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Opinion: Scott Sutton’s firing raises questions about the future of Oral Roberts athletics

Sutton spent 18 years as the Oral Roberts head coach.

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When the news broke on Monday that Oral Roberts head coach Scott Sutton would be fired, it came as a bit of a shock to the program. Sutton had a been a staple on the sidelines since his hiring in 1999, and guided Oral Roberts through a period of sustained success.

However, after finishing with a record of 8-22 -- the program’s second consecutive losing season -- one might think that the move was being made because Sutton simply wasn’t getting the results that he once was. There is a reason for the decline in performance, though.

According to a report by Tulsa World, a potential cause of the decline in success was due to recruiting restrictions placed on Sutton by university president Billy Wilson in 2013. The report says that when Wilson was hired, he gave the program a guideline stating that “ORU would only attempt to recruit professed Christians.”

Oral Roberts is an interdenominational Christian university founded by the evangelist Oral Roberts in 1963. To say that religion plays a major role in the university is an understatement. But should a basketball program be restricted to only recruiting players whose religious ideologies align with those of the university? That’s the million dollar question.

Before Wilson became president, Sutton, by all accounts, cultivated a program that represented the university well. He recruited good kids who were academically acceptable, and hoped that they would be a good fit for the culture of the program. He led the Golden Eagles to 12 consecutive winning seasons, including three-straight NCAA Tournaments and an upset of Kansas in the vaunted Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

But when Wilson was named president and the recruiting restrictions were placed, the available talent pool significantly decreased. It showed on the court as Oral Roberts went 58-70 in the four years following Wilson’s hiring. The rosters were significantly less talented than their predecessors, and it was clear that Wilson’s requirements were taking a toll on the program.

Deadspin reported that some of the guidelines that Sutton would have to adhere to are as follows:

  • To try to align more closely with the school’s evangelical roots
  • To only sign recruits that did not have any tattoos
  • For incoming players to take a “Faith exam” to prove their Christianity

Now, as extreme as they may seem, these guidelines could be fair for an incoming coach. But for a coach that was there long before the guidelines were set, these are hardly fair. Sutton had built the program up through the decade, and all of that progress was impeded when he had to completely change how the program was run.

Since Oral Roberts is a private university, the details of Sutton’s contract are not available to the public. The Tulsa World reports that it is believed that there were two years remaining on his contract, and that he could be owed a pretty hefty buyout. To fire a coach of Sutton’s longevity shows that there was a major rift between Wilson and the program.

The decision to fire Sutton was not well received by some of his former players:

Both Niles and Morrison shared more of their thoughts on their Twitter accounts, and the backlash from former players is real. They loved coach Sutton, and believe he got a raw deal from Wilson and the university. And, let’s be real, he did.

For now, it’s unclear how both Sutton and Oral Roberts will move on from here. Sutton previously turned down other job offers to stay at ORU, and it is the only school that he’s ever coached. Like his players have said, Scott Sutton is Oral Roberts basketball.

For the university and the program, it now has a vacant head coaching position that is going to be one of the more toxic positions in the country. What coach is going to want to coach there when they’re restricted so much? Why would they want to coach at a school that so willingly fired one of the longest-standing members of the program? And how can they be competitive when they’re at a significant disadvantage in terms of recruiting?

Or maybe you go an extreme route. Why even sponsor Division I athletics if you’re going to severely limit what a coach can do? Every program and team will face an uphill battle because of an uneven playing field that is brought on by the administration. Whether those restrictions are right or not isn’t the point. The school can do what it wants. But as a result, the quality of the team will probably dwindle, so will attendance, and, consequently, so will funds. So what’s the point of having Division I athletics? Why bother setting up your teams, coaches, athletes, and fans up for failure?

These are all questions that are going to need answered by Billy Wilson and the athletic department, and the answers won’t come easy. But there is one answer we know for sure, and it’s that Oral Roberts basketball will not be the same without Scott Sutton on the sidelines.