By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"We understood that Ole Miss had the notoriety as the most racist university in the nation," Carolyn Evans says, "and we were keenly aware that part of the reason that my husband was going where he was going was because of the sacrifices that people made in Mississippi."
As for the basketball, she adds, "It wasn't just about cultivating a team. You had to cultivate an administration, because they really didn't care about basketball. The fans didn't even know when or how to applaud. You couldn't start more from scratch than we did down there."
Ole Miss hadn't gotten to the NCAA tournament since 1980 – its sole appearance. Attendance at the team's games was pitiful.
Rob Evans' first hire at the university was Russ Pennell, with whom he'd worked at Oklahoma State. Pennell was a focused young coach who'd played college ball with future NBA great Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas. Other than the vagaries of skin color and place of birth – Pennell is a white guy from Pittsburg, Kansas – the men were kindred spirits, sharing a passion for basketball, family, church and competition.
"Our thinking on basketball and life is similar," says Pennell, a Renaissance man who has recorded a CD of original Christian music. "He spoke of this new adventure, and I said yes. From that point, he's been Coach to me, not Rob."
Early on in Oxford, Pennell recalls, locals would approach him to discuss his boss. "I'd have white people bait me, dare me to say something bad about Coach. Like, He really does seem articulate,' as if that were a surprise. I'd say, What are you implying?' That might end it right there."
After his first year, Evans hired Dan O'Dowd as another assistant. The Colorado native won over the coach with his enthusiasm and attention to detail. Both Pennell and O'Dowd later would join Evans at ASU, along with fellow assistant Tony Benford.
At the start, Evans' players at Ole Miss were short on talent, but willing to fight like junkyard dogs on the court, whatever the score. After four years there, his record was a lousy 44-65, but the team was showing improvement each season.
As the Rebels' basketball program inched upward, Rob and Carolyn Evans became an unlikely star couple in Oxford, mostly for their bona fide commitment to academics and community activities. Famed Oxford-based writers Willie Morris and John Grisham befriended them. (Years later, the couple hung a plaque in their Ahwatukee home with the names and photos of the 23 players who earned their diplomas after playing for Evans at Mississippi.)
Improbably, the Ole Miss basketball team then became the toast of Oxford, consistently selling out the 8,500-seat arena, as Evans took his final two teams there to the NCAA tournament.
After the Rebels' success in the 1996-97 season, Louisiana State offered Evans its head coaching job. He says the total salary package was about $800,000 annually, about $500,000 a year more than he was making by then at Mississippi.
Almost everyone, including Evans' assistants, thought he'd move on. He didn't.
"Our work wasn't done yet, and it just didn't feel right," he says. "Money is nice, but it's not always about dollars and cents."
In his six seasons in Oxford, Evans slowly had reshaped one of major college basketball's worst programs into a perennial March Madness participant. More important to posterity, he'd done this as the Rebels' first black basketball coach.
But after what turned out to be his final season at Ole Miss – which included the program's first win at Kentucky since 1927 – Evans got an offer he couldn't refuse.
Years earlier, he'd told his wife after coaching a game at ASU that he'd love to coach there someday. In 1998, he got that chance.
On April 7, 1998, ASU announced the hiring of Rob Evans as its new basketball coach at a five-year salary of about $450,000. (The coach makes much more than that through his basketball camps, shoe deals, radio deals and other incentives.)
What Evans promised at his first press conference in Tempe was to restore a sense of pride and decency to a program that had become a national embarrassment: Point-shaving scandals, criminal indictments and other disgraces had led to the end of previous coach Bill Frieder's mercurial eight-year stint.
Just like at Ole Miss, the rebuilding Sun Devils had some bright moments on the court in Evans' first four years, including a stunning home win last season against powerful University of Arizona.
More often than not, his players just weren't good enough to get the job done consistently, compiling a 60-60 record in that time.
But Evans has done exactly what he promised to do since the first day – to keep vigil on the young men in his program, to instill in them a sense of pride and discipline on and off the court, and to field an increasingly competitive team.
In other words, Rob Evans has been himself.
Shortly after last season ended with a 14-15 record, the University of New Mexico offered Evans its head coaching job. The financial package would have guaranteed the coach almost $5 million over seven years, a few million more than what he'd make if he stayed at ASU during the same period of time.