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.

Sutton prowls the USF sidelines.
Paul Trapani
Sutton prowls the USF sidelines.
USF athletics director Debra Gore-Mann has been a lightning rod for controversy on the Hilltop.
Paul Trapani
USF athletics director Debra Gore-Mann has been a lightning rod for controversy on the Hilltop.

"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."

Evans says Gore-Mann never said what cause she had to fire him, and that as far as he was concerned, he left her office as USF's basketball coach. He learned otherwise an hour or two later, he says, after news of Sutton's acceptance of the job scrolled across his TV screen as he watched ESPN.

It was clumsy for others, too.

"We were just kind of shocked," says star forward Dior Lowhorn, the leading scorer on the team and in the West Coast Conference, who also saw the news on TV. "Nobody sat down with us to tell us what happened, or why. Coach was just gone."

Sutton flew from his home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to join the team in Utah the next day for a game against Weber State. He assembled the squad in a hotel conference room and introduced himself. "There wasn't really any kind of big speech, or explanation about what was going on," Lowhorn says. "He just said he was here to coach us and that he looked forward to getting to know us and see us play."

Sutton's first game was inauspicious. The team lost, but Sutton didn't coach much that night. Nor did former University of South Florida head coach Robert McCollum, whom Sutton had brought in as an assistant as part of the deal with Gore-Mann. Neither man was yet familiar with USF's plays, or even who the team's three-point shooters were.

Instead, the coaching was left to Evans' holdover assistants, especially his top assistant, David Grace. It was a minor miracle that Grace was even able to get on the court that night. Gore-Mann's handling of the reshuffle had almost left the team without the services of the man who had done more than anyone to prepare the team for its first game without Evans.

To make room for McCollum on the staff (the NCAA allows no more than three assistant coaches), Gore-Mann had demoted Grace to director of basketball operations. But under NCAA rules, that director can't coach from the bench.

Sources close to the athletics department say that to get around the rules, Gore-Mann made a long-distance decision. She revoked Grace's demotion — until after the game in Utah. About a week later, Grace, formerly a highly successful Phoenix high school coach who has known Evans since his days at the University of Arizona in the '90s, was put on leave of absence until his one-year contract expires in May and was essentially told to go home, according to two of his former colleagues.

Grace's treatment also caused a stir among Gore-Mann's critics, who questioned why Sutton was allowed to bring McCollum as an assistant, and why, despite being Evans' top aide, Grace was relieved of his duties. One possible explanation, those who know the men say: Of the two assistants who were retained, Mike Quick is a former USF player and member of the school's sports hall of fame. The other, Chris Farr, is a longtime friend of Gore-Mann's husband, Anthony Mann, himself a former USF basketball player.

As for Evans' claims, three people told SF Weekly that they spoke to the ousted head coach within hours of his meeting with Gore-Mann and that he gave them similar accounts. Art Zief, the Evans supporter and university benefactor, says Evans called him within minutes of the meeting. "He said, 'She's trying to get me to lie and say I want a leave of absence, and I refused to do it,'" he recalls.

Gore-Mann, meanwhile, insists that she and Evans worked out a leave, which she says is applicable until the end of the season. "That's what Coach Evans and I agreed to," she says, adding that it would be inappropriate to say anything more about a "personnel matter."

Whether Evans agreed to the leave, or whether it was imposed upon him, it creates a huge complication for both Gore-Mann and the USF basketball program. That's because, since Evans is still under contract, Gore-Mann is in no position, publicly at least, to offer the job to anyone else. Even so, sources close to the university say that USF has flirted with several prospective replacements, including University of Washington assistant Cameron Dollar and former Golden State Warriors coach Eric Musselman.

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