UK Men's Basketball

UK another emotional hurdle for Arkansas' Pelphrey

As if John Pelphrey's never-boring tenure as Arkansas coach was not eventful enough, he'll be concluding an emotionally charged eight days at Kentucky on Saturday.

Pelphrey will have coached against two of his closest friends, plus tried to beat his alma mater in an eight-day span.

When Arkansas beat Alabama 71-59 last Saturday, Pelphrey matched coaching wits with Anthony Grant, with whom he worked eight seasons as Florida assistants.

Then Pelphrey coached against his former boss, Florida Coach Billy Donovan, a 71-66 loss on Thursday night. "Billy was just like a brother to him," Jenny Pelphrey, the coach's mother, said this week.

Then Pelphrey, the former UK Unforgettable, leads Arkansas against Kentucky on Saturday.

"It's obviously challenging because of who we're playing," Pelphrey said of this stretch. "Those are good teams and good coaches and good players.

"Outside of that, there's some emotional stuff there for me personally. ... It is kind of hard in those situations."

Speaking during a Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference on Monday, Donovan suggested that these emotional games are more difficult to deal with during the period of preparation.

"The easier time is once the game starts," he said, "when you get caught up in the game and coaching your team and dealing with the situations in front of you."

No doubt Pelphrey welcomes any easier times that appear. It was obvious from the beginning that he faced a challenging situation as Arkansas coach.

Arkansas hired Dana Altman as coach on April 2, 2007. On April 3, 2007, he flew back to Omaha, Neb., and his job as Creighton's basketball coach.

What could speak more eloquently to the pile of trouble infecting Arkansas basketball?

Pelphrey ultimately took the job of restoring the luster to a once-proud Razorbacks program. He summed up the fits and starts of his rebuilding effort by acknowledging recently, "the last year has been bizarre."

His first season as Arkansas coach saw Pelphrey take a group of underachieving veterans to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, where they won a game for the first time in nine years.

Losing six seniors from that team figured to complicate year two of the Pelphrey era. It got even more difficult when the school ruled star guard Patrick Beverley ineligible. He later said he turned in a class paper written by someone else.

Then came the bizarre part. Going into this season, four players left the team as transfers or because of dismissals. Then Pelphrey suspended four more scholarship players for disciplinary reasons.

The nadir came earlier this season when Arkansas got off to a 2-5 start that included losses to Morgan State, East Tennessee State and South Alabama in a six-day period. That made the Hogs 4-20 dating back to the start of Southeastern Conference play last season.

Attendance fell (eight of the 10 smallest crowds in the history of Bud Walton Arena came this season). Speculation arose about the coach's job security.

Arkansas Athletics Director Jeff Long repeatedly voiced support. Most recently, Long spoke of his belief in Pelphrey during an appearance at the Northwest Arkansas Tip-Off Club.

"I support what he's doing in our basketball program because I believe in John," Long said. "I believe that he deserves the time to build the program the right way."

Pelphrey said his approach remained the same. "For us, going to work every day, handling myself in an appropriate way so the players see that," he said. "And when things start going really well, hopefully handle myself in the same manner."

Now in his third season as coach, Pelphrey comes to Rupp Arena still seemingly taking steps backward as well as forward.

But he's stayed steadily on the same path.

"I admire Coach Pelphrey because he's been through a lot here and he hasn't made a lot of excuses," Long said in his appearance at the Tip-Off Club. "He's not led his press conferences with all the reasons why things happened, and I respect that."

Pelphrey gained a reputation as a disciplinarian when he became a head coach at South Alabama. That has carried over to Arkansas, where he has suspended several players in his three seasons even if it stirred the criticism that comes with defeat.

"I don't work for the approval of everybody else," Pelphrey said last month. "I think everybody likes nice things said about them, but I don't wake up on a daily basis and have to have that.

"I know what my job is. It's to lead young men. It's to help them become better as individuals. ... We're going to do that. Arkansas deserves that, and this program deserves that, and I'm excited about where we're headed."