The Stopgap Coach
He was supposed to be a temp, try to win a few games and keep the players out of the police blotter. Then move along.
That was the script handed to 40-year-old Don Newman last September 22 when Arizona State University made him coach of the Sun Devils men's basketball team.
Well, not exactly coach.
Athletic director Kevin White couldn't find a real coach. None of the big names would come to rescue ASU's pitiful program on such short notice. So, by default, White named Newman "interim" coach.
Newman gladly accepted the job. Nothing could be worse than his previous head-coaching job at California State University-Sacramento, where he led his teams to 20 wins--over five seasons!
Thankful as he was for the job, Newman didn't let on to White he had no intention of playing the role of caretaker.
Five months and 31 games later, Newman's Sun Devils have done what no one--except Newman--expected they would do. The shorthanded, undersize Sun Devils have won 18 games, and locked up a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
The last time someone mentioned Sun Devil basketball and locked up, it had something to do with federal indictments.
Along the way, the Devils beat two highly ranked teams and were two jump shots away from notching wins over No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Arizona. This from a team that was universally picked to finish last in the Pacific 10 Conference, a program that posted a 10-20 record last year.
The regular season ended on a down note last weekend as the banged-up and weary Sun Devils lost two games in Los Angeles. A split in L.A. probably would have earned ASU a slot in the NCAA tournament.
The depth of disappointment in the Sun Devil locker room following Saturday's 117-71 shellacking from Southern California is a testament to how far this team has come in a very short time. The defeat illustrated just how thin and vulnerable the Sun Devils were this season. An injured player, an untimely foul, meant disaster. Yet the same team that suffered ASU's worst defeat in 47 years versus USC is also the same team that returned pride to a program muddied by defeat and scandal.
Newman should be the toast of the town as he and the Sun Devils pack their bags for a difficult first-round NIT game at Hawaii. Instead, Newman is getting ready to be tossed out of town as he and his family pack their bags and prepare to move on to points unknown.
Powerful ASU boosters who control the Sun Angel Foundation--which bankrolls a significant portion of the huge salaries paid to topflight coaches--don't believe Newman has what it takes to lead ASU to national prominence.
Sun Angel Foundation vice chairman Steve Wood says Newman should not even be considered for the permanent job. "He was clearly advised it was an interim status," Wood says.
Foundation chairman Bob Hobbs is even more blunt about Newman's future.
"He wasn't promised anything," Hobbs says.
The man who will make the final decision is athletic director Kevin White, whose silence about Newman's future as a Sun Devil is a clear signal that Newman should be calling a moving company.
Newman wants the job, and believes he's proven his mettle.
"There is no question about what my commitment would be to Arizona State," Newman says. "But that commitment has to be a two-way street."
The boosters' underwhelming response to Newman's performance underscores the stark realities of college basketball. Even though the team obliterated expectations--in large part because of Newman's sheer will power--it's not enough to garner respect from the Sun Angels, who are green with envy over the success of archrival Arizona's elite basketball program.
Newman's team loves to play. From the moment the players mob each other prior to tip-off in a Devil-mosh, to the final buzzer--whether in victory or defeat--they play hard, they play to win, they play with grace and they play with dignity.
Isn't this what college athletics is all about?
The few ASU students who attended games this season know the score. During the final home game against California, they chanted, "We want Newman!" By the end of the game, before 9,575, the second-largest crowd of the year, the chorus echoed through the arena.
An outgoing, friendly man, Newman went into the stands after the game and thanked fans for supporting the team. As he left the court and headed into the locker room, the band struck up the Star Wars heroes march--"The Throne Room."
This team, and Don Newman, will long be remembered.
Seven months ago, few people wanted to dwell on the ASU men's basketball program.
There were more pleasant things to think about. The Sun Devil football team was making a surprising bid for its second consecutive Pac-10 title. The basketball program, meanwhile, was sinking faster than the Titanic.
The Sun Devils were coming off their worst season in 27 years, finishing last in the Pac-10 with a 2-16 record and a 10-20 performance overall. But losses seemed insignificant compared with what happened after the 1996-97 season mercifully ended (with 11 straight losses).
Two players from the 1993-94 team were indicted in a point-shaving scheme, and later pleaded guilty to federal charges. The scandal gave ASU the worst national press possible, reinforcing an unflattering and widespread image that the nation's sixth-largest university is an outlaw sports school.
That image was further marred when two players with eligibility remaining were arrested for stealing a CD player from a dorm room.
The point-shaving scandal and the arrests forced beleaguered coach Bill Frieder to resign September 12 after eight years of directing the team through mostly disappointing seasons. (If Frieder hadn't resigned, he surely would have been fired.)
In the midst of these fiascoes, two scholarship players quit school, a third was on his way to being kicked out of school, and a fourth sustained injuries in a car accident that would force him to sit out the '97-'98 season.
The outlook couldn't get much worse, but it did.
After Frieder quit, ASU athletic director Kevin White crisscrossed the country in a helter-skelter attempt to lure a prominent coach who could rebuild the Sun Devil program, and, in four or five years, challenge rival University of Arizona, the defending national champion, for dominance in the state.
With formal preseason workouts just weeks away, White was rebuffed by the nation's elite coaches. White, realizing that no coaches were likely to abandon their programs going into the season, turned to Don Newman, an obscure, first-year ASU assistant coach, whose previous performance as a head coach was an exercise in futility.
No wonder ASU season-ticket sales plummeted to 4,637 in the 14,128-seat University Activity Center, down from a school record 8,214 in 1995-96, and 7,140 in 1996-97.
White made it clear that Newman was a stopgap coach whose job was to make the best of a dismal situation, then, come spring, quietly exit to make way for a "big name" coach.
Newman would become ASU's coach, but with an asterisk that denoted "interim," and an understanding that under no circumstances would he be considered for the permanent job at the end of the season.
It's hard to imagine a worse environment to begin a new job.
A losing team. Depleted roster. Tarnished image. No confidence. Few fans.
Newman saw a chance to prove himself in one of the most competitive college basketball conferences in the nation.
"I will make the most out of the opportunity that has been given to me," Newman promised on the day he was named interim head coach.
Few knew how much Newman could squeeze from an ounce of opportunity. He learned the art at an early age, around the kitchen table of his New Orleans home.
Shirley Newman fondly recalls the evenings when her "Knights of the Roundtable" gathered in the kitchen for talks about sports and life.
She and her husband of 43 years, Robert, conducted the lively sessions with their three sons, all fine athletes.
"We gave them corrective criticism," Shirley Newman says. "This was after every game. We came home and we sat at the table and we had talks, late-night talks."
The topics would range from critiques of jump shots to life's truths. But always, it was the former serving the latter.
Don't compromise your principles.
Without discipline, nothing is going to work.
Hard work. Enthusiasm. Dedication. Faith in the Almighty.
Those sessions still resonate in Newman.
"I was fortunate to grow up in a household where mom and dad never really had the unrealistic picture of anything," Newman says. "It was always about discipline in the house. It was always about accountability. It was about growing up and having opportunity to do everything you wanted, but education always played an important role in that.
"And when you got out and competed, you had to go out there and bring your best every day. . . . You had to practice and work hard, and if you wanted to be the best, you had to pay the price to be the best."
Newman's competitive spirit evolved at an early age, as did a keen eye for showmanship.
As a youngster competing in New Orleans Recreation Department sports programs, he became infuriated when weather postponed a baseball game.
Don Newman wanted to play, and play with flair.
When Newman was 11, his hero was a cocky young pro quarterback named Joe Namath, whose white shoes became a symbol of self-assurance during the New York Jets' historic upset in Super Bowl III.
Don Newman--the quarterback of his Pop Warner football team--liked Namath's attitude. One day Newman came home and made a request his mother will never forget.
"'Daddy,'" Shirley recalls Don saying, "'I want white cleats like Joe Namath's.'
"So my husband painted his black cleats white. It was just the talk of the game."
It wouldn't be the last time Newman would turn heads.
Newman went on to star as a point guard at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, leading the team to the 1975 AAAA Louisiana state championship.
"We were awesome," Newman says of his high school team, which included future Phoenix Sun Rick Robey. "We enjoyed it. Whether the coach was there or not, whether it was in season or out of season, we hooped."
College recruiters were pounding on the Newmans' door--one of them was an assistant coach from Michigan named Bill Frieder. Newman was torn between staying close to home at Louisiana State University or venturing to the more exotic climes of the University of Idaho.
Newman selected LSU, and played basketball and baseball as a freshman in 1975-76. But Newman was unhappy at LSU, where racism was a nagging constant and his playing time was not what he had hoped. Newman remembered the Idaho landscape, the small-town atmosphere, friendly people and slower pace of life.
"I decided to transfer out of Louisiana State and grow up on my own and make my own mistakes," Newman says. "I chose to go back out there."
"Out there" was happy to have him.
Arriving without a scholarship, Newman picked up a part-time job to cover tuition, attended classes and practiced with the team while sitting out his transfer year.
Word of Newman's talents quickly spread on the Idaho campus; he was seen as something of a savior of a moribund basketball program.
Newman delivered. During his senior year (1979-80), Newman led the Idaho Vandals in scoring and to a 17-10 record, its best in 18 years. He was named to the Big Sky all-conference first team.
It wasn't Newman's statistics, stellar as they were, that made him a crowd favorite. It was his exuberance.
"The thing that surprised me most was not that he had a lot of talent, but he had so much enthusiasm, too," Idaho coach Don Monson told a reporter in December 1979. "You don't find many kids with that much leadership ability and talent who also play with the heart he does."
When the Boston Celtics drafted him in the third round, his lifelong ambition of playing in the National Basketball Association was only a step away.
But it was a long step.
For one of the first times in his life, Newman failed. He was the last player cut by the Celtics in 1980.
He was devastated.
"If I tell you it didn't affect me, or it didn't hurt me, I'd be lying," Newman says. "It certainly disappointed me. But I think it just upset me to a point it just drove me to another level of wanting to succeed."
For the next few years, Newman bounced around on the fringes of professional sports. Although he hadn't played football in college, he saw limited action as a defensive back with several teams, including the New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks and several Canadian Football League teams.
When he wasn't playing football, Newman played professional basketball for the Montana Golden Nuggets, a Continental Basketball Association team, under coach George Karl.
Karl, who has since become one of the NBA's elite coaches, vividly remembers Newman's tenacity.
"He was a guy who tried to win games with intensity and his attitude, and he did win many games because of that," Karl says.
But Newman, Karl adds, lacked the skills to break into the NBA. "The talent was kind of short," Karl says.
Maybe it was short for the NBA, but his zest for competition caught the eye of a Great Falls, Montana, cosmetologist named Linda Erlandson.
"I never saw him play basketball until he played in the CBA in Montana," says Linda, who became Newman's wife in 1983. "When I went to the game . . . I thought, 'Oh, wow, who is that guy?' . . . He played with just so much momentum and so much fire."
After three years of nonstop football and basketball, it became apparent that Newman's prospects to make it big as a pro player were waning.
He returned to Idaho and completed his undergraduate degree while coaching high school football and basketball teams at two different schools. He then entered the graduate program at Washington State University and earned a master's degree in education. While attending WSU, Newman talked his way into a job that didn't exist as an assistant basketball coach for the lowly Cougars.
Kelvin Sampson, then coach of Washington State, recalls the day Newman showed up in his office.
"Donny walks into the office with a coat and tie on, he's got a briefcase and portfolio, and I'm saying to myself, 'Who is this guy, and does he know I'm interviewing him to be nice?'"
Newman quickly convinced Sampson that he could help the Cougars. It took several years, but with Newman in charge of recruiting, Washington State turned the corner, going from a Pac-10 doormat to postseason appearances in 1991 and 1992.
Sampson became a hot coaching commodity, and Newman could have ridden to success on Sampson's coattails. Instead, Newman struck out on his own, accepting a job in 1992 at California State University-Sacramento. His assignment: boost the school from Division II basketball to Division I.
Such transitions rarely go smoothly. And the situation at Sacramento was laughable. The recruiting budget was only $5,000 a year--barely enough to cover mailings, let alone travel costs. The home court was a shambles. The team didn't belong to a conference and was forced to play 20 games a year on the road.
Still, Newman thought he could create a winning program.
"A lot of people could have, and some did, shy away from that job. That is not what life is all about," says Newman. "You take your chances, and you can't let your ego get in the way of your goals."
Powerhouse basketball programs called Newman, hoping to schedule his school for a cupcake game. Newman didn't duck challenges; during his tenure, Cal State-Sacramento played Stanford, California and Georgetown.
His teams got waxed. During his five years in Sacramento, Newman saw his teams lose 114 games while winning only 20. By the end of his fifth year, the press was calling for Newman's head.
"Sac State basketball has become a laughingstock," a Sacramento Bee columnist wrote in February 1997. "Observers mock the plays and the antics of the coach, who seems to have lost control of his players."
Newman resigned, effective at the end of the 1997 season, shortly after the blast from the Bee.
His career was in a shambles. His goal of being a head coach at a major university had been set back years--if not rubbed out. Who would ever hire a guy with his dismal record?
"If there ever was a time to start doubting yourself or what you believe in, that was the time," Newman says.
Then the phone rang. It was Bill Frieder.
Frieder, who had once recruited Newman, believed Newman could be a skillful recruiter himself. He offered Newman a job as an assistant at ASU.
"Don had the qualities of being very upbeat, very positive and enthusiastic, and those qualities along with his recruiting ability made him my top candidate," Frieder says.
The rebuilding phase had begun.
Sports radio told Don Newman's wife and two daughters of Bill Frieder's denouement last September as they drove from Sacramento to join Don in their new home in Ahwatukee.
Once again, Newman was in limbo.
Newman intended to do what he was hired to do--go on the road and recruit.
But ASU athletic director Kevin White had other ideas. White believed he could hire a prominent coach in September, and he didn't want an untested assistant mucking up recruiting.
Newman was driving across the Oakland Bay Bridge when he checked his voice mail via cell phone and learned he was to stop all recruiting and immediately return to Tempe.
White ordered Newman to cancel scheduled visits of four high school hoops players who were slated to visit the campus and attend an ASU football game.
But none of the coaches White coveted was taking him up on his offers.
A few days after pulling the plug on recruiting, White handed Newman the reins of ASU's basketball program--for the '97-'98 season only. His salary: $150,000.
Newman immediately challenged the players.
"I looked at a bunch of individuals around here that I heard talking about being successful. . . . I'm hearing a lot, but I'm not seeing it," Newman recalls. "I'm not seeing guys committed in the weight room. I'm not seeing guys committed on the track. I see a convenience around here. We conveniently want to be good when it's time to practice at 3:30. But are we willing to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and be committed?"
The players, led by senior guards Alhon Lewis and Jeremy Veal, responded. They were desperate to avoid a repeat of the previous two losing seasons. Newman asked them to be co-captains. They accepted. And the work began.
Newman pushed his team through a vigorous preseason training program including double workouts and predawn runs. He asked his team to do nothing he wouldn't do himself.
"Everything that we did, the conditioning we did, he did with us," Lewis says of Newman.
Newman joined the players on the court as well. (Still powerfully built, Newman fires the snappiest passes during scrimmages. "You better have your hands ready," says Lewis.)
The players immediately sensed a change, and they liked it.
"He said from day one, in order for us to make a change, we have to come together and play as one. He basically made that our focal point," Veal says.
As important as discipline is to a team, Newman also understands the fluidity of the game and the necessity of letting the guys play ball and be creative.
"He trusts his players on the court, just as well as we trust him," says 6-8 junior forward Mike Batiste.
For six weeks, Newman poked, pushed, exhorted, taught, led, watched, listened and joked with his players. A winning form was congealing during morning runs up "A" Mountain and afternoon scrimmages inside the Activity Center.
Newman's fighting attitude was infecting the team.
"He let us know that you can be down, but don't lay down," says redshirt freshman guard Jason Patton.
Motivating athletes is one thing; making technical adjustments is another. Newman quickly proved his eye for the game.
Last year, Lewis suffered through a dismal season, bouncing back and forth from the bench to the floor. He lost his confidence.
Where others saw an underachiever, Newman saw a natural leader. He told Lewis he was his point guard, and gave him control of the Sun Devil offense that had been run by high-scoring guard Jeremy Veal.
It was an astute move. Lewis has blossomed into the top playmaker in the nation, leading the country with 9.2 assists per game and shattering the Pac-10 single-season record for assists.
One of Lewis' favorite targets is Veal, whose calm demeanor and fluid jump shot have made him ASU's all-time leading scorer. Veal led the Pac-10 in scoring this year with 20.5 points per game.
Newman jazzed up the offense, spreading his players across the court and allowing their quickness to exploit taller, slower defenders. The strategy worked--the Sun Devils are averaging 85 points per game, the fifth-highest scoring team in ASU history.
Defensively, the Sun Devils were hurting. They had no true center. The tallest player is junior forward Bobby Lazor at 6-9. The team also lacks depth, with only 6-6 senior forward Urit Kelly and 6-4 Patton seeing meaningful minutes off the bench.
Despite the lack of players, Newman made it clear that he would bench players who didn't buy into his program. Patton felt Newman's wrath, languishing on the bench during the Washington State game in Pullman. The trip to the doghouse spurred Patton to pick up his game, and he became an important contributor down the stretch.
The thin bench means foul trouble is serious trouble.
But Newman challenged the undersize team to play hard-nosed basketball anyway.
"I'm going in there just thinking I'm going to beat this [opposing] player up," says Batiste. "I'm going to give him all that I can give him. He's not going to walk away from me saying that Mike Batiste didn't give him a good game."
For the Sun Devils to win, the team must play fast, play hard and, most of all, play smart.
No one outside the Sun Devil locker room was expecting much when the season opened in mid-November.
It didn't take long for Newman's revamped Sun Devils to grab attention.
In its third game, ASU traveled to highly regarded Cincinnati for a preseason National Invitation Tournament game. Cincinnati was favored to drub the 2-0 Sun Devils.
It didn't. The Devils outgunned, outran and outhustled Cincinnati on its home floor in front of a national television audience, gaining a convincing 87-79 win and a trip to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Next up for the Sun Devils was Kansas, ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Newman's team was undaunted.
"Come game time, they'll think they can win the ball game," Newman said in a pregame press conference. "They're taking this opportunity for every ounce of meaning they can get out of it."
Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams didn't take the Sun Devils lightly, saying before the game he was impressed with the team and the enthusiasm Newman had instilled. He was even more impressed after the game.
ASU nearly pulled off a miraculous victory, taking Kansas to overtime before losing 89-87. The Sun Devils saw a chance to win the game evaporate when Veal's three-point jumper rimmed off at the buzzer.
Disappointing as the loss was, ASU and Newman were making news around the country. And, for a change, the news had nothing to do with crime.
The skeptics kept waiting for ASU to return to old form. But the Sun Devils won seven of their next nine games and headed into Pac-10 play with a surprising 10-3 record.
The upstart Sun Devils' up-tempo play lighted a fire under a small cadre of fans that began believing what Newman was preaching.
"We play with a lot of confidence and we play with a lot of enthusiasm. We don't play to lose. We play to win," Newman says.
Petitions that called for removal of Newman's "interim" status were circulated. Letters to the editor appeared in the daily papers, extolling the sudden change of fortune for ASU basketball.
But the brutal Pac-10 season loomed. The Sun Devils had a long way to go to reach their goal of a winning season. To make matters worse, the Devils lost one of their best players, forward Reggie Hester, who was booted out of school.
The Pac-10 has produced two of the past three NCAA champions--Arizona in 1997 and UCLA in 1995. Pac-10 coaches and pundits alike picked ASU to finish last in the conference. The Sun Devils would be no match for highly regarded conference teams like Arizona, UCLA and Stanford.
By late January, reality had set in. The Sun Devils had won only three of their first eight Pac-10 games, defeating Southern California, Oregon and Washington State. The team was still on track for a winning season, but the luster of its early-season success was fading.
The Sun Devils had a chance to right the ship when they traveled to Stanford to play the No. 4 Cardinal. Stanford had seen its 20-game home unbeaten streak and its dream of an undefeated season end two days earlier against Arizona.
Newman used only six players as ASU shocked the deflated Stanford squad with a late rally that forced the game into overtime. The Sun Devils calmly sank nine of 10 free throws in the bonus period to burn Stanford 90-87. Stanford used 12 players and got 28 points off the bench. The Sun Devils' starting five played 214 out of a possible 225 minutes.
The predawn runs up "A" Mountain were beginning to pay off.
The rejuvenated Sun Devils returned home to sweep a series from Washington and Washington State, setting up a showdown in Tempe with No. 3 Arizona, which had walloped ASU in Tucson in January, 127-99.
Once again, ASU would have a six-man rotation. Urit Kelly, who had provided strong performances off the bench, was attending his father's funeral in the Bahamas.
While ASU likes to run and shoot, Newman knew that strategy would not work against UofA. So he transformed the Sun Devils into more of a ball-control, half-court attack.
Arizona jumped out to a 12-point lead midway through the first half, and it looked as though the Wildcats would put away ASU early.
Newman called a time-out and told the Devils to get back to their plan of controlling the pace and preventing the Wildcats from exploiting their quickness with fast-break and transition goals. ASU responded and cut the lead to four at halftime. The teams traded leads in the second half before UofA opened a five-point lead with 2:13 to play.
ASU scored the next four points, and had a chance to win the game at the buzzer. But Alhon Lewis' jumper from the corner bounced off the rim, giving UofA an 83-82 win.
ASU had taken the defending national champions to the limit--with only six players. But Newman wasn't looking for a good game, he wanted a victory.
"This is going to hurt all year, and I hope it does," Newman said after the game. "We are not going to forget about this."
Despite the loss, Newman converts were only more encouraged by the Sun Devils' performance. Newman received a standing ovation from several hundred fans when he returned to the court for his postgame radio show.
UofA coach Lute Olson praised Newman and his team, saying that the Sun Devils had deserved to win the game.
"I think he and his staff have done a great job. He's got them playing hard. They play well together. They have great squad chemistry," Olson said.
The Stanford win and the near defeat of Arizona only served to fire up the Devils more. A winning season was now secure. Newman's Devils wanted more. They wanted 20 wins and a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
To get there, ASU would have to win four of its last six games, including four on the road.
The road wasn't friendly. Oregon exploited ASU's void at center and crushed ASU. The Devils rebounded against Oregon State with a second-half rally to gain a split on the road trip.
Back at home, the Devils couldn't handle Stanford's deep bench, and the Cardinal exacted revenge. ASU picked up win number 18 against California behind a barrage of three-point baskets.
The victory put the Devils into a position no one could have anticipated--a split in Los Angeles seemed certain to put them in the NCAA playoff field of 64 teams. ASU battled back from a 15-point second-half deficit against UCLA, closing to within three points with less than a minute before the Bruins pulled away.
Jeremy Veal scored 31, despite that he had the flu and was vomiting before the game. But that performance seemed to have sapped Veal. Two days later, against USC, he failed to score a field goal. USC, riding a wave of euphoria after upsetting Arizona, couldn't miss.
The Devils were out of the NCAA tournament.
Although disappointed, Newman focused on the team's achievements.
"The big picture is the way these guys battled all year," Newman said after the USC loss. "And everybody related to Sun Devil basketball has to have a good feeling in their heart about these guys and how they represented the university."
The Sun Devils' gritty performance, particularly against UofA, amplified Newman's growing popularity, much to the chagrin of a handful of Sun Devil boosters who want University of Utah coach Rick Majerus to become ASU's permanent head coach.
"I think that Majerus obviously is going to be the coach unless contractual details can't be worked out," says a prominent ASU booster and a director of the Sun Angel Foundation. "I think it's a done deal."
The Sun Angel Foundation is the athletic department's fund-raising organization and plays a crucial role in paying coaches' salaries.
The booster, who asked not to be identified but claims to have gotten information directly from top athletic-department officials, says the debate over whether Newman should be given the job is detrimental to ASU's long-term success.
"It can only be disruptive and divide the loyalty among the ASU community," the booster says.
He was sharply critical of an unscientific call-in poll conducted last month by the Arizona Republic in which respondents favored Newman over Majerus by a 10-to-1 margin.
"Rick Majerus is probably one of two or three coaches in America that can compete with Lute Olson and bring great basketball to Sun Devil country," the booster says.
What about Newman?
"Don Newman has done a wonderful job coaching this team this year. But that has absolutely nothing to do with building a big-time program and going into a Los Angeles bedroom and being able to compete heads-up with UCLA, Duke and UofA for a kid.
"Nothing will change at ASU without the huge impact of a national superstar like a Majerus."
Foundation vice chairman Steve Wood says Newman lacks the experience to take the program into the top 10 nationally and has not proven himself as a top recruiter.
"Everybody has to remember that we are working with players who have been brought to the program by other people," Wood says.
While Newman has done "a fantastic job" and "everybody has liked what he has accomplished," Wood says the permanent head coach must be a gifted recruiter who can attract athletes who will graduate. He also must be a good ambassador for the university.
Sun Angel Foundation chairman Bob Hobbs says he's staying out of the selection process, leaving that up to athletic director Kevin White. But Hobbs makes it clear that ASU owes nothing to Newman.
"I don't have an opinion whether Don Newman is the right guy. He was hired as the interim coach," Hobbs says. "He knew that, still knows that."
The influence of Hobbs and Wood on the ASU athletic department should not be underestimated. Both men have made significant contributions to ASU's capital improvement fund that will finance major additions to Sun Devil Stadium.
On the surface, Majerus has outstanding credentials. His Utah teams have been consistently ranked in the top 10, and last year his squad reached the final eight in the NCAA tournament before falling to Kentucky. The Utes are currently ranked No. 7.
But questions linger over just how good Utah really is this season. The team has played a weak schedule in an average conference. Utah was upset in its conference tournament last week by UNLV. The NCAA tournament will quickly reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the Running Utes.
The 50-year-old Majerus enjoys tremendous support in Utah, where he is paid $1 million a year. He has a wry wit that has made him a media star. He enjoys life and loves to eat, topping the scale at 300 pounds. His appetite raises questions about his health and stamina; he already has had heart-bypass surgery.
There also are questions about his top priority.
"Rick's a great guy," says Salt Lake Tribune sports columnist Dick Rosetta. "Rick also likes money. He'll deny that, but usually every conversation will, generally speaking, gravitate to that."
Rosetta is convinced that Majerus is not discouraging talk about his leaving for ASU because he wants to use it as leverage to shake more money out of wealthy Utah basketball boosters.
"If they offer him enough money, he wouldn't go anywhere," Rosetta says.
Besides, Rosetta says, the Arizona State job is a reconstruction project that will take years to accomplish.
"How hard does he want to work in the next five years? He works hard enough up here, but he's a big fish in a smaller pond," Rosetta says. "Down there he's got Arizona to contend with, UCLA, the Oregon schools are on the comeback, plus Stanford and Cal."
Majerus also has some skeletons rattling around.
In 1989, soon after getting the job at Utah, Majerus triggered a firestorm with comments about female college athletes made during a radio interview with a Milwaukee station.
"My experience has been there's a great deal of, and I'll be frank with you here, there's a great deal of irregular sexual behavior," Majerus told listeners. "And you know, that's never been brought to the forefront. If that were that prevalent in men's athletics, there would be Sports Illustrated, Time, magazines would have exposes from now to eternity. But it's like they're not moneymakers. They are not visual. No one is out there. No one can name the women's basketball coach at Marquette. Hell, I can't name her."
Majerus' comments brought a sharp rebuke from Utah athletic director Chris Hill.
"I am angry, upset, shocked at the statement," Hill told the Salt Lake Tribune. "From my personal standpoint and the university standpoint, we are committed to sponsoring women's athletics. And the comment in no way represents the feeling of the university."
Hill put a muzzle on Majerus, inserting into Majerus' contract a clause (since expired) prohibiting Majerus from making "any comments reflecting upon the sexual habits of women with respect to the conduct of women's athletic programs at the university or at any other university."
Utah's athletic department referred New Times' questions concerning the incident to Hill, who said, "I'm really not interested in bringing up past history."
Majerus sparked controversy again in 1995 when he aggressively recruited a high-profile New York athlete who had pleaded guilty to forcing a 15-year-old girl to perform oral sex. Majerus only stopped recruiting Richie Parker after ordered by the Utah administration.
"I kind of led with my heart instead of my head," Majerus told the Washington Post.
(Parker enrolled to play at Mesa Community College. But once news of his conviction got out, MCC faced a barrage of criticism. Parker never played a game at MCC.)
Another strong contender to succeed Newman is University of Mississippi coach Robert Evans. Kevin White's son is Evans' starting point guard.
Evans, 51, was 1997 SEC Coach of the Year and brings a solid resume to the table. Mississippi is 21-7 and won the SEC Western Division this year with a 12-4 mark. Evans turned Mississippi from a doormat to contender in six years. He's a renowned recruiter with more than 30 years' experience.
Evans would solve two other problems for ASU. He wouldn't command a salary as huge as Majerus', and since he, like Newman, is black, his hiring would be a preemptive strike against claims that race was a factor.
Other coaches reportedly receiving a close look by ASU administrators include Kevin Stallings of Illinois State and Skip Prosser of Xavier.
White says the field is still wide open and the university is considering all options.
"The positive thing is our kids have had nothing to feel good about in a long time," he says. "The kids have galvanized around him [Newman], they have had a great experience. He's redeemed himself in this profession. He was 20-114 by design at Sacramento State. Now he's a commodity."
For his part, Newman has stayed out of the coaching controversy, except to make it clear he wants to remain ASU's coach. (Neither he nor any member of his staff provided any information concerning Majerus. Nearly all the information had been previously reported in the Utah press.)
"I just hope when all the smoke clears, I feel that Kevin White is going to do the right thing and do what's best for the university," Newman says.
Don't let Newman's diplomacy fool you. He wants the job and he believes he's earned it.
He sees other universities hiring young coaches with less experience.
After UCLA fired its expense-account-abusing coach Jim Harrick in 1996, it named 33-year-old Steve Lavin as an interim coach before making him head coach in February 1997. Lavin had no head-coaching experience, serving as an assistant at UCLA and Purdue before gaining the post.
Oregon hired 43-year-old Ernie Kent to coach the Ducks last year. Kent's prior experience: six years as head coach of St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, where he compiled a 90-80 record and led the team to the NCAA tournament last year.
"What makes these guys prepared, but Donny Newman not ready?" Newman asks.
Newman doesn't buy the rap that he lacks experience and doesn't know how to recruit.
"I know what it's like to sit down and be recruited," he says. "I've been in this almost 12 years as a Division I coach. I was recruiting coordinator with [a] Pac-10 [team]. Ten years ago, I was recruiting coordinator with Kelvin Sampson. We walked into a program that was at the bottom of the Pac-10. We believed. We kept grinding. We kept getting the kids believing. And then finally we ended up taking that thing to another level."
Newman is baffled by the critics who say he is unworthy of consideration for the permanent job.
"It doesn't even make sense to me," he says.
ASU assistant coach Lanny Van Eman says Newman has amazed him. Van Eman didn't know Newman when he was hired as an assistant last September. But Van Eman knows a good coach when he sees one. He's spent 37 years in the college and professional ranks, including a lengthy stint under legendary Oregon State coach Ralph Miller.
Van Eman admits he was nervous about taking the ASU post, having spent the previous year as an assistant during a dreadful season with the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA.
The thought of another losing season almost turned him away from the job.
"I went in saying to myself that I'm going to be part of the sweep-up crew and being part of trying to straighten things out," says Van Eman.
So you can imagine his surprise when Newman announced early on that the Sun Devils would have a winning season. But that was nothing compared to the effort Newman got from his players.
"I would not have guessed that these players could give as much as they have given in the way of energy," Van Eman says.
As the season progressed, Van Eman says, he found his attitude shifting from just trying to maintain respect for the program to badly wanting to win every game, reach the 20-win plateau and make some noise at the NCAA tournament.
It's been a season Van Eman won't soon forget.
"Even at this point in my life, it's been a growing, good thing," he says.
Coaching basketball, Van Eman says, isn't only about X's and O's on a blackboard. "You don't have to be a genius to coach football or understand about basketball," he says.
What's more important is leadership.
The great coaches, Van Eman says, can "get people to actualize themselves and become a team, where maybe the sum total is greater than the individual parts."
Newman has that ability, Van Eman says.
"He, to me, has demonstrated that not only can he coach, but he can manage people and he can lead," Van Eman says. "I think that is a real important, that is probably the most important ingredient in Don that I can think of."
Nobody expected the remarkable season that unfolded this year in Tempe. The Sun Devils still have a shot at 20 wins, and winning the NIT championship.
But even Cinderella's fantasy was interrupted. Don't expect the glass slipper to fit Don Newman.
Contact John Dougherty at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona