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Sutton in search of a milestone

Two victories short of 800, he comes out of retirement to coach USF on an interim basis.

December 28, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Sutton will coach his first game for the University of San Francisco tonight at Weber State, but he has yet to set foot on campus, and met his team for the first time Thursday in Utah.

"I have seen pictures of the campus," said Sutton, 71, the former Oklahoma State coach who has come out of retirement to try to satisfy his urge to coach and get the two wins standing between him and 800. "I'm looking forward to getting a tour."

The odd coaching transition at San Francisco unfolded rapidly after Jessie Evans, the coach of the struggling 4-8 team, took what the school termed "a leave of absence" in a decision it said was reached Wednesday.

Sutton, who hadn't coached since resigning from Oklahoma State in 2006 in the wake of a medical leave after an accident in which he was cited for driving under the influence, was named USF's interim coach the same day Evans left. But Sutton said he already had discussed the job with his family on Christmas Day after an earlier overture from San Francisco Athletic Director Debra Gore-Mann.

"I certainly didn't want to end my coaching career in the way it did" at Oklahoma State, Sutton said, calling himself a recovering alcoholic who still attends meetings. "I was in a lot of pain at that time and I did succumb to temptation. I've had back surgery since then, and I'm in good health and I think I'm physically able to coach a team."

Gore-Mann said she was satisfied Sutton no longer had alcohol issues. "I took Coach Sutton at his word," she said.

The chance to win his 800th game is important from a "selfish standpoint," Sutton said, adding that one of his three sons, Scott, the coach at Oral Roberts, urged him to pursue it, saying, " 'Dad, you ought to take a job and get your 800.'

"There's very little difference between 798 and 800. But it was a goal I had for myself," the elder Sutton said. "I don't think nationally anybody will look at it like, 'Well, now he's won 800 instead of 798.' There's just not that much difference."

The seemingly rapid arrangement between San Francisco and Sutton had been in the works for some time, facilitated by Dana and David Pump. The brothers from the San Fernando Valley got their start as small-time basketball entrepreneurs who were also involved in buying and reselling tickets, but have become influential behind-the-scenes power brokers.

Since founding the search firm ChampSearch in 2004, the brothers say they have used their connections to serve as advisors and go-betweens to help more than a dozen schools hire men's basketball coaches, among them Tennessee -- earning a fee of $25,000 for helping the Volunteers hire Bruce Pearl. Other clients have included Mississippi, Nebraska, Colorado, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Long Beach State.

Gore-Mann called the Pump brothers mutual friends of hers and Sutton's and said she had been "just talking to them about different coaches," in relation to ChampSearch, in anticipation of the next time she hired a coach.

In the world of college basketball, a job is often being filled before it's open, and the Pumps are matchmakers.

Sutton already had told the Pumps of his interest in returning to the bench, and said he earlier turned down a chance to coach at an undisclosed school in part because he is involved in working to establish an addiction center for students on the Oklahoma State campus.

The interim nature of the San Francisco job made it more of a fit.

"I think Dana and David talked to Debi and she talked to some other coaches," Sutton said. "They said, 'If that job ever came open, would you be interested?' I said I certainly would."

On Dec. 18, Sutton was in Southern California and watched Evans coach San Francisco in a loss at Long Beach State.

Eight days later, he had the job. The school and Evans are expected to negotiate a settlement after the season.

Coaching a 4-8 team with little opportunity to put his own mark on it, at least to start, Sutton knows No. 800 probably will be harder to come by than some of the first 798.

"I look at that schedule -- it's pretty precarious here for a while," he said. "I think we can get this team where they are competitive, and hopefully it will start" tonight.

Along with trying to put an 800 next to his name, Sutton said, "I love the game of basketball. There's nobody who ever coached it or played it that cares more about the game than I do. I miss teaching."

If once the temptation was the next drink, now it is the next game.

"My commitment is to finish this season," Sutton said, but then he left the door ajar. "I'm not slamming the door if we get the program going in the right direction."

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robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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