Mark Story

Tennessee Tech last made NCAA tourney in 1963. Why John Pelphrey thinks he can change that.

John Pelphrey checked all of Avery Johnson’s boxes

At SEC Tipoff 2017 in Nashville, Alabama coach Avery Johnson talks about why he brought John Pelphrey on his staff. A former Kentucky forward, Pelphrey was a head coach at South Alabama and Arkansas as well as a long-time assistant at Florida.
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At SEC Tipoff 2017 in Nashville, Alabama coach Avery Johnson talks about why he brought John Pelphrey on his staff. A former Kentucky forward, Pelphrey was a head coach at South Alabama and Arkansas as well as a long-time assistant at Florida.

In the afternoon of April 12, there apparently was a noticeable uptick in outward migration from the state of Kentucky toward the south.

The cause was John Pelphrey.

Around 4:15 p.m. EDT that Friday in Cookeville, Tenn., Pelphrey — one of Kentucky basketball’s “Unforgettables” and the commonwealth’s 1987 Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School — was introduced as the new head men’s hoops coach at Tennessee Tech University.

The Unforgettables
The “Unforgettables” are four players who led Kentucky out of NCAA probation in the early 1990s. From left, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey. Lexington Herald-Leader

The occasion brought a plethora of Pelphreys south from Kentucky. Among them were John’s parents, Jack and Jennie, who came from Johnson County, and his brother, Jerry, who traveled from Somerset.

“It was special to me that so much of my family got to see it,” John Pelphrey says of his introduction as Tennessee Tech coach.

At age 50, Pelphrey is getting another crack at succeeding as a college head man. Tennessee Tech will be Pelphrey’s third head-coaching stop.

In 2002, at the tender age of 34, Pelphrey was hired off Billy Donovan’s Florida staff to take over a listing South Alabama program.

After three years of building, Pelphrey led the Jaguars to back-to-back 20-win seasons, a pair of Sun Belt Conference regular-season titles and a berth in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

Pelphrey parlayed his success at South Alabama into the Arkansas job. In 2007, at age 39, he was a Southeastern Conference head coach.

Things started well. During his initial season as boss Hog, Pelphrey coached Arkansas to a 23-12 record that included an NCAA Tournament victory over Indiana.

However, the next three years produced seasons of 14, 14 and 18 wins. In spite of having a highly regarded recruiting class set to arrive, Pelphrey was pink-slipped by Arkansas in 2011.

Major college sports can be unforgiving for coaches ousted over a lack of winning.

John Pelphrey at Alabama
Former Kentucky forward and new Tennessee Tech head coach John Pelphrey, who had been the associate head coach at Alabama, instructed Crimson Tide players during Bama’s 77-75 win over UK last season. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Pelphrey ended up returning to Florida to again work on Donovan’s coaching staff (2011-15) as an assistant. He spent a season (2015-16) opining as an SEC Network analyst. He then moved to Alabama to assist Avery Johnson (2016-19).

Through all that, Pelphrey says he never lost faith that he would get another chance to run his own show.

“My whole thing, it was my responsibility to be the best that I can be every day no matter where I was or what I was doing,” he said Wednesday. “I always felt like if I continued to work and grow, I would get another chance in leadership when the time was right.”

At Tennessee Tech, Pelphrey inherits a program that has made only two men’s NCAA Tournament appearances ever.

In 1958 and 1963, Coach John Oldham — who would go on to greater things at Western Kentucky — took the Ohio Valley Conference school to March Madness.

The Golden Eagles have never returned.

Still, basketball has not been a complete wasteland at Tennessee Tech. Under Mike Sutton, the former Tubby Smith assistant at UK, Tech had five winning seasons in nine years from 2002-2011.

When former Georgetown College assistant Steve Payne replaced Sutton, Tennessee Tech had four winning years in eight seasons (2011-19).

Payne resigned after Tech went 8-23 last year.

John Pelphrey at Bill Keightley memorial servie
Former Wildcats players Richie Farmer, left, John Pelphrey and Jeff Sheppard, waited with coaches Rick Pitino Joe B. Hall, and Billy Gillispie as they came in with former managers Jeff Morrow, front right, and Vinny Tatum, back right, during the memorial service for UK equipment manager Bill Keightley at Rupp Arena in 2008. Lexington Herald-Leader

Drawing from the lessons of his prior head coaching experiences, Pelphrey says two areas will be of special emphasis for him at Tennessee Tech.

One is being extra diligent about the kind of people he brings into the Tech program. “That’s players and staff,” Pelphrey says.

The other is creating a practice atmosphere that, as closely as possible, will replicate the heat players face under game conditions.

“Games are chaos,” Pelphrey says. “When people face chaos, they tend to rise or sink to the level of their training. We need to practice in such a way that guys are not afraid to make mistakes, but learn how to correct (mistakes) and play through adversity.”

At Alabama, Pelphrey and his wife, Tracy, had their children with them in Tuscaloosa.

Daughter Grace was a freshman walk-on last season with the Crimson Tide women’s hoops team.

John Pelphrey laughed when asked if his daughter would be following the family to Tennessee Tech. “You’ll probably need to ask Grace that one,” he said.

Son Jaxson, 22, was the head men’s basketball manager at Alabama. “His mom is in charge of recruiting him (to Tennessee Tech),” Pelphrey said. “We’re going to see how good a recruiter she is.”

Whatever decisions his children make, Pelphrey is now the head coach at a university that is 241 miles from his native Johnson County and 93 miles from where his brother lives in Somerset.

That presumably will mean additional chances for extended family to do what they did April 12 — share with John Pelphrey in the experience of again being a college head coach.

“This job is a blessing in many ways,” Pelphrey says of Tennessee Tech. “Certainly, being closer to family in Kentucky is one of the ways.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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