After 23 years at the helm of the highly successful Palo Duro boys basketball program, Jeff Evans thinks it’s time to see what he can do at another level.
Evans resigned as the school’s head basketball coach Monday. His departure will be official on June 1.
At age 55, Evans decided it was finally time to go for a college coaching job he’d always wanted to pursue. He said he’s weighing taking a job as an assistant at a Division II or Division III program but wouldn’t reveal exactly where he’s going.
Evans says the choice to move on from Palo Duro wasn’t easy.
“It’s been an excruciatingly hard decision,” Evans said. “It’s one of those 50-50 things on the fence all spring long. Really what led me to decide was just that there were a couple of opportunities out there for me to coach in college and it’s something I always said I would do eventually, but 23 years in I had never wanted to leave Palo Duro.”
Evans and Palo Duro have been a good match since he took over the program in the fall of 2000 from Abilene High. He posted a 546-156 record with the Dons, and this past season Evans got his 600th career victory and has a 609-212 career record.
Throw in 22 straight playoff appearances, a state tournament berth in 2005 and only one loss in 104 district games from 2002-11, and it’s obvious the impact Evans made at PD. However, if he is going to do something else in his coaching career, like work at the college level, time is a factor.
“Because of my age I knew that if I didn’t do it now I was getting too old to try to do it,” Evans said. “I want to do it at the collegiate level while I still have time. At the same time I feel really good about the players we have coming back. That’s another thought, when you leave a program, you don’t want to leave your successor a bare cupboard.”
Evans said he has still agonized over the decision and that it was never easy. He said he has some good friends who are head coaches at colleges he’s been considering and that would be willing to hire him as an assistant.
That’s appropriate considering that Evans has launched some former assistants into successful head coaching roles. One of them is Steve Jackson, the head coach at Tascosa who served as an assistant for three years under Evans.
“One of the things I really marveled at was coach Evans work ethic,” Jackson said. “He stayed late for those kids and just kind of showed me if you want to be successful you’ve got to put in the work. There was no secret as to why Palo Duro was as good as they were during the time he was there. His work ethic was just unmatched. I’ve never seen a guy work that hard.”
That’s something which resulted in one of the area’s most perennially successful programs. Evans left Palo Duro as the dean of the coaches in the Panhandle, even if that wasn’t something he had necessarily planned.
“As a high school coach I’d always had a desire to get at a spot I could stay,” Evans said. “I thought Abilene High was that spot. I was never one of those coaches who wanted to chase talent. I wanted to establish the style of play and the buy-in that goes with that. I thought I would be at Abilene High for a long time.
“(Former Amarillo ISD athletic director) Tex Nolan to his credit and (former PD football coach) Steve Parr talked me into coming into Palo Duro when it was open. I wasn’t looking for a job and I wasn’t interested in coming to Palo Duro, but they did such a good job of talking me into it that I finally agreed.”
Evans had his children start and finish school in Amarillo and he coached his son Garner.
Along the way, he also coached Division I college players Justin Mason, Austin Johnson and Michael Cobbins. The 6-foot-11 Cobbins was a rarity for Evans, a big man who dominated inside, as the Dons were often undersized, but applied withering full court pressure on defense and used the 3-point shot effectively on offense.
Cobbins, a 2010 PD graduate who played at Oklahoma State and is now playing in Italy, says that over two decades the program has taken on the identity of Evans.
“I believe coach Evans was a part of the heart and soul of Palo Duro,” Cobbins said. “He is one of the few people that everyone will miss tremendously and continue to root for as he pursues his next opportunity. For me he was the kickstart to preparing me for what was to come in my own life journey. I can still say to this day that my hardest practices were while I was playing for him.
“He took time out for his players, his students and people in general. I’m excited to see him go off and gather more accolades and hardware.”
As much as those players were a reflection of Evans, he’s become a reflection of the program.
“I will always be a Don,” Evans said. “Palo Duro became, has, is and will always be my identity as a basketball coach. After 23 years, it’s a part of me and hopefully I’m a part of it. I had no idea it would be that long, but I wanted to make it work and there are a lot of people who deserve a lot of credit.”
Evans has had opportunities to leave Palo Duro, but chose to stay, up until this week.
“You can have two or three years of success, but the hardest thing to do in coaching is to sustain it over time,” Evans said. “I think if you look at some programs in high school basketball, we were able to sustain a level of success over two decades plus and I’m proud of that.”
Evans and the Dons missed the playoffs in his first season. They haven’t missed since.
It’s been a matter of continuity.
“I’ve always admired those coaches who had a system,” Evans said. “There may be tweaks to it year to year, but they had a style and a system they believed in and their kids believed in. They had a true identity. That’s what I’ll remember most besides all the kids and coaches I’ve had the privilege to work with.”
When the high school basketball season begins late this fall, it will be the first time this century Evans won’t be on the sidelines for an AISD game. PD games, especially at home, have always felt like big events.
For the last three seasons, Evans has faced off against his protégé Jackson in district play. Life will go on for AISD basketball, but an era will end without Evans around, something which saddens Jackson.
“Losing coach Evans on the sideline is I think a big blow to our district, AISD and just the state of Texas in general,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the best coaches in the state and has been for a very long time. To play Palo Duro this next season and not see him there on the sideline, that’s definitely going to be different. I would like to hope that the intensity of our rivalry won’t be diminished.”
AISD athletic director Brad Thiessen confirmed that the Palo Duro coaching opening has been posted and that AISD is hoping to have it filled by the beginning of June.