Rob Evans faces his basketball team in the locker room at Wells Fargo Arena.
It's mid-November, 10 days until opening night, and Arizona State University has just finished a dress rehearsal for the 2002-2003 season, an intersquad contest in which the prospective starters got thumped by the second team.
The head coach sits on a stool in the dimly lighted room and stares at his 17 players for what seems like a long time. Then his thoughts pour out in bursts, as he dissects each player's performance in the scrimmage.
He gets to Jamal Hill, a 6-5 junior-college transfer from the Bay Area with a sweet disposition and jump shot to boot.
"Jamal, you didn't run like you meant it all the time today," says Evans, who had watched the game from the stands with longtime assistant Russ Pennell, as the two other assistants, Tony Benford and Dan O'Dowd, did the bench coaching.
Hill's head sags, just a little.
"Keep your eyes on me, Jamal!" the coach tells him testily. "You want to play for me, that won't cut it. You can call home right after this, call your aunt. I promise she'll tell you, You all right baby, I still love you.' Even if you're sitting on the bench with me, she's gonna be saying the same thing, okay?"
Evans isn't picking on Hill he's stating facts.
Senior guard Curtis Millage speaks up, which in itself is noteworthy. As a junior-college transfer last season he said little, and moped when things didn't go his way. But he resolved over the summer to be a better teammate this year.
"Coach," he says, "I want you to tell them they don't have to be scared of you. To just have fun, smile and play, and that they'll be fine on this team."
The unexpected request raises a brief smile from Evans a rarity for him in the locker room.
"You afraid of me, Jamal?" he asks Hill.
"Nah, coach," Hill replies, shaking his head and smiling back. "I'm not scared of you."
Evans asks each player in turn the same question, and gets the same answer.
"I'm trying to figure out who's afraid of me," he says, his voice rising and palms upraised. "I'm a fighter. I'm fighting for you. I'm fighting for this program. I'm fighting for your futures. I'm into respect. I don't care about nothing else. I'm into this game for respect. Respect for the university, from the fans, from the other team. If I don't feel like I'm getting respect, I'll take on the whole world. That's just me."
With that, 56-year-old Robert Oran Evans has told his team what they need to know about his expectations of them, and something about his own extraordinary life as well.
On March 20, the ASU Sun Devils will play the Memphis Tigers in an NCAA first-round game in Oklahoma City. It marks the Devils' first national championship appearance in eight seasons, and the first in Evans' five years at the school.
This winning campaign has been due in large part to the sensational rise of 6-8 freshman Ikechukwa Somotochukwa Diogu, known as Ike. The 19-year-old son of Nigerian immigrants, Diogu's mature demeanor and intelligence on and off the court have made him seem like a brother from another planet.
But the Sun Devils have battled great off-court adversity, including injuries and academic issues involving key players. Evans says the challenges have topped anything he faced in 33 previous years of coaching, including five years in Tempe.
But his history, going back to his humble roots in Hobbs, New Mexico, says this: Rob Evans will fight to the end for those on his side and in his world, you're with him or against him.
Same goes for his straight-talking wife of 32 years, Carolyn, who also has approached life with a just-give-me-a-chance-to-show-you attitude. "Rob never wavers: He has a blueprint and he'll follow it, and things fall into place. I know him inside and out, and I know that he does what he says he's going to do."
Beyond instructing his players on how to play basketball, that blueprint includes:
Serving as a life mentor to his team, especially to players who haven't had a male role model with whom to identify (an increasing number of recruits come from single-parent families).
Motivating his guys to think about what they want to do after organized basketball ends, which will be sooner than most of them think.
Says Evans, "If all I do is play a kid for four years and send him away with no degree, no future, then I've wasted my time and I've wasted his time. And when they graduate, and they do, I'm going to be sitting in the audience applauding."
Brandon Goldman, a walk-on player who has captured the fancy of Sun Devils fans with his upbeat attitude, puts it like this: "Young males need a male figure to be there for them, an older man, a teacher, a coach. Coach is a standup guy, and he always pushes the work ethic, getting tougher, working harder."
Adds senior co-captain Kyle Dodd, a loquacious 22-year-old from Southern California: "Coach knows a lot about life, about living. We all know he didn't have it easy coming up or breaking into head coaching. He's taught me that when you screw up, look in the mirror and see what you see. It's usually not anyone else's fault."
Dodd is one of the six young men who enrolled at ASU in the fall of 1999, as Coach Evans' first freshman recruiting class. Five of the six are said to be on track to graduate in the next year or so (the sixth player left the program).
To put that into perspective, ASU had just one four-year men's basketball player graduate in the decade before Evans took the job in 1998.
Truth be told, the coach is as human as the next guy. He bitches at referees to an extreme, tends to be oversensitive about perceived slights, and (this one has worked both as curse and blessing) he can be endlessly stubborn. But Evans is comfortable working inside the box he's built for himself over a lifetime.
And that box is wrapped in a blue-collar ribbon.
"People saw early on that I had a game plan," he says. "They knew I wasn't going to be one of those guys hanging out on a corner that I had an ambition, and I was willing to work for what I wanted."
Located about five hours from Albuquerque in southeastern New Mexico, the city of Hobbs is named after a family that was among the first to settle there in 1907.
Oil booms in the late 1920s lured thousands to the area, and the hamlet became a small city, with the requisite taverns, dance halls and, according to a local history, "roller rinks, 19 pool halls, 34 drug stores, 53 barbershops and 50 oil field supply houses."
Hobbs' growth stabilized after the oil craze waned. When Rob Evans was born September 7, 1946, it had a population of about 13,000, including his parents, Oscar and Gladys Evans.
Hobbs then was as segregated racially as any city in the Deep South. The blacks who accounted for about 10 percent of the population lived in one part of town, and the whites in the other. Those of Latino descent lived in the black neighborhoods.
Gladys Evans gave birth to all seven of her kids by her 25th birthday, including Rob, the middle child of five brothers and two sisters.
Oscar Evans was a janitor during the days, and often did odd jobs at nights. He preached at area churches on Sundays, and had a great love of books. A courteous, unpretentious man, Mr. Evans carried himself in a manner that earned him adoration and respect.
Gladys Evans (who now lives in Desoto, Texas, with her youngest daughter) cleaned the homes of white folks in Hobbs to help make ends meet, no small task in a family of nine.
Hobbs was a separate and unequal world for blacks during Rob Evans' youth. One evening, when Evans was 6 or 7, his dad took him and his brothers to work at a second job, cleaning an attorney's office.
"The guy decided to have fun at my dad's expense," Coach Evans recalls. "Oscar, get over here.' Dad continued to work. You don't get over here, I'm going to kick your rear end.' Dad said, Boys, let's go.' I said, Dad, we need the money.' He said to us, Dignity and integrity are non-negotiable.' I get chills right now when I think of it."
Neither of the Evanses had much formal education -- eighth grade was it for each. But they put the schooling of their children atop their list of priorities. (All seven children would earn college degrees, a remarkable achievement.)
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the continued segregation of public schools in the landmark case of Brown v. the [Topeka, Kansas] Board of Education.
The integration of Hobbs High School meant black kids could play for the Eagles' basketball team, coached by Ralph Tasker. Tasker then was just starting a half-century stint that would earn him acclaim as one of the nation's best.
"I remember my parents telling me to listen to the radio one night," Evans says. "It was 1955, and I was 9. Some white parents had been giving Coach Tasker grief about integration. He came on and said, I'm going to play my best players. You want another coach, get one.' To kids in the black community, he was saying, if you're good enough, you play."
Evans played baseball, basketball and football with a drive and skill that would carry him far. He also competed hard in the classroom with the white kids at newly integrated Houston Junior High.
"There was a little bit of difference at first," he says, "not from the standpoint of innate intelligence, but from the standpoint of previous educational opportunities. I just had to catch up."
Evans formed lasting friendships at the mostly white junior high.
"I didn't know any black people until I knew Rob," says Dean Williams, a high school basketball teammate of Evans. "His family didn't have much money, and neither did ours. I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do with my life. But you could tell even then that Rob knew something was out there for him."
Evans developed a social consciousness during the tumultuous early 1960s. In the summer before his senior year, Evans asked his parents if he could go to Mississippi to be part of the growing civil rights movement. It was June 1963, and white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith had just assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson.
Gladys Evans told her son that it was just too dangerous for him. "My mom didn't give a hoot what I thought about her when I was 16, 17, 18," Evans recalls. "She'd say, Come see me when you're 25 and then tell me what you think about me.'"
Needless to say, he didn't go to Mississippi then.
Coach Tasker named Evans as co-captain in his senior year, an honor that brought with it a responsibility that transcended race.
"The coach had the foresight of making me one of the guys in charge of bed check," Evans says, relishing the memory. "Here I was, a 17-year-old black kid in a segregated community, and I'd go to the other side of town, knock on doors, and ask if my white teammates were home. My next comment was, I have to see for myself.'"
Still, the specter of racism always lurked at Hobbs High. "Some kids would make a point of pointing at me in the hall. That's Rob Evans. His mother cleans our house.' That was denigrating, however they meant it or didn't mean it."
Hobbs lost the 1964 state championship game in a heartbreaker, but the Eagles' starting five later got invited to play in the annual all-star game in Albuquerque.
"Four of us the white guys rode up to the game without Rob, just left him behind," says Dean Williams, becoming tearful. "It was so ignorant of us. This has been eating at me for 40 years. I still don't understand why I didn't say something. Rob was this great guy, who happened to be a black kid. Big f-ing deal."
Williams who now runs a tire store near Hobbs never discussed the ancient episode with Evans until last month, when he attended ASU's home games against the Bay Area schools.
Evans says he accepted Williams' apology, and that was that. But he adds, as if he's talking about something that happened yesterday, "I had to hustle a ride to Albuquerque at the last minute, and I got there late. It hurt. But I'm happy for Dean that he got this off his chest."
After high school, Rob Evans enrolled at Lubbock Christian University, where he shined on the basketball court and in the classroom.
One of Evans' teammates was Gerald Turner, a white kid from New Boston, Texas, who had been openly contentious at first to have to play with blacks. But Evans took pains to get to know his fellow freshman.
"I wanted to prove to Gerald that I was a good person and good teammate," Evans says. "I sensed that he was the same type of person as me, but that he just hadn't communicated with many black people and vice versa."
Almost three decades later, Dr. Gerald Turner by then the chancellor at the University of Mississippi would be a driving force behind Evans' hiring as head basketball coach there.
Evans returned to Hobbs during his freshman year for a wedding, and sat near a gregarious young lady named Carolyn Marshall. She was three years younger than him, and was living in town with her maternal grandmother and two younger sisters.
The two struck up a conversation, then a friendship.
"I grew up in the same kind of background as Rob," Carolyn Evans says, "with no money by any stretch of the imagination, but with the knowledge that you just have to be productive and go from there. But it was still a stretch for a black kid from Hobbs to ever think he or she could go to college, even if they had that aspiration. To have the money to do so was an issue." (She later would earn her college degree from Wayland Baptist University, near Lubbock.)
As for her feelings for Evans, she recalls, "In my mental list of what I'd be looking for in a spouse, Rob was the only guy. First, it had to be a love thing. I was independent and willing to persevere, and that prepared me in becoming part of Rob's quest to become a head coach. In the context of the times, that wasn't going to be easy."
Evans transferred to New Mexico State after his sophomore year, and became team captain soon after workouts for the 1966-67 season started in Las Cruces. In his two years there (both seasons ended with NCAA tournament bids), the 6-1 Evans won respect for his leadership qualities, knowledge of the game and relentless defensive play.
He also continued to battle in the classroom, and earned his bachelor's degree in education in May 1968. His parents and Carolyn Marshall were among those attending the graduation ceremony.
For a long time, Evans' ambition had been to get his degree, then return to Hobbs and teach high school English. But now he was hungering for a career as a basketball coach, specifically as a major-college head coach.
But other possibilities loomed. The Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association drafted Evans after his senior year. And football's Oakland Raiders offered him a free-agent contract as a wide receiver, surprising because he hadn't played organized football since high school.
John Madden, the ex-Raiders' coach turned famed sportscaster, came to Las Cruces to scout Evans:
"I didn't really want to play football, and I told him he needed to go to Hobbs to talk to my mother about it. John goes to Hobbs and tells Mom about a three-year contract at X amount of dollars. She says, I don't have any problem with that.' So I went to camp with [quarterback Kenny] Stabler and the boys. Stuck around a while."
Evans faced an early career decision at the age of 22. He could spend the season on the practice squad with the Raiders, wait until the following year, then try again. But his coach at New Mexico State, Lou Henson, already had offered him a job as a graduate assistant.
It was a time when conventional and racist thinking still held that blacks weren't smart enough to play quarterback, much less coach. Only three black men were coaching major-college basketball in 1968, and all of them were assistants.
Evans took the coaching job, then was offered a full-time position the following year. Salary: $10,000.
He married Carolyn Marshall in Hobbs on July 25, 1970. The new Mrs. Evans learned firsthand about life as the wife of an assistant coach. That included stretches of up to six weeks without seeing him during the off-season recruiting time.
Evans and fellow assistant Ed Murphy scoured the nation in the early 1970s for basketball talent. They spent a lot of time in the Deep South, a place where the stench of the Ku Klux Klan still hung heavy, and the notion of a black man recruiting kids of all colors to play ball for his team was abhorrent to many.
Because Southern motels still were segregated (and for safety's sake), he and Murphy, who is white, often went separate ways after dark. But this was Rob Evans' job, his life, and he was determined to do it well.
Evans says he was undaunted that many people saw him as a black man first, and as a coach second: "I've always been comfortable with people, no matter what their color. I know it's hard to believe, but I don't see black or white when it comes to recruiting a kid. He's either my type of player or he's not."
New Mexico State's head basketball job opened up after the 1974-75 season, and Evans, then 28, applied for it. But the school looked elsewhere after a painfully protracted process, and an unhappy Evans found a new job as an assistant coach at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
Evans stayed there for the next 15 years, as he and Carolyn raised their two children, Damon and Amber. During that time, Carolyn Evans taught child development for a time at South Plains Community College.
"We decided to focus on the stability of raising our kids in one place," Rob Evans says. "You get one chance to raise your kids, and you have to do it right. Lubbock was a good place to do it."
Texas Tech made it to the NCAA tournament three times during Evans' tenure, and his reputation as one of the nation's top assistants continued to grow. But the Red Raiders fell on hard times in the late 1980s, and after the 1990-91 season, head coach Gerald Myers was promoted into an administrative position at the school.
Evans wanted the head job badly, and stories published at the time called him the clear front-runner. But again, he didn't get the gig.
Bitterly disappointed, Evans sent out his résumé, and quickly got hired by Eddie Sutton, the veteran Oklahoma State coach. Then, after Evans' second season at Oklahoma State a Sweet 16 finish for the Cowboys he became a "commodity."
First, both Rice and Baylor offered him their head coaching slots.
Then a third offer popped up. Though the head coaching job at the University of Mississippi was fraught with momentously uphill challenges on and off the court, Evans decided to give it a go at a starting salary of $90,000.
Without a hint of pretense, he says that "divine intervention" led him, Carolyn and their two children to Oxford, Mississippi, before the start of the 1992-93 season.
It was one thing to recruit players in Mississippi in the aftermath of the civil rights era, but quite another to coach there, even in the early 1990s.
To be sure, the attitudes of many had changed in the Deep South by 1992, though educational and economic opportunities for blacks in Mississippi lagged (and still lag) behind most of the rest of the nation. And basketball at Ole Miss was considered a minor sport compared to the state's top dog, football.
But the school's top brass including Rob Evans' ex-college teammate Gerald Turner were convinced that the time was right for a black coach, specifically Rob Evans. (Ironically, Evans replaced Ed Murphy, his old coaching associate from New Mexico State.)
The University of Mississippi campus and the town were charming, picture-perfect. But most black kids and their parents still didn't want to have anything to do with the school and its racist trappings where the Confederate flag and all it symbolized still waved proudly and defiantly.
"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.
The lucrative offer represented more than money. Being a New Mexico native, Evans knew that the Lobos' basketball coach is as recognizable in that state as the governor.
But Evans had told his Sun Devils time and again since he'd moved to Tempe that you have to finish what you start in this life. And his Sun Devils hadn't even gotten yet to the promised land of the NCAA tournament, much less won any games there.
Evans said no thanks to New Mexico.
Last September, he spoke about that decision during a 6 a.m. gathering at a church in east Mesa. He was guest speaker at the weekly meeting of the "Ironmen," a group of about 100 guys who sing songs about Jesus, give testimony, and eat breakfast.
"I don't believe in so-called ghosts," Evans told them. "But I was in bed with my wife in Atlanta during the Final Four, and I could have sworn I heard the phone ring. Guy asked for Bob. My dad was the only one to call me Bob. Then I was talking to him, my dad. He died a few years ago, but I was talking to him. He told me to do the right thing, that I'd know what that was."
Evans' voice broke as he continued: "I've never shared this with anyone before. Later, I told Carolyn, I talked to my father this morning.' She said, That's not unusual. It happens.' I don't know if my dad knew how much of an influence he was on me."
ASU added two years to Evans' contract last May (the school already had tacked on two years in 2000). He and his staff anxiously awaited this season, excited about the incoming freshmen and a junior-college transfer, and hopeful that the team's seasoned veterans could move their play up a notch in their final years of eligibility.
This was to be the breakthrough season, the year in which the Sun Devils could make the leap from Pac-10 patsy to NCAA tournament participant. As he spoke to his staff on the eve of the first practice of the 2002-03 season, Coach Evans invoked a hard lesson from his past.
"Guys, we have to remember at all times, we're not in a sprint here," he told them. "If I had thought I was racing my whole life, I'd be dead right now, and I sure as hell wouldn't be here. This is a marathon, a long-distance race. But it's a race we're bound to win."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.