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Another complication has damaged Gore-Mann's credibility in the eyes of some boosters: While she has insisted that she turned to Sutton only after Evans requested a leave, there is evidence to suggest that she was intent on pushing Evans out well before the events of Dec. 26.
Gore-Mann has acknowledged having talked with Sutton before that date, but says it was merely to discuss long-term prospects for the USF basketball program, and denies that she was shopping Evans' job. She says she was put in contact with Sutton by mutual friends David and Dana Pump, brothers from the Los Angeles area who run Amateur Athletic Union basketball camps for prospective college athletes and who have strong ties within the college coaching fraternity.
(Those ties do not equate to a sterling reputation. The Pumps have long been criticized in the national media for accepting highly coveted NCAA tournament tickets obtained from college coaches who have a vested interest in recruiting prospective star athletes who participate in the Pumps' programs. Coaches receive a certain amount of tickets to tournament games each year. Under current NCAA rules, it is not illegal for coaches to give them away or to sell them at face value to friends or athletics boosters. In published interviews, the Pumps have always denied that the practice constitutes a conflict of interest.)
On Dec. 18, when Evans and the Dons traveled to Southern California to play Long Beach State, Gore-Mann also made the trip. She acknowledges having met with the Pumps while there, but refuses to say whether they discussed Sutton. Dana Pump similarly declines to comment on the brothers' role in helping bring Sutton to San Francisco.
Sutton, in apparent deference to his boss, also refuses to say much about when he and Gore-Mann first talked about his stepping in, or about the Pumps' role. The coach says that he was in Los Angeles on a "business venture," and went to the Long Beach State game at the invitation of a friend without even knowing that USF was the opponent. "I just like to see basketball wherever I happen to be," he says.
Others say Gore-Mann's flirtations with getting rid of Evans go back to at least last summer. Businessman Larry Blum, a Dons player in the 1960s and an active booster, says he approached her in September with an offer to raise the funds necessary to buy out Evans' contract, and that she was receptive to the idea, even offering to meet with prospective donors.
"Then I said, 'Put it in writing,' because I'm not going to do this and have my people commit," Blum recalls. "I'm not going to raise $750,000 and not have something in writing."
Instead, Blum says the buyout idea fizzled after Gore-Mann e-mailed him the next day indicating that she was "not directing [him] toward any proposed funding toward any projects at this time. ... If I have implied something else to you, I apologize."
Asked about the matter, Gore-Mann says, "That would be discussing somebody's contract or performance evaluation. It's all part of personnel matters."
Whether because of bad luck or Evans' propensity to take risks in recruiting players who were academically marginal, even his detractors believe his teams would have won big had he been able to retain some of the considerable talent he assembled. For example, two prized recruits from last year, Andre Hardy of San Diego, and the East Bay's Wendell McKines, the Chronicle's Bay Area high school player of the year, failed to qualify academically at the university. McKines is now a starter at New Mexico State, while Hardy plays for Sutton's son, Scott, at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.
Star scorer Antonio Kellogg, a heralded transfer from the University of Connecticut who would have been a junior this season, dropped out of school to play pro ball in Europe last summer after a history of off-the-court disciplinary problems.
Evans' critics say he took too many chances on talented athletes like Kellogg, whose odds of sticking with the program were iffy at best.
Yet others say that some of USF's personnel woes clearly weren't of Evans' making, and fault Gore-Mann for meddling with the coach's players. In the case of player Jesse Byrd, who transferred to UC Santa Barbara last year, sources say that Gore-Mann undermined Evans' authority after Byrd's mother — best-selling erotica author Mary "Honey B." Morrison — complained about her son's lack of playing time.
The women's public friendship — they often sat together at home games and traveled to at least one road game together — was "incongruous at best," says a former athletics department employee, considering the vociferous manner in which Morrison criticized the basketball program under Evans' direction.
And there was Jay Watkins, a highly recruited player from Tennessee. Several athletics department sources say that Gore-Mann undercut Evans by privately offering to sign transfer papers for Watkins last year after he became disgruntled over not playing as much as he thought he should as a freshman. "It was entirely inappropriate to go behind the coach's back and communicate with a player in that way," says a former assistant coach, who asked not to be identified.