CHAMPAIGN — Rob Evans always had it in his mind that his post-basketball playing career would see him wind up as a coach.
That thought began to form as he saw the effect his high school coach Ralph Tasker had not only on the players he coached to more than 1,100 wins at Hobbs (N.M.) High School, but also on the students he taught for nearly five full decades.
That was Evans’ plan. Graduate from New Mexico State with a degree in English and then return home to Hobbs, become a teacher and get into coaching. The first and last part of that plan actually came to fruition.
Evans graduated from New Mexico State, but his coaching career started right there in Las Cruces, N.M., under then-coach Lou Henson. It was only notable for the period of time it happened. When Evans was named a full-time assistant coach for the Aggies in 1969, Cleveland State’s John McLendon was the only Black head coach at a major college program. Just two other Black assistant coaches were around that level at the same time — Fred Snowden at Michigan and George Raveling at Maryland.
“It meant a tremendous amount to me,” Evans said. “He got me started in my career and constantly kept pushing me and encouraging me.”
Henson died in July at the age of 88. This year’s 18th annual Sapora Symposium at the University of Illinois — celebrating industries and individuals who are leaders in promoting social justice — is dedicated to Henson’s life and begins (virtually) on Wednesday.
Evans didn’t hesitate when asked to be involved in this year’s event at Illinois.
“I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for Coach Henson and his family,” said Evans, who spent nine seasons total with Henson at New Mexico State. “Even after the that, we stayed in contact with each other up until he passed away.”
Hiring Evans as an assistant wasn’t the first time Henson bucked the status quo of the 1960s. Henson’s own first college coaching job came in 1962 at Hardin-Simmons, and he only accepted the job if the team and school were racially integrated.
“Coach Henson was always at the forefront of integration,” Evans made sure to note.
Evans was Henson’s first recruit after he moved on from Hardin-Simmons and returned to his alma mater to take the New Mexico State job ahead of the 1966-67 season. Henson had recruited Evans out of what is now Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas, where the New Mexico native was the school’s first All-American.
That Evans was a two-year captain for Henson at New Mexico State made his transition to the coaching staff, first as a graduate assistant and then full-time, an easy one. Henson’s expectations for the Aggies were already hardwired in Evans.
“He was a real, hard taskmaster,” Evans said. “He expected you to work hard. He expected you to be loyal. He expected you to give everything you had for your teammates. He required you to be team-oriented. He stressed defense mostly. Early on his career — I don’t know how he was when he finished up — but he was pretty tough. But he was very, very fair.”
When Henson left New Mexico State for Illinois in 1975, Evans did so, too, catching on at Texas Tech for 14 seasons working with Gerald Myers. Evans also served as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State before being named coach at Mississippi and then Arizona State. He finished the final decade of his nearly 50-year coaching career as an assistant at Arkansas, TCU and North Texas.
“We were in constant contact, and he was always trying to guide me,” Evans said of Henson. “He was constantly calling me and talking to me. We’d bounce things off each other, new ideas.”
But back to their time at New Mexico State, which included plenty of recruiting road trips. Meaning two beds in a single room and plenty of conversation about basketball.
“He would stay up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning talking basketball and drawing plays and going over plays with me,” Evans said. “We’d go to bed at 2 or 3 o’clock, and then he’d wake up at 5:30 or 6. I’d say, ‘Coach, we just went to bed,’ and he’d go, ‘That’s the problem, Rob. People sleep too much.’”
Two items away from the basketball court during their time together in Las Cruces stand out to Evans: having lunch at Henson’s house with the coach and his wife, Mary, and playing endless amounts of dominoes.
“He and I played a lot, a lot of dominoes,” Evans said. “Loved to play dominoes. He was a checker player, but I would never play him in checkers because he was so good. We played literally thousands and thousands of games of dominoes.
“We’d go to his house for lunch, Ms. Henson would fix sandwiches or something and we’d probably be over there for a couple hours playing dominoes. It was so competitive with him. He finally started keeping score in a little notepad that he had because we disagreed on who won the most games.”