Q&A with Arkansas coach John Pelphrey

John Pelphrey has made quite an impression in his seven months at Arkansas, who opens its regular season tonight by hosting Wofford at Bud Walton Arena.

The former Kentucky standout eagerly "Called the Hogs" at his introductory news conference, immediately endearing him to a fractured fan base. He took a hard stance with three late-for-the-bus players, suspending them for the Razorbacks' trip to Cancun. And he flung up 3-pointers as a surprise participant in Arkansas' Red-White game.

But now, the grace period is over. Arkansas opens its regular season tonight against Wofford in Bud Walton Arena, and Pelphrey will no longer be judged by his off-court actions.

The man who turned South Alabama around in five seasons and coached under Billy Donovan at Marshall and Florida takes over a team with five returning starters and lofty expectations. Pelphrey hasn't shied from the prospects -- he has talked of competing for Southeastern Conference and national championships -- and hasn't wilted in the face of rarely seen pressure for a first-year coach.

Pelphrey discussed this and more when he sat down with The Morning News earlier this week:

TMN: "First off, what are your emotions like heading into your first regular-season game?"

JP: "There's a lot of excitement for me, being a Southern kid back in the SEC at a place that I truly find special and magical. This is a passionate place. They love the Razorbacks, and they love their basketball. And those are all things that ring true for me. So I feel very honored and blessed to be here. It's a big day. It's the start of basketball season, and we're keeping count now. So there is a lot of excitement for me and my family."

TMN: "What defines a John Pelphrey-coached basketball team?"

JP: "I like a lot of aspects of the game, but more so than anything else I like camaraderie. So being a team is important to me. Playing team basketball is important to me -- like making extra passes, diving on the floor, those types of hustle plays. This is a team game. I think a lot of people miss that. This is not an individual sport. So I like the team stuff where everyone is not consumed with themselves but consumed with the good of the team. That was my biggest thing as a player. I loved playing. It was important to me, and I didn't need to see my name in the headlines."

TMN: "How much convincing did you need to play in the Red-White game?"

JP: "You know I was trying to find one human being to side with me in getting me out of there. The darkness of doubt was there for me. What if I couldn't even make a shot? But, you know what, I love playing. The game was getting stagnant, a little stale, and (walk-on) Stephen (Cox) was getting a little winded, so I thought, 'OK, I'll go do this.' After I got out there I felt fine. Probably the biggest shock of me playing was where your body gets to as far as all the little contact -- like Charles (Thomas) knocking me to the ground and hitting into Vincent (Hunter). My neck is still stiff. So it's amazing that these guys can just shake that stuff off."

TMN: "You had to come in and make some tough decisions immediately. You suspended three players for the Cancun trip and suspended players again this month. Looking back at it, was it a good thing to be able to show what discipline would be like with you here?"

JP: "I do. I really do. You know, when I was younger, as a coach, I heard players saying, 'Why do we have to deal with this? There's a big game. Why do we have to deal with this right now?' (They were) talking about school or whatever might arise. It's obviously harder said than done, but if we can just hang in there and use the adversity outside of the game to make you better. I recognize that better now as a coach than I did as a player. I think all these guys want parameters. We all need to know what our boundaries are, and that's not bad. I think a lot of times, guys equate discipline with being bad. And it's not. My kids aren't the best kids in the world, but they're my kids, and they mess up, too. It doesn't mean we get rid of them. I know what my limits are. We all need that. I really believe these recent situations have been very good. Maybe Patrick (Beverley) and those guys being suspended was the best thing to come out of the Cancun trip."

TMN: "Why did you decide to hire each of your three assistant coaches?"

JP: "Tommy (Ostrom) is a guy that I have tremendous confidence in. He gets it. He understands me, what we want style of play wise. He gets it from a recruiting standpoint. He understands the value of spending time with guys away from the court. Isaac (Brown) is a young man who played at the highest level, who had a huge impact on the success we had at South Alabama on the court and from the recruiting side of it. And I think he's got a chance to be a high-level assistant coach. He's got a good rapport with the guys, and he's tremendously loyal. Coach (Rob) Evans' resume is easy to describe. He's all about class and toughness and commitment to doing things the right way. And he, unlike the others, has been a head coach. So he understands what it feels like to screw a game up and how to get over that. For me, there's piece of that that's important, because I'm not always going to make the right decisions. I'm going to probably screw a game up probably down the line, and as head coaches, which is different from being an assistant coach, we can hang on to that stuff too long. Just like I tell our players to get over it and get on to the next play, I'm going to need somebody to tell me to get over it and get to the next play. I find it a whole lot easier to take it and hear it better coming from somebody that's actually walked the walk."

TMN: "What are your goals for this season?"

JP: "I want this basketball team to overachieve. I want to try to give these guys, these six seniors, our best on a daily basis. We have to communicate and teach because they have a short amount of time to learn a new system and have success. And this is a hard league to get that done in. If I can get these guys to overachieve -- and I don't want to just put that on the court -- this season will be a success. If we can overachieve on the practice court and in our personal lives, then all that other stuff will take care of itself. I've talked a lot about our relationships and the things and hard times we go through together can last a lifetime."

TMN: "How does this team fit into the mold of what you like to recruit and what you like as far as the types of players for your system?"

JP: "It's not bad. Not bad at all. I like the way these guys move as frontcourt players. I like the backcourt guys. I wish we had more of them, our depth is lacking back there. I like to have two guys at every spot. I like this basketball team."

TMN: "What do you like to do away from basketball? What are your biggest outside interests?"

JP: "I'm usually doing two things. I'm either working or I'm home with my family. If there's a third, it's playing golf. I enjoy that. I need something to go do. I don't do well just sitting around. I love playing (basketball). I've kind of realized that I can't get that done anymore. Plus, I don't want to risk getting injured to where I can't get in and out of bed or chase my kids around. So golf gets that done for me. And I don't even need to be with anybody to do it. I get enjoyment out of just going out and competing (against the course)."

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