” to different players in pregame.

Sutton wasn’t changing his philosophy for one player.

“First of all, we could have spent more days on strategizing for Michael Jordan and it wouldn’t have helped,” said Kleine, who later played with Jordan in the 1997-98 NBA season. “Coach Sutton wasn’t a big game-plan guy, change things up.

“That’s why he was such a great coach. He would change based on his personnel how he would coach and prepare his team for the year. But he’s not going to all of a sudden play 40 minutes of zone and trapping because he thinks that can win that game.”

Arkansas led most of the game, including by as much as 10 in the second half. It was Jordan who gave North Carolina its first lead of the second half. He made a short jumper with 1:13 remaining.

Eddie Sutton, seen here in 1995, was head coach at Arkansas from 1974-85. (Photo: ANNE RYAN, USA TODAY Sports)

The Razorbacks called timeout with 29 seconds remaining. The designed play was for Alvin Robertson to attack the basket. He did but at the last second he dumped a pass to Charles Balentine, who buried the baseline jumper with 4 seconds remaining.

Steve Hale took North Carolina’s final desperation shot, but it hit off the rim and fans erupted onto the court.

On national television, Dick Enberg called the celebration, “Pandemonium in Pine Bluff!”

“When I put it up, I just hoped and prayed it would go in,” Balentine said that day. “When I got the ball, I was surprised for a moment, but everybody should be looking for the ball when Alvin has it, because he’s such a great passer.”

The victory remains the lone win over an AP No. 1-ranked opponent in Arkansas’ program history.

“That game was about us and how we played,” Dykes said. “It was one of those magical moments. Razorback basketball was lifted up, man.”  

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