FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach John Pelphrey doesn't hide his appreciation for Billy Donovan.
It was obvious late Wednesday night when, minutes after his team polished off a 78-58 win against Mississippi State, Pelphrey was asked about his relationship with Florida's coach. His answer raised a few eyebrows.
"Billy has probably been the most influential male in my life other than my father," Pelphrey said. "If I had a male soul mate, he'd be it."
The heaping helping of praise isn't often used by coaches competing in the same conference, but Pelphrey was honest. When Arkansas (15-5, 4-2 in Southeastern Conference) plays No. 20 Florida (18-3, 5-1) in Bud Walton Arena on Saturday at 2 p.m., he won't just be trying to coach the Razorbacks to another win. He'll be trying to beat his mentor and closest friend.
Pelphrey and Donovan have known each other for nearly 20 years and aren't shy about their admiration. They first met when Pelphrey played at Kentucky and Donovan was an assistant coach under Rick Pitino. When Donovan was named Marshall's head coach in 1994, he asked Pelphrey to join him. And, of course, the two worked to build Florida into a national power from 1996-2002.
"He's one of the closest people to me in my life," Donovan said. "In what we do for our jobs, I don't think that John will ever be able to do as good a job as type of person he is. That's the thing I probably admire and respect most about him, the type of person he is and the relationship he and I have."
Pelphrey and Donovan first met at Kentucky. Pelphrey was beginning his second season on the court, while Donovan was a hot-shot assistant.
Donovan, who had come off a brief stint in the NBA, practiced almost daily with the scholarship-deprived Wildcats. He put more hours in the office.
"I'd come by in between classes, right after class, whatever and he'd be there late working a lot of times," Pelphrey said. "I'd be in the gym, see his light on and go up there and screw around and annoy him."
After separating for a couple of years, Pelphrey and Donovan began working together in 1994. Donovan got his big break by accepting the head coaching position at Marshall. He called Pelphrey, who was a part-time assistant at Oklahoma State under Eddie Sutton. Pelphrey packed his car and left.
Once there, Pelphrey discovered he was in over his head. So he turned to Donovan and began to learn the ins and outs of college coaching.
"I'll never forget sitting at an office at Marshall," Pelphrey said. "I had a yellow legal pad and a pen and a phone. I was sitting behind this desk and I'm like, ‘What do I do now. ... I basically spent the next three weeks in his office, pulled up a chair and worked off the front of his desk. If I had to do that for somebody now, I don't know if I'd have the patience and the kindness in my heart to do that. But he was incredible."
Donovan moved to Florida in 1996 and Pelphrey, of course, followed. After two subpar seasons, the Gators won 22 games or more the rest of the time Pelphrey was on staff. That included a trip to the national title game in 2000.
Pelphrey left Donovan's staff to become South Alabama's head coach in 2002. Of course, he consulted with Donovan before taking the plunge.
Three years later, the head coaches broached an uncomfortable subject when the Jaguars met the Gators in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
Florida won and went on to claim its first national championship. Neither coach liked coaching against each other in a high stakes game.
"I never think it's easy," Donovan said. "Him being such a big part of everything that has happened and what we've been able to build (at Florida), it's always tough competing against someone like that."
But nothing will stand in the way of their friendship.
Pelphrey named his daughter, Anne-Marie Grace Donovan Pelphrey after the coach. They went on a golfing excursion to Ireland this summer and Pelphrey said the conversation rarely included basketball. Pelphrey said they also talk a couple times a week, whether it's by phone or text messages.
In fact, Pelphrey talked to Donovan on Monday. He asked his friend who was next on Florida's schedule. The answer? "We play you guys," Donovan said.
Whether the two coaches — and close friends — like it or not.
"There is a different emotion in the game because you know how you'd feel if you lose and you certainly wouldn't wish that on anybody," Pelphrey said. "By the same token you want to win. It probably makes you want to win more to be honest with you, but also, when it's over and done with you're not really happy about it."
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