SAN FRANCISCO-- Eddie Sutton acknowledges he's selfish: He really wants 800 wins.
He also would prefer to end his career on a positive note rather than amid controversy as he did at Oklahoma State.
Sutton is coming out of retirement to replace Jessie Evans as San Francisco's basketball coach and will have his shot at 800 victories after all. USF announced Wednesday night that Evans was taking "a leave of absence" for the rest of the season and that the 71-year-old Sutton would lead the Dons (4-8) on an interim basis.
Sutton's first chance for win No. 799 will be Friday night at Weber State.
"It's very important," Sutton said of winning 800 games. "I had a chance earlier this year to take a Division I job and didn't think I wanted to do it. From a selfish standpoint, it is something I'm excited about. It was a goal I had for myself. I don't think nationally anybody's going to look at it and say, 'Now you won 800 versus 798.' There's just not that much difference."
Evans will be away from the team at least until March, second-year USF athletic director Debra Gore-Mann said, declining to offer further details. She wouldn't say whether he had a health concern, an issue with the NCAA or whether he would even be considered to coach the team again next season.
"Those are private matters and I won't be addressing personnel matters today," Gore-Mann said. "We'll be in discussions. ... The men's basketball program, in particular, has been a work in progress."
Gore-Mann said she or someone from her staff would be traveling with the team regularly in the near future to "lend my support to the student-athletes and to assist interim coach Sutton in any way I can."
Sutton retired as Oklahoma State's coach after the 2005-06 season. He has 798 victories in 36 seasons as a Division I coach at Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State.
When his victories at Tulsa Central High School and the College of Southern Idaho are included, Sutton won exactly 1,000 games before retiring from coaching in May 2006.
His retirement came about three months after a drunken driving accident caused him to miss the Cowboys' final 10 games of the 2005-06 season. Sutton pleaded no contest to misdemeanor aggravated drunken driving and two other charges following the February 2006 car accident.
"I've thought about that and I would say it probably does (enter into this decision). I certainly didn't want to end my coaching career the way it ended here," Sutton said, speaking from an athletic office at Oklahoma State.
He called his drinking problems a "thing of the past."
"As a recovering alcoholic you have to work on that every day," he said. "I still attend meetings."
Gore-Mann said she "took Coach Sutton at his word."
Sutton said he spoke to Gore-Mann a couple of days ago about the possibility of coming to USF if the job opened. Yet Gore-Mann said she didn't know what Evans would do until Wednesday, before adding that she would consider Sutton beyond this season if he were interested in staying.
"When I was talking to Coach Sutton before, it was more a long-term basis," she said of their previous talks. "I would always consider him. I think it would be what he would be ready to commit to. I think it's an audition for USF athletics."
So, in a bizarre turn of events for both sides, Sutton committed to coach the Dons without even a campus visit -- and negotiated his contract over the phone.
He was scheduled to meet his team in Salt Lake City on Thursday, and said he would lean heavily on his assistant coaches at first. He hoped to get one practice in with his team before Friday's game.
"I would say it's the toughest challenge that I've ever had," Sutton said. "I've had challenges before, but I'm looking forward to meeting the young men and trying to turn the season around."
Sutton has two sons who are Division I coaches: Sean, who succeeded him at Oklahoma State, and Scott, who is at Oral Roberts.
"He's thought long about it over the last four or five days," Sean Sutton said. "He's excited about it. He misses the interaction on a daily basis with the players. He still has a lot of competitive fire in him. ... And obviously, he's two wins shy of winning 800 games. There's only been three or four other coaches that have ever accomplished that goal. It would put him in an elite group of coaches. I'm excited for him because I think he's happy."
Scott Sutton, whose team beat Sean's 74-59 on Dec. 20, said he was "happy for my father that he has decided to return to coaching. Hopefully he'll be able to gain his 800th victory and cap a great career."
Sutton reached the Final Four with Arkansas in 1978 and with Oklahoma State in 1995 and 2004. He ranks fifth on the all-time list for victories among Division I coaches, trailing Texas Tech's Bob Knight (896), Dean Smith (North Carolina, 879), Adolph Rupp (Kentucky, 876) and Jim Phelan (Mount St. Mary's, Md., 830).
Evans, who had been under careful watch by Gore-Mann over the past year, was in his fourth season at USF. He was hired from Louisiana-Lafayette in April 2004 to replace fired coach Phil Mathews.
Evans coached on Lute Olson's staff at Arizona from 1988-97 and also worked as an assistant at Minnesota, Texas, Wyoming and San Diego State.