Pelphrey's Leadership Praised By Coaches

FAYETTEVILLE -- Three or four Kentucky Wildcats officially earned the title of "captain" during Travis Ford's sophomore season. But Ford, the coach at Massachusetts, looked up to one in particular, John Pelphrey.

Pelphrey was named Arkansas' new basketball coach Monday, and Ford couldn't contain his excitement.

"He was absolutely like a big brother to me," Ford said. "That's what he's going to be like for that program. His greatest asset is his leadership. When we were at Kentucky, he was the leader of the team. Sure, he was one of a few captains. But everyone knew who the real captain was."

It was Pelphrey, who garnered respect from every teammate on that team, Ford said. The two roomed together during their two shared seasons in Lexington, so Ford knows as much as anyone about Pelphrey.

They grew up in similar situations: Small-town Kentucky boys hoping to play for the Wildcats.

"We knew each other growing up," Ford said.

And their bond strengthened at Kentucky. Pelphrey, a 6-foot-7 forward, arrived at Kentucky after earning the 1987 Mr. Basketball award for the state of Kentucky. Former Arkansas and Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton gave Pelphrey a chance.

But, soon after, Pelphrey saw turmoil.

Kentucky landed on probation, Sutton resigned and Pelphrey considered transferring. But he didn't. And he eventually played an integral role in restoring the winning tradition at Kentucky. Under Rick Pitino, Pelphrey showed all the obvious signs of a future coach.

"John was the brightest player I've ever coached and the best leader," said Pitino, now the coach at Louisville. "He not only was the hardest worker, but he got everybody else working harder and playing better. I knew he was going to be a coach. It was easy to see."

After a stellar four-year career, in which he started 90 games and averaged 11 points per game, Pelphrey played overseas for one season. He returned the next year to coach, given a first chance yet again by Sutton, this time at Oklahoma State.

He stayed there one season, moved on to Marshall for two seasons as an assistant under Billy Donovan and then followed Donovan to Florida. Pelphrey spent six seasons in Gainesville, helping to spur a four-year run to the NCAA Tournament. That stretch included a run to the 2000 National Championship Game.

"His work ethic and passion have made him a success at every level of basketball, from a player to an assistant to the transition to a head coach," Donovan said.

That transition wasn't easy. In 2002, he took over a South Alabama program that was about as down as one can get. "There just wasn't a lot of excitement about basketball, and a lot of players transferred in the two years before John got here," said Joe Gottfried, South Alabama's athletic director.

But Pelphrey turned the Jaguars into winners. His up-tempo and pressing style excited recruits and started drawing larger crowds. In his fourth season, South Alabama advanced to the NCAA Tournament and played Florida in the first round. It was quite a matchup. Donovan vs. Pelphrey. Mentor vs. Protege.

Florida held on for a win, but Gottfried hasn't forgotten that game. That contest proved to Gottfried that Pelphrey's style could translate to any conference, even the Southeastern Conference.

"When you watched us, it was like watching Florida," Gottfried said. "And that got people excited."

Pelphrey also showed some backbone as a coach at South Alabama. Gottfried remembered that Pelphrey benched three of the Jaguars' leading scorer for a key Sun Belt Conference game against Louisiana-Monroe this season.

Gottfried was even a little shocked.

"I said, 'Couldn't they just run stairs,'" Gottfried said. "But he was adamant about it, even though they were just late for something. That's just how he is. He's a player's coach, and he disciplines. It's hard to pull off both, but he does it."


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