History was made as Steve Payne was introduced as the 12th head coach in Tech men’s basketball history Wednesday, the same day that former men’s coach Mike Sutton announced his retirement. Payne previously served on Sutton’s staff as the associate head coach. Effective April 30, Payne will take of the day-to-day operations of the team. However, Payne is no stranger to that situation, as he has stepped into Sutton’s role multiple times during the past few years.
“I’m obviously excited about this opportunity,” Payne said. “I’m thankful to coach Sutton for bringing me here to Tennessee Tech, and to President Bell and Mark Wilson for this opportunity.
“I’ve always taken ownership of this program,” Payne said. “It’s different suggesting to the head coach what you think is best for the program and being the one with the final say, but I feel I’m prepared for this. I’ve done this before.”
Payne took over for Sutton in the head coach role twice this past season when Sutton couldn’t make road trips because of increased symptoms of Guillian-Barré Syndrome, which Sutton has coached with for the past six seasons. Sutton listed his recent flare-ups as a cause for his retirement.
“[The team] has been successful, and I want to make sure that I do what’s appropriate,” Sutton said. “My top concern is my players and my staff, and I didn’t want to start something that I couldn’t finish.”
Sutton said that he and his wife, Karen, had discussed the matter and made the decision that was best for his family, no matter how hard it was.
“I was concerned that my health issues might be more limiting and possibly a distraction to our team’s dynamics,” he added. “Lengthy discussions with our children led us to the conclusion that retirement is the best option for us.
Currently the second-longest tenured coach in the Ohio Valley Conference, Sutton came to Tech in 2002 after serving as an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky. In his first year, he led Tech to third place in the OVC regular season and the championship game at the OVC Tournament, finishing the year with a 20-12 record.
With only the fourth 20-win mark in the program’s history, he became the most successful first-year men’s basketball head coach on the school record books.
For the 2004-05 season, Sutton was named OVC Coach of the Year after his Golden Eagles captured the OVC regular season championship and posted an 18-11 overall mark.
Following the team’s 19-12 record in 2005-06 while he recovered from GBS, Sutton was presented with the Most Courageous Award by the United States Basketball Writers’ Association. He was also the recipient of the 2006 Kaia Jergenson Courage Award from the Nashville Sports Council.
“I’ve learned that having a physical disability doesn’t prevent someone from doing things,” he said. “Limitations don’t limit what you can achieve.”
Coach Payne was quick to speak about how grateful he was to Sutton for bringing him to Tech nine years ago.
“Spending nine years around Coach Sutton will be a huge benefit,” Payne said. “He’s a very knowledgeable coach. We’ve been through a lot, and I’m ready to take the next challenge. I want to face what’s ahead of us.
“I appreciate and will always owe a debt of gratitude to Mike Sutton for bringing me here,” Payne said. “The lessons I’ve learned from him over the last nine years cannot be measured. He has taught me so many things, but the main thing is that a basketball program should be about relationships first.
“The relationships we have with each other, and with our community, are what make a basketball program special.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be representing a university community and a man in Coach Sutton who has handled a very tough situation with such class and poise. I will do my very best to make him and our entire Tech family proud.”
Tech Director of Athletics Mark Wilson was also quick to reference Sutton’s success, on and off of the court.
“There’s a lot that we can learn from Mike Sutton,” Wilson said, “especially about overcoming obstacles. Mike has been a successful coach during his tenure at Tennessee Tech. He has embraced our philosophy of the student-athlete experience relative to academic success, athletic competition and the development of the total person.
“Mike has been an excellent ambassador for athletics and the University, and has always put the best interest of the program before himself.”
Wilson was equally excited about Payne and what he can do for the program, indicating that his previous experience with the team would go a long way to helping him in the future.
“Steve Payne has been a tremendous part of the success of Golden Eagle basketball over the last nine years,” Wilson said. “He has been extremely loyal to coach Sutton, the basketball program and the University. He has taken on whatever leadership role we’ve asked of him and had success in those roles.
“He is the right coach to take the foundation that has been laid and build upon it to propel Golden Eagle basketball to greater heights,” Wilson continued. “We believe Steve will be a very popular choice with our fan base, and he has been recognized nationally as an up-and-coming young coach.
Coach Payne said the first steps he’ll make in the coming weeks will be towards increasing recruiting and increasing community interest in the team.
“I want to sell our program,” Payne said. “I want our fans to be as passionate about our team and our school as I am. If we can do that, we’ll be okay. I want people to invest in this program. We have everything in place to be successful, and we’re excited about moving forward.”
Payne began his career at Tech after serving as the head coach at Frank Phillips Junior College in Borger, Texas. Prior to taking the reins at Frank Phillips JC, Payne was associate head coach for four years at Georgetown (Ky.) College.
During his time at Georgetown, the Tigers compiled a 128-22 record, won three conference titles in four years, and won the NAIA national title in 1997-98. The team finished second at the NAIA National Tournament in 1999-00, and advanced to the Sweet 16 two other years.
Payne also served as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Northwestern State (La.) University, where he helped NSU to its best conference finish in a decade.
Before NSU, he was an assistant coach at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., where he was recruiting coordinator and helped lead the team to back-to-back 20-win seasons.
“I also want to thank all the people involved in Tennessee Tech athletics, from the players to the staff, for the support they’ve shown,” Payne said. “I’m extremely excited for all of them to see the future of Tennessee Tech basketball.