When Oral Roberts University hired Scott Sutton in 1999, he was just 28 years old, the youngest D1 head basketball coach in the country. He inherited a team that had achieved moderate success in the past (once making an Elite Eight) and steadily molded them into a perennial Summit League favorite, ripping off an 11-year streak of winning seasons, making the NCAA tournament three times in a row, and upsetting Kansas in Lawrence in 2006. He coached the team for 18 seasons and is the winningest coach in school history. ORU is a tiny school in Tulsa, named after its televangelist founder, and while Sutton never achieved success on a national scale, his teams outperformed their circumstances.
However, Sutton’s teams have sputtered in recent years and after two straight losing seasons, including a dreadful 9-22 campaign in 2016–17, the school fired him last night. Sutton’s departure is not too surprising given his team’s declining performance, but the circumstances surrounding his firing show that there’s more to the shitcanning than performance.
According to reports from the Tulsa World and local TV station KTOV, the school’s July 2013 hiring of new university president Billy Wilson spelled the beginning of the end for Sutton. Wilson reportedly told Sutton he had to adhere more closely to the school’s evangelist roots, and would only be allowed to sign players without tattoos. Incoming players would also have to pass a “faith exam,” and prove their Christian bona fides.
Sutton, the son of legendary former Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, apparently complied with his boss’s directive, and in the four years since the team has spiraled in the Summit League standings. According to the reports, Wilson had been looking for a reason to fire Sutton, and after this season he gave him an ultimatum: Either fire your brother (lead assistant Sean) or we’ll fire you.
Former ORU coach, and current Kansas coach Bill Self, brought Sutton onto his staff in 1995. Last month he criticized the recruiting hurdles placed in front of Sutton, and a horde of former players also defended Sutton.
According to the World, he found out that he’d been fired while he was attending his daughter’s tennis match. Neither Wilson nor athletic director called him before news broke. Sutton turned down bigger jobs at schools like Creighton to stay at ORU, but once he failed to succeed, in large part because of internally-imposed barriers, the school had no problem firing him.