FARGO -- Back when I was much younger and was able to sprint, jump and cut without hurting myself, I thought I was a decent basketball player. But that inflated self-evaluation took a beating whenever I played against Richie Smith.
Whether it was in city league or pickup games, I hated it when Smith guarded me. The Wahpeton, N.D., attorney smothered me … to the point that I simply surrendered and passed the ball away.
I discovered firsthand what it was like to play against a guy who played major college basketball for a team that played in the NCAA Division I Tournament. Smith, who grew up in the small town of Campbell, Minn., located a few miles from Wahpeton, became a co-captain for the 1974 Creighton men's basketball team that would have advanced to the Sweet 16 had it not been for a last-second shot.
Smith played for a young coach by the name of Eddie Sutton, who would later become a college coaching legend.
Last Friday, at the age of 68, Smith passed away from complications of a rare neurodegenerative condition. One day later, at the age of 84, Sutton passed away after battling declining health for the last few years.
The two were meant for each other.
Sutton, who just two months ago was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, taught his teams the three D's of basketball: Discipline, dedication and defense.
Smith, who went to Creighton as a walkon after being an all-stater at St. John’s Prep in Collegeville, Minn., eventually earned a scholarship and earned the nickname "The Stopper." As a 6-foot-1 guard, Smith didn’t score much, but was Creighton’s best defensive player.
In an article that was published in the Wahpeton Daily News a few years ago, Smith had this to say about Sutton:
“The day I came to campus, before I even unpacked, Eddie was in my room. He said ‘Get your shoes, we’re going to the gym.’ That’s the way it was.
“It was hard playing for Eddie. We didn’t have the talent that other teams had, so we just didn’t make mistakes.”
Smith, the walkon, played on Creighton’s freshman team that included six scholarship players. During Smith’s next two seasons, Creighton posted back-to-back 15-11 records — including a 78-77 win over No. 7-ranked Houston. As a senior co-captain, Smith played with players from Pittsburgh, New York City, Indianapolis, Chicago, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, California and Kansas.
After starting that season with a 5-4 record, Creighton won 16 of its next 17 games. Creighton made its first appearance in the Associated Press national poll with a No. 17 ranking, earned its first NCAA Tournament bid in 10 years and ended the season with a 23-7 record — the fourth best mark in school history.
That was the year Creighton posted convincing wins over lower-division schools like South Dakota State, Augustana, St. Cloud State and St. Thomas. It’s biggest regular-season win came with a 75-69 victory at No. 6-ranked Marquette.
In the NCAA Tournament, which invited only 25 teams back then, Creighton posted a 77-61 opening-round win over Texas. In the next round, the Blue Jays suffered that 55-54 last-second loss to No. 14-ranked Kansas before posting a region consolation-round win over No. 16 Louisville.
Those last two games were played in the Mabee Center in Tulsa, Okla. — where Sutton’s son, Scott, would coach Oral Roberts from 1999 to 2017. That included the 2007-08 season when North Dakota State played its first Summit League game in the Mabee Center against Oral Roberts.
The Bison may have lost that game. But Eddie Sutton, who was watching a few rows behind his son and the Oral Roberts bench, was impressed with an NDSU team that would eventually reach the school’s the first NCAA Tournament the following season. He told the Bison players they were one of the best teams to have played in the Mabee Center in the last five years.
Eddie Sutton knew what he was talking about. From 1969 to 2007 as a college head coach, he won 806 games. He took Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament — including three Final Four appearances.
Scott Sutton, who won 328 games at Oral Roberts, is now an assistant coach at Oklahoma State where his father’s career ended.
While the Sutton coaching tradition lived on, Smith graduated from Creighton with a degree in history and then earned his law degree at Creighton in 1977. He eventually formed his own law firm (Smith & Strege) in 1981 in Wahpeton. Smith served on the North Dakota Board of Higher Education from 2005 to 20012 before retiring in 2013.
Last Saturday, Scott Sutton and his two brothers were at Eddie’s bedside in his Tulsa, Okla., home where he passed away.
The day before, Smith’s wife Ann and their five children were at his bedside at their Otter Tail Lake (Minn.) home where he passed away. Tuesday, May 26, from 3 to 5 p.m., there will be a drive-by funeral parade on Augustana Drive on Otter Tail Lake followed by a boat parade from 5 to 6 p.m. in front of the family lake home.
May ‘The Stopper’ and the coach who gave him a chance rest in peace.