By Anna Pulley
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By Erin Sherbert
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."
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.
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.
Watkins' story remains contentious. Expected to be a difference-maker on this year's team, he was declared academically ineligible by the narrowest of margins for the start of the season. University sources say that he met the necessary grade-point requirement and was eligible to return after Dec. 12, but that the athletics department dragged its feet in seeing that his grades were posted in a timely fashion. As a result, Watkins missed four games over the December holidays, including the 8-point loss at Notre Dame that proved to be Evans' swan song.
Upon Sutton's arrival, the athletics office notified the new coaching regime that Watkins was eligible to suit up. By then, however, unknown to anyone at USF, Watkins had left the school and enrolled at a community college in Idaho, where, under NCAA rules, he could play immediately without having to sit out a year, thus ending his promising USF career.
Some within the USF athletics family are convinced that had Watkins remained on the team, the Dons' faltering win-loss record would have almost certainly gotten a boost. In any event, Evans was toast. Numerous sources say that Gore-Mann kept a "book" containing the coach's perceived shortcomings almost from the time she became athletics director, and appeared intent on getting rid of him.
If so, a little-noticed announcement in the spring of 2007. may have done its part to help things along: The basketball program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was slapped with two years' probation by the NCAA for violations dating to Evans' tenure there.
Evans' star player had played despite being academically ineligible during most of the 2003-2004 season, which was the coach's last at the school before landing the USF job, and one in which his team won 20 games and earned a coveted NCAA tournament bid. The governing agency chastised Louisiana-Lafayette officials, saying they should have known that the player's 12 hours of "correspondence courses" didn't meet eligibility standards.
As part of the punishment, 14 of Evans' victories were wiped off the books last year, and an embarrassing asterisk was inserted into the USF basketball guide.
The current disarray within the USF athletics program goes well beyond the brouhaha over the midseason coaching switcheroo and Gore-Mann's tenure. It has its roots in an embarrassing ticket-scalping episode under her predecessor, Bill Hogan. University officials are even now unwilling to discuss it, but SF Weekly has learned that it resulted in USF being privately reprimanded by the NCAA.
The scandal grew out of USF being chosen to host the 2006 NCAA West Regional men's basketball tournament at Oracle Arena (then called Oakland Arena). As host, the university was provided an allotment of 2,000 tickets, with a face value of $130 apiece. USF turned to area universities Sonoma State and San Jose State to distribute 500 tickets each, and thus share in the tournament revenue. Such gestures are not uncommon among schools, since one or the other, which may later host the event, might be expected to reciprocate.
But the athletics department's alleged mishandling of the remaining tickets landed USF in hot water with the NCAA. Instead of distributing the tickets themselves, USF athletics officials struck an unusual deal with Neil Slater, a Chicago ticket broker and friend of Evans', which allowed Slater the privilege of purchasing 1,000 tickets at face value plus $8 each for handling.
Soon thereafter, tournament tickets began popping up on the Internet at inflated prices of between $300 and $500 apiece.
In March 2006, the Chronicle reported that USF had changed part of its ticket marketing for the tournament after officials found it to be in conflict with NCAA guidelines. At the time, then–athletics director Hogan put an innocuous spin on the situation, insisting that the tickets offered for sale on the Internet were not part of the stock Slater was allowed to acquire, although neither Hogan nor anyone else associated with the department offered evidence to support the claim. (Neither Hogan nor Slater returned phone calls from SF Weekly seeking comment.)
Slater's firm, the Real Deal Company, runs a security service that provides bodyguard protection to several NBA athletes. People acquainted with Hogan and Slater say their friendship dates back to at least the 1990s, when Evans was an assistant coach at the University of Arizona. After Evans landed at USF, Slater became a fixture at USF basketball practices and at games. Also befriending Hogan, he was a basketball "sponsor," donating tens of thousands of dollars for the new electronic scorer's table installed during Evans' second year as coach, according to both a prominent USF booster as well as a former athletics department official.
Slater's special treatment with respect to the tournament tickets — from which he conceivably stood to earn several hundred thousand dollars — didn't fly with the NCAA.
When the matter became known, NCAA officials directed USF to remedy the matter, triggering an internal investigation and an effort by the university ostensibly to track down ticket purchasers using credit card numbers to reimburse them the difference between what they paid and the scalped price.
"Here you have a Jesuit school scalping Western regional basketball tickets through one of its own sponsors," says booster Larry Blum, one of those who complained about the incident. "The whole thing was really outrageous."
The scandal occurred in the spring of 2006; Gore-Mann didn't arrive on the job until August of that year. Sources close to the university say that at least partly owing to the episode, Hogan was quietly eased out as athletics director. He became athletics director at Seattle University (where USF president Stephen A. Privett Jr., then and now, serves on the board of regents) in June 2006.
Meanwhile, David Macmillan, USF's vice president for university development, to whom Hogan answered (and to whom Gore-Mann still does), professed little knowledge of the ticket episode. "That's an area of detail that I do not know much about; it occurred under someone else's watch," he says.
Yet, according to a confidential 2006 memo from Macmillan to the university's board of trustees, a copy of which was obtained by SF Weekly, Macmillan oversaw the school's initial investigation of the affair. In the memo, he acknowledged that "the NCAA promptly made it clear that this use of 'third parties' was not permissible," but insisted that USF had "recovered all unsold seats and sold them through the Public Lottery" and that no one at the university had "benefit[ed] personally."
However, a well-placed former USF insider with intimate knowledge of the NCAA's probe, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insists otherwise. Although university officials have implied that they accounted for all of the tickets Slater was allowed to purchase, the source says Slater returned only about 600 of the 1,000 tickets, and the university counted about 350 tickets that it got back from San Jose State's allotment against those given to Slater.
In the end, those familiar with the matter say, USF reached an accommodation with NCAA enforcement officers. In exchange for the university's not receiving a public reprimand, USF agreed to forgo its entire share of the ticket proceeds it would have otherwise received for hosting the tournament, and agreed to banish Slater for at least a year from involvement with the basketball program.
Asked specifically about those things, Macmillan told SF Weekly that he would have to "research the matter and get back with you." The next day, Gary McDonald, the university's vice president for public affairs, left a phone message on Macmillan's behalf: "The NCAA has not made the results of that investigation public, and that's not something we'll be talking about either."
The ticket mess wasn't the only scrape USF had with the NCAA. That summer, it was revealed that more than a dozen athletes, including several basketball players, had improperly used scholarship money to make purchases at the university bookstore. The university self-reported the violations, which it described as inadvertent, to the NCAA, blaming a computer system for failing to credit refunds to the athletics department for used books returned to the store by the athletes.
Instead, credits improperly went to the student-athletes, some of whom allowed others, including nonscholarship athletes, to use their university-supplied debit cards to buy books and supplies on the university's dime in violation of NCAA rules.
As self-punishment, USF required the athletes involved to miss one or more sporting events. For the 2006 season-opening basketball game at Fresno State, Evans' team dressed only six scholarship players.
The other fallout was that Gore-Mann, in one of her first moves as director, shoved aside popular longtime athletics department official Bill Nepfel, who had served as interim athletics director after Hogan left for Seattle. His supporters say he was unfairly blamed for the bookstore snafu. Although not accused of wrongdoing, Nepfel was assigned to "special projects" and given nothing to do in the department for nearly a year. (A similar fate befell longtime former sports information director Pete Simon.) Nepfel recently left to become director of athletics compliance at San Francisco State.
But if Gore-Mann's mission was to clean up the mess in the athletics department, her detractors remain unconvinced that she is the right person for the job. "She hasn't shown a great deal of capacity to communicate well with the fan base, and given the uproar over the basketball situation, that's definitely working against her," says Ricky Curotto, the university trustee.
In January, Curotto says he met with Gore-Mann at her invitation in what he interpreted as an effort on her part to reach out, but came away "with no more clarity about what her vision is for the [basketball] program than when I went in."
Some influential boosters say Gore-Mann's tenure began on the wrong foot, if for no other reason than the manner in which she was hired.
They insist that Macmillan, who was largely responsible for hiring her, misled them into believing that there would be a national search to replace Hogan, and then ended up "rubber-stamping" Gore-Mann's application without considering other candidates. "There was a search committee, but the selection process itself was a sham," recalls Jeff Nelson, the former women's volleyball coach at the school, who left to go to the University of New Mexico. "I know, because I was on the committee."
Gore-Mann, a former Stanford women's basketball star, had served as the number two to former athletics director Ted Leland at Stanford, including a year as interim director when he took a leave in the late '90s.
Her hire at USF as the school's first female athletics director was touted as a coup. But sources at the university say that, behind the scenes, her selection was fraught with drama. Numerous USF coaches and other faculty were displeased by what they had heard about her tenure at Stanford. They went to Macmillan, the university's chief fund-raiser, who had been placed over the athletics department about a year before Hogan's departure, to insist that he open the process and consider other candidates.
Gore-Mann's last months at Stanford were rocky at best. In June 2006, after being passed over for the athletics director job when Leland left to go to the University of the Pacific, she was demoted, surrendering her position as the school's top women's athletics supervisor.
At Stanford, she had been the target of a lawsuit by former athletics department bookkeeper Sheryl Kanzaki, who claimed that Gore-Mann had unfairly retaliated against her for disclosing alleged irregularities. Among other things, Kanzaki accused Gore-Mann of attempting to cover up an incident in which several Stanford football players were revealed to have taken prospective recruits to a San Francisco strip club using athletics department funds.
The university denied that Gore-Mann or anyone else in the department had acted improperly. But several of her former associates at Stanford said that the lawsuit, filed in late 2005, along with complaints from other subordinates, had damaged her career there. In March 2006, sources say Gore-Mann applied for the top women's athletics supervisor job at Santa Clara University, but wasn't chosen.
Then came Macmillan.
That same spring, USF officials contracted Leland to conduct a performance evaluation of the USF athletics department. Leland brought in Gore-Mann to do much of the work. It was during that process, sources say, that Macmillan became enamored of Gore-Mann's assessment of what was needed to turn around USF's financially struggling athletics program, and pushed for her hire without opening the process to competition. USF announced her appointment the same week that Stanford and Kanzaki settled the lawsuit, with the terms subject to a confidentiality agreement.
"The process was a huge mistake," says Rick Franceschini, an attorney and longtime USF booster. "It was a critical juncture for the athletics department, and it amounted to a lost opportunity."
Yet, despite the discontent surrounding Gore-Mann, one person appears solidly in her camp: university president Privett. Although he declined to be interviewed for this article, his office referred a reporter to McDonald, USF's vice president for public affairs, who issued the following statement: "Debra Gore-Mann is the person hired for the job, and Father Privett believes she is capable and competent."
The uncertainty remains over who will be USF's coach once Sutton leaves, to the consternation of the school's boosters, who fret that no effective recruiting can take place while the program is in limbo. Evans, while technically still the coach, refuses to say whether he may pursue legal action if matters are not settled to his satisfaction. Gore-Mann says only that the Evans issue "will be resolved after the season."
Meanwhile, even though he is — for a couple more weeks, at least — the face of USF basketball, Sutton clearly has no dog in the hunt when it comes to the controversy brewing around him. It's a fight from which the legendary coach is pointedly keeping his distance.
Although he acknowledges having met Evans a time or two — "probably through Lute [Olson] at Arizona" — Sutton declines to be drawn into a discussion about the deposed coach or the flak directed at Gore-Mann. His energy is focused on eking out a few more victories before this unlikeliest of USF experiments ends. (As of press time, Sutton was 3-12, with two regular season games plus at least one conference tournament game to play.)
"It's been fun," he says, even if it hasn't necessarily been easy. He says he's been living out of a suitcase at the Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf, has consumed too much fast food, and has spent too many 12-hour days inside War Memorial Gym. That schedule leaves little time for anything but work, and his faithful attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
"I really wouldn't have done this at all if it weren't for my sons," he says, a reference to Sean, the head coach at Oklahoma State, and Scott, the Oral Roberts coach. "The 800 wins thing — it was more important to them than it was to me. But I'm glad I did it."
And when it's over?
"I've told Debi [Gore-Mann] that I have some ideas about how they can improve their basketball program and that if she wants me to, after the season, I'll be glad to share them with the board of trustees or anyone else," he says.
But such advice won't include who the next coach should be.
“No, no, no,” Sutton insists. “That’s something they’re going to have to figure out for themselves.”