Pin It

The USF Dons Have Gone from National Champs to National Chumps 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2008

It's a gloriously sunny afternoon, and Eddie Sutton has slipped away from his tomblike office at the University of San Francisco to return a phone call from the relative quiet of the lobby inside the aging War Memorial Gymnasium.

The call is to a sportswriter: Who else? And the chatter is about Sutton's 800th career victory as a college basketball coach, on the road at Pepperdine the week before: What else?

"It was a thrill and an honor," says the 71-year-old former coach of Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oklahoma State, for the umpteenth time. The legendary coach, who was improbably tapped midseason as USF's interim replacement for the unceremoniously deposed Jessie Evans, is plopped on a plastic chair next to a trophy case in the gym lobby. Students and others glide past him without appearing to notice.

But not so college basketball's beat writers, who have followed Sutton's every move since he turned up in San Francisco in late December in pursuit of the landmark win (he's now at 801 and counting), two years after resigning from Oklahoma State following a much-publicized alcohol-related car accident.

Hunched over and in pain from the same bad back he says caused him to fall off the wagon in 2006, Sutton, who had never even set foot on the USF campus before being named interim coach, clearly relishes his comeback. Although much of his coaching, at practices and during games, is from a chair, he's as animated as if his lowly Dons — struggling to avoid the cellar in the West Coast Conference — were among the several elite teams he led to the NCAA tournament's Final Four. It's a last call, of sorts, for the man who — since Bobby Knight unexpectedly quit at Texas Tech a few weeks ago — has the most victories of any active college coach.

Sutton's unlikely reprise has placed the school's once-proud basketball program, which claimed back-to-back national championships in the 1950s during the golden era of Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, in an unaccustomed spotlight. But these are far from happy days on the Hilltop, as USF's scenic campus is affectionately known.

Indeed, the hoopla over Sutton has masked deep discontent among influential alumni and donors of the athletics program, unhappy over the manner and timing of Evans being jettisoned, and its potential effect on important efforts to recruit top-quality basketball players to a program that is clearly faltering. Sutton's abrupt appearance as a temporary figurehead — while garnering more than its share of media interest — raises questions about the future of the school's basketball program, critics say.

Much of that discontent centers on USF's new athletics director, Debra Gore-Mann, whose inconsistent explanations for the circumstances surrounding Evans' departure 12 games into the season, and her bringing in of Sutton, has outraged a significant portion of USF's loyal and vociferous fan base.

"This whole Sutton thing has turned the basketball program into a circus," says Art Zief, a longtime booster who has given millions of dollars to USF, and whose wife's name adorns the university's law library. "The program has become a laughingstock."

Evans was in his fourth season at USF, and has two and a half years remaining on a contract that pays him $250,000 a year. Even among those unhappy with him after two straight losing seasons (he was 4-8 this season at the time of his dismissal), the manner and timing of his departure, and Gore-Mann's evasive efforts to explain it, have elicited anger and frustration from alumni and athletics donors.

"This is not something that you do and maintain stability with your basketball program," says longtime booster John Duggan, whose son played at USF in the 1990s. "It's terrible for recruiting [athletes], because how can you convince a kid to come here next year when no one has a clue who the next coach will be?"

Barring an issue of moral turpitude or a scandal that could jeopardize a school's standing with the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), which governs college sports, coaches aren't usually ousted during a season. "You don't get rid of someone midseason like that unless they've practically murdered someone," says Ricky Curotto, a multimillion-dollar donor to the athletics department and a member of the USF board of trustees.

Although Curotto and others are not critical of Sutton for taking the interim job, they fault Gore-Mann for not at least waiting until the season had ended to pull the plug on Evans. They are especially unhappy with the ham-fisted way she has attempted to explain Evans' departure and the similar manner in which she has described her pursuit of Sutton.

In announcing the coaching change on Dec. 26, Gore-Mann said that Evans had requested a leave of absence, and offered no specifics. Although it was widely understood that Evans' "leave" was code for his being out of a job, Gore-Mann raised eyebrows among dozens of boosters assembled before the Santa Clara game on Jan. 28 — a month into Sutton's tenure — after one of them asked how the search for a permanent coach was going.

"She said, 'There is no search. We have a coach in Jessie Evans,' and then she pretty much left the room," recalls Ken Simpson, who runs, a message board dedicated to USF basketball. "It was kind of stunning."

Yet there's perhaps a more fundamental problem to the "leave of absence" explanation: Jessie Evans says it isn't true.

Evans says he neither requested nor consented to a leave. He suspected his job was in jeopardy on Dec. 22, after receiving a message from one of Gore-Mann's subordinates while he and the team were in South Bend, Indiana, to play Notre Dame. The message instructed him to be in the AD's office at 8:30 a.m. the day after Christmas.

That meeting lasted only a few minutes. Evans says that Gore-Mann opened it by telling him that he was relieved of his duties as head coach.

"I said, 'Huh?' And that's when she presented me with a piece of paper and gave me an ultimatum," Evans recalls. "She said I could either take a leave of absence, saying that it was due to health or personal reasons, or that I would be fired with cause by 4 o'clock that afternoon."

About The Author

Ron Russell


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular