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 www.donscentral.com, 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."