Mark Story: Ex-Cat Pelphrey taking a step back to move his career forward

Florida a safe haven for Pelphrey to relaunch career

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 7, 2011 

After the most turbulent year of his professional life, John Pelphrey has spent his summer answering the same question.

"People ask me how I'm doing," the popular former University of Kentucky basketball standout said last week over the phone. "Let's just say what I've gone through the last three, four months, I don't ever care to go through it again. But you have to move on."

Pelphrey, who turned 43 last month, was fired as the head men's basketball coach at Arkansas following last season. His four-year record in Fayetteville was 69-59 and his only NCAA Tournament appearance came in his first season.

For the former Paintsville High School basketball star and the commonwealth's 1987 Mr. Basketball, "moving on" has meant a back-to-the-future job as an assistant to Florida head coach Billy Donovan.

Being back with Billy D. is a safe harbor at the end of a rocky voyage for Pelphrey.

"Other than my father, Billy has been the most important male figure in my life," Pelphrey says.

They certainly have history. During most of Pelphrey's time as a Wildcats player, Donovan was an assistant to Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Back in the day, Pelphrey used to spend hours in Donovan's office watching game film.

After Donovan became the youthful head coach at Marshall in 1994, he hired Pelphrey to his staff. When Billy D. moved to Florida in '96, he took Pel with him. In that first go-around, Pelphrey served as a Florida assistant until 2002, when he left to launch his own head coaching career at South Alabama.

"There is no other place I would have gone to be an assistant," Pelphrey says of Florida.

Long-term, Pelphrey says the firing at Arkansas has not changed his career aspirations. He still wants to be a college head basketball coach at a place "where you can win the national title."

Question is, will he get another chance in a program like that?

An unfair firing?

For those sympathetic to Pelphrey, two factors framed the debate over the decision Arkansas made to can the redhead.

1.) The Hogs' program Pelphrey inherited in 2007 after Stan Heath was fired was widely perceived to have become an underachieving operation with significant internal disciplinary issues.

2.) Before what turned out to be his final season as boss Hog, Pelphrey signed a recruiting class that included five players who ended the season in the 2011 Rivals 150, including two of the country's top 32 prospects.

Many people outside Arkansas looked at both factors and thought Pelphrey deserved a fifth season as Razorbacks coach.

"I thought he got a raw deal, that he deserved another year," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale says of Pelphrey. "A lot of people, I don't think, realize how good that recruiting class is that John signed (last fall). I think he should have been given a chance to coach it, I really do."

Inside Arkansas, the paying public didn't see it that way. After four years with Pelphrey at the helm yielded a 25-39 record in SEC games, The Woo, Pig, Sooie Nation voted the coach out at the box office.

Consider: During the 1995-96 season — the year after Nolan Richardson's Hogs had played in back-to-back NCAA title games (winning in 1994) — Arkansas averaged 19,261 fans a game in Bud Walton Arena. Last season, Arkansas drew as many as 14,000 for an SEC game only once (14,174 against Ole Miss).

"Because of the (lack of) attendance, the university was missing out on big dollars in revenue," says Wally Hall, the veteran Little Rock sports columnist. "In this day and age, that just isn't going to fly.

"I think if you went to John and said, 'Look, Rupp Arena is only drawing 12,000, 14,000, for the Kentucky games, he'd say, 'You've got to change coaches.' But at Arkansas, he couldn't see that."

Moving on

As too many people are finding out in this drab economy, losing a job is no fun. Getting fired from one of the most high-profile positions in a state must cut to the core.

Yet, in a sense, Pelphrey says his prior life had prepared him to cope.

During his playing days at Kentucky, UK basketball was hit with a harsh NCAA probation that decimated the program. Pelphrey was among the small band of players who stuck it out and helped revive Wildcats basketball.

Of a billion times more gravity, Pelphrey and his wife, Tracy, lost a son in childbirth in 2003.

"Certainly when you lose a child and have to get through that, there is nothing as difficult as that, not even close," Pelphrey says.

After he got fired, Pelphrey says his children, son Jaxson and daughter Grace, "didn't miss one day of school. I was proud of them. My wife did an unbelievable job getting us moved. As a family, we've fought through (the firing) in a way I'm really proud of."

Another chance?

When former Duke star Tommy Amaker got ousted as head coach by Michigan, he had to drop down to Harvard of the Ivy League for his next head coaching shot.

Pelphrey says he has "no idea" if he'll get another head coaching shot at a school with a realistic chance to win it all.

"I hope so," he says.

Says Vitale: "I think John will probably have to drop back down, maybe a mid-major job, and hope he can work back up. One thing he will have going for him is Billy Donovan. Athletic directors listen to Billy Donovan and (Florida AD) Jeremy Foley. That should help John, but there's no guarantee he'll ever get another chance as good as Arkansas."

In the meantime, it can be a little weird to return to live in a place you've left behind.

Yet being back in Gainesville "hasn't been weird at all," Pelphrey said. "It's nice to go to a place where you already know your way around the town, where you have relationships in the town, where you don't have to go through the process of figuring out who you can trust. And I'm excited to be back with Billy."

So for all those in Kentucky and elsewhere worried about how John Pelphrey is doing after a very difficult winter, he has a simple reply.

"When people ask me how I'm doing, I tell them I'm concentrating on three things right now, faith, family and Florida," he says. "And I'm doing fine."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or

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