Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tennessee Tech coach continues with team while fighting Guillain-Barré syndrome

From The NY Times:

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Sutton (pictured), the Tennessee Tech men’s basketball coach, could not grip a pen for a year, so he could not draw plays. The three months he spent on a ventilator robbed him of a loud voice, so it was difficult for him to command players. His legs were weak from nerve damage, so he could not stalk the referees on the sideline.

Some of the tasks vital to a basketball coach were an ordeal for Sutton, so how could he save his career after being struck by Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing neurological disorder?

The answer was obvious in a hotel meeting room at midnight Saturday. Former Tennessee Tech coaches and players were gathered around Sutton, talking the game. Sutton, whose legs are fitted with braces, should have been weary from a day that included practice, a game and an alumni function, but there he was enthusiastically talking basketball.

He was the one who turned off the light and pulled the door closed to that meeting room at 1 a.m., after everyone else had gone home.

“I have a passion for the game and coaching basketball,” Sutton said. “Along with my wife and my staff, it has seen me through tough times.”

Sutton, 53, grew up on Tobacco Road in North Carolina, idolizing Dean Smith. He coached at Kentucky with Tubby Smith. When you have been entwined with those meccas of college basketball, you do not have to explain yourself. Basketball is the essence of who Sutton is and how his career survives.

On April 10, 2005, just weeks after he was named coach of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference for leading the Golden Eagles to the regular-season title, Sutton was in Portsmouth, Va., where he found himself stumbling over his luggage in a hotel parking lot. He tried to refresh himself with a bottle of water, but he could not twist open the top. Twenty-four hours later, he lay in a hospital paralyzed and on a ventilator.

The diagnosis was Guillain-Barré, which strikes the nervous system and affects one in 100,000 people. Guillain-Barré has been likened to a mild polio, and the recovery can be complete or it can be incomplete, with some people left in wheelchairs and with permanent disabilities.

Sutton, who undergoes physical therapy, walks haltingly with a cane. His fingers are crooked and he has little muscle strength in his hands, but at least he has a grip again, on his program and on his pen. He uses a wheelchair on a ramp from the locker room to the court, then walks to the bench with his cane. He has his voice back, which means he can pour dissent into the ears of referees.

During a game, Sutton’s legs are Steve Payne, an assistant coach since Sutton took over the Tech program in 2002. Payne is frequently up off the bench, while Sutton will occasionally come off his stool, lean on his cane and chide an official or instruct a player.

Scott Taylor, who handles basketball operations, will move Sutton’s stool to the center of the bench at timeouts. Russ Willemsen, an assistant coach, has a hand up behind Sutton if he becomes unsteady.

During huddles for 30-second timeouts, Sutton will drape an arm over Payne or another assistant, Tommy Deffebaugh, and lean in close with his players to make a point.

“He’s never once said this is too much, I can’t handle it,” Payne said. “He’s strong, he’s the boss man. I’m up a lot, but it’s because we think alike and I know how he wants things done.”

Sutton does not claim that basketball saved his life. He reserves that medal for his wife, Karen. She goes with him on overnight recruiting trips and for road games. She had to nurse Sutton back to health and arrange for players and recruits to visit him in the rehabilitation clinic in the fall of 2005.

“The first time the kids came to the hospital, they were all terrified when they saw him,” Karen Sutton said.

The illness tested the couple’s relationship, particularly in 2006 on one of Sutton’s first long recruiting trips since becoming ill. They flew to Las Vegas and Karen drove a rented van from tournament to tournament in 118-degree heat. Sutton would roll out the door, watch a particular player for 30 minutes, then roll back in, and off they would race to another tournament site.

“That trip would have been a reason to get a divorce,” Karen said. For the time being, Sutton sends his assistants to Las Vegas.

It is not quite a made-for-Hollywood comeback because Tech has bumped down a few steps since Sutton became ill. The Golden Eagles beat Tennessee State, 61-56, on Saturday to even their record at 10-10, 4-5 in the conference. They have had two losing seasons in a row.

“It has restricted me, and maybe it played a negative part with recruiting a couple of years ago, but I’m evolving and adjusting as a coach, and we’re getting back to where we were,” Sutton said.

The junior guard Zac Swansey helped Sutton up the steps to Swansey’s Dunwoody, Ga., home on a recruiting visit in 2006. Swansey signed with Georgia, but when there was a coaching change there in 2009, he remembered Sutton’s toughness and knowledge of the game and transferred to Tech. He will be eligible next season.

Mark Wilson, Tennessee Tech’s athletic director, said that after Sutton became ill the university added a year to his contract, which expires after this season.

“If we don’t look at the human side, what do we look at?” Wilson said. “He’s been great for this community. He’s never asked for sympathy and that’s a good lesson for all of us.”

Sutton can attract rubberneckers, who are accustomed to seeing their ideal of a college basketball coach stamping the floor along the sideline. He just shrugs and says he does not have time to consider the picture of himself.

“After what we have been through, there is no need to be self-conscious,” Sutton said. “When you can’t scratch your nose and you are being fed through a tube and you have to train your bowels to work again, you don’t worry how you look with a cane.

“What happened to me is just the luck of the draw. Besides, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it. I’ve been blessed to be able to stay connected to the game.”