Devils' Advocate

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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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin