Devils' Advocate

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"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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin