Rob Evans was lying in bed nearly a year ago, wrestling with a decision that could change the course of his life, not to mention one of his closest friend’s careers.
Evans was working as an assistant coach at TCU and had three opportunities to consider: stay put with new Horned Frogs coach Trent Johnson, follow Larry Brown to SMU or join Tony Benford’s first staff at North Texas as associate head coach.
Evans was wrestling with the decision, wide awake at 3 a.m.
“I didn’t know my wife was awake until she asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’” Evans said. “I told her I didn’t know. She told me then that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was at North Texas, helping Tony, so let’s go.”
The months since Evans made the move haven’t always been easy, but neither Evans nor Benford can imagine themselves anywhere other than at UNT, which will face Louisiana-Lafayette in the opening round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament at 6:30 p.m. today in Hot Springs, Ark.
They shared too many good times dating back to their days in their hometown of Hobbs, N.M., to not capitalize on a chance to work together again.
Evans’ uncle was married to Benford’s grandmother, and they both played for legendary Hobbs coach Ralph Tasker.
Evans knew Benford when the latter was growing up, recruited him when he was an assistant coach at Texas Tech, coached him during his career with the Red Raiders and later hired him as an assistant coach at Arizona State.
Benford and Evans talked nearly every day, and that was before they had offices a few feet apart at the Super Pit.
“I always tell people that he has been a great mentor, role model and father figure to me,” Benford said. “He taught me how to be a father and a husband.”
He also taught Benford a heck of a lot about basketball, lessons that have helped during a turbulent year.
UNT entered the season with sky-high expectations after bringing back nearly all of its key players from a team that advanced to a third straight Sun Belt tournament final under Johnny Jones, who was hired away by LSU in the offseason.
UNT has struggled with the transition to a new system under Benford and lost three key players to season-ending injuries while seeing losses quickly pile up.
The Mean Green (12-19) finished in ninth place in the 11-team Sun Belt and will have to win four games in four days to capture its third conference tournament title since 2007.
Benford was expected to take over a loaded team featuring a potential NBA lottery pick in Tony Mitchell, put his stamp on it and use his first season at UNT to launch his career as a head coach while lifting a program that has never won an NCAA tournament game to new heights.
There might not have been a better person for Benford to have at his side when nothing seemed to be going right than Evans, who was the first black head basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference when he took over at Mississippi in 1992 and has faced his share of challenges.
“When we went through all the injuries and heard from all the naysayers who criticized us, he was a big help,” Benford said. “In his first year as the head coach at Mississippi, they were struggling. People called and threatened him. That’s pressure right there.”
Evans’ office at UNT is packed from floor to ceiling with mementos, all of them with a story behind them, often teaching points for young players who turn to him for guidance.
Several of them date back to his days at Ole Miss.
Evans experienced some down times in Oxford, Miss., which was to be expected considering he was the first black head coach at the school.
“I used to get threats at the house,” Evans said. “My next to last year there, we had turned the program around but had lost a game at Auburn. I had caller ID and had a message from a guy who was upset we lost. I called him back and said, ‘This is coach Evans. I got your message.’ We talked about it. People are a lot different when you talk one on one.”
The tough times he experienced helped Evans develop the wisdom he has passed along to Benford, but they were the exception to the rule during his stay at Ole Miss.
For the most part, Evans said, he was accepted at the school. He is close friends with author John Grisham, an Ole Miss graduate. His son Damon was the first black member of a white fraternity at the school after joining Sigma Chi.
Family photos cover the walls of Evans’ office, including one across from his desk of Damon and some fraternity brothers.
As my family and I got involved in so many things, we were accepted there,” Evans said.
Every time the Rebels won a big game, Grisham sent Evans’ wife, Carolyn, three dozen roses and a note. She has them all in a frame.
Evans went on to become the head coach at Arizona State, where he took over a program with a host of off-the-court problems. The Sun Devils were just months removed from a point-shaving scandal.
Evans took Benford to ASU with him and began imparting all the lessons he learned during the ups and downs of his career, including the most important one of all.
“One thing I feel strongly about and have relayed to all of my guys who have become coaches is that discipline is the most important thing to instill in a team,” Evans said. “That is what Tony is trying to do here — develop a sense of accountability. This may be the last place these guys go to get what they are going to need to be successful in life.”
UNT’s players credit Evans with being a key part of the process, not to mention someone they feel like they can talk to about life.
“Coach Evans is always there for us,” UNT senior forward Niko Stojiljkovic said. “It doesn’t matter if it is life or class. He has so much experience, you have to trust and respect him. He really helps us and has helped coach Benford in his first year.”
Putting the lessons into practice
Benford can talk for hours about the lessons he learned from Evans and how he has tried to put them into practice. He’s spent decades either at Evans’ side or following his career from afar.
Benford picked up Evans’ philosophies of building a program based on accountability, surrounding oneself with the right people and sticking to core principles.
To him, that foundation is a lot more important than his on-court philosophy that is based on defense and emphasizes getting the ball inside on the offensive end.
Benford continued to focus on building that foundation, even when UNT lost 11 of 14 during a slide that began in December.
“We have not been able to reach the goals we have set because of injuries and different things, but that is part of it,” Benford said. “Every season is different. You never know how it is going to play out, but you have to stay patient, believe in yourself and what you are doing and stay the course. It’s more than this year. We are building a program. It’s a different culture than what the players are used to.”
Benford and his players credit Evans with helping them adjust by being someone they can talk to and lean on.
Sophomore point guard Chris Jones can see the impact he has made on the team, not to mention the way he has helped Benford.
“It’s been pretty tough and it’s his first season,” Jones said. “Coach Evans is a calming influence.”
Benford has turned to Evans throughout the year to get his thoughts on several situations.
“I can bounce anything off him,” Benford said. “He’s great on the defensive end and has a feel for the flow of a game on the offensive end. He’s a great in-game coach. I have great experience on the sideline with coach Evans.”
Evans has been a first-year head coach twice, once at Ole Miss and then at ASU. He has shared what those experiences were like and what he learned from them with Benford.
“Your first year is a difficult situation, and it was especially difficult for him because of the expectations that were placed on him when he got here and because of the injuries,” Evans said. “I could tell him what to expect as a first-year head coach in a conference. That is where I think I have been the biggest help.”
Evans’ relationship with UNT’s players also has been important. Assistant coaches often have closer relationships with players because of the time they have to spend with them away from the court.
“He’s been invaluable to the players,” Benford said. “Those guys will tell you that when you sit down with him it’s like going back in time. He has great wisdom and is great for our players and coaches because he has been there.”
Evans has been happy to the person whom people turn to at UNT, where he knew he should be once Benford took the over the program.
“My wife said when [Benford] took the job that even if I wasn’t here, I would be here in mind all the time,” Evans said. “It’s been fun to watch him handle situations and feel like I am being a part of his growth.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .