During his playing days as a Kentucky Wildcat, Arkansas' first-year coach normally entered through the back door to Rupp Arena. For practices, for games, for team meetings — rarely through the front, usually through the back.
He strolled through that entrance six times as a Florida assistant coach, but he does so today for the first time as a head coach. And at that precise moment, Pelphrey expects to be bombarded by recollections.
"I'm sure there will be memories flooding back, stuff that I don't even know about right now," Pelphrey said. "And I'm sure walking into the arena, there will be things with that. But once the game starts, certainly I'll be able to focus on the task at hand."
To not block out the distractions, to give in to the diversion of the fans who adored him, would go against everything Pelphrey stood for at Kentucky. To do so would not allow Pelphrey to overachieve, the word that may most accurately describe his playing career in Lexington.
He arrived a rail-thin freshman. He departed a home-state hero. And his No. 34 jersey that drapes down from the Rupp Arena rafters serves as a constant reminder of the imprint Pelphrey left on this storied program.
"John's story is really what Kentucky basketball is all about," said Travis Ford, Pelphrey's former teammate and UMass' coach.
Choosing UK Blue
Kentucky almost ended up with 28 retired jerseys instead of 29.
At first, former Arkansas and Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton didn't recruit Pelphrey, the AAU teammate of his son Sean. He didn't think Pelphrey could handle the athleticism of the Southeastern Conference. Eddie Sutton worried about Pelphrey's 6-foot-7 toothpick figure and fretted about his absence of speed and leaping ability.
Sure, Pelphrey put up big numbers for tiny Paintsville High. And sure, Sean Sutton raved about Pelphrey's basketball IQ. But this was Kentucky. This was the school that turned down All-Americans. So Eddie Sutton and assistant coach James Dickey decided to go another way, offering Kentucky's last 1987-88 scholarship to Deron Feldhaus.
"My dad knew he couldn't take them both," said Sean Sutton, now Oklahoma State's coach. "But John was smart. He waited. He knew things could always change."
They did. Kentucky had a scholarship open up in the spring, after Pelphrey won the title of Mr. Basketball as the state's top prep basketball player. Eddie Sutton wasn't immediately convinced. Pelphrey, who already had taken visits to Alabama and Vanderbilt, then made a move that inadvertently earned him an offer.
He scheduled a trip to Louisville, to Kentucky's hated rival.
"Through it all, my dad knew John was a good player," Sean Sutton said. "He also knew John dreamed his whole life about playing at Kentucky. So when he found out about that visit, there was no way he would let him go to Louisville."
Just days later, Pelphrey got the call. Come over to Lexington, Eddie Sutton said.
"When they finally did offer me, I told them I'd get back to them," said Pelphrey, who recalled being miffed by the multiple slights.
He and his father, Jack, hopped right back in the car for the 115-mile drive back to Paintsville. And he remembers absolute silence until they reached Winchester, 30 minutes east of Lexington. Even then, they talked only sporadically the final 93 miles.
And Pelphrey didn't exactly cheer up when they got home. "I was so mad, so angry for two or three days," Pelphrey said.
Finally, Jack turned to his son and barked, "This has got to stop. Get it over with and decide."
Against his mother's wishes — a teacher, she strongly recommended Vanderbilt — Pelphrey chose Kentucky. Those moments marked the start of a Kentucky career in which Pelphrey constantly had to prove his worth.
Staying With The Wildcats
Pelphrey and Sean Sutton roomed their two years at Kentucky. They'd stay up late, breaking down games on TV. They'd argue about who the best basketball player in the world was — Sutton took Michael Jordan, Pelphrey took Larry Bird.
And Pelphrey would reveal why he had a successful coaching career ahead of him.
"He's so knowledgeable about the game," Sean Sutton said. "He got faster, he got stronger. But he was always one step ahead of everyone else, and that's what made him so the player he was."
Jerry Tipton, the Kentucky Herald-Leader's basketball beat writer for the last 26 seasons, said Kentucky fans fell in love with Pelphrey immediately. After a redshirt season, Pelphrey played sparingly for Eddie Sutton's final team but already showed the qualities that would endear him to the Big Blue faithful.
He dove for loose balls. He scrapped for rebounds with opponents much bigger than him. And he exhibited an unmatched on-court intellect.
"John was a real heady player who could shoot," Tipton said. "He just knew how to play the game. He could do a lot of the little things — like setting picks and always getting to the right spot. He didn't have the option of doing the 360 slam and all that stuff. He made his living with the little things."
The following year, Eddie Sutton was forced out, Rick Pitino was hired and Kentucky faced two more years of probation.
Several players, including Sean Sutton, left. But Pelphrey, along with fellow classmates Feldhaus, Richie Farmer and Sean Woods, never fathomed such an act. That pride in Kentucky, that commitment to the program, showed during every minute of every game until that 1992 class graduated.
Before then, Pitino and the Wildcats treated their fans to an era of Kentucky hoops unlike any other. Just seven scholarship players played for Pitino's first team — nicknamed "Pitino's Bombinos" — and they were surprisingly successful, finishing 14-14. The next season, still banned from postseason play, the Wildcats finished atop the SEC Eastern Division.
"That was a cool time there," Pelphrey said. "When probation hit, the same number of people showed up, but they felt like they needed to help us. We needed their help, and they cheered beyond belief."
Finally off probation, with the help of Jamal Mashburn, stormed all the way to the Elite Eight that season. Nicknamed "The Unforgettables," Kentucky lost only when Duke's Christian Laettner drained the famous buzzer-beater in East Rutherford, N.J.
Pelphrey stood just a few feet from Laettner on that play, devastated by the swish, but Kentucky fans don't remember him for that. Their memories are of his consistency, of his 11-point career average, of his undying passion for the Wildcats.
"I think they understood how much it meant to me to be there, and that I was trying to soak it up every single day," Pelphrey said.
As much as possible, Pelphrey has tried to avoid the chatter, the sideshow of his return to his alma mater. He doesn't want his Razorbacks giving one thought to him. This is all about Arkansas-Kentucky, a series Pelphrey knows quite intimately. Some Arkansas fans may remember Pelphrey only as the skinny redhead who Todd Mayberry burned repeatedly late in the Hogs' 1992 win in Rupp Arena.
So Pelphrey has done all he could to downplay the significance of his homecoming. After the Razorbacks' 26-point victory over LSU on Wednesday night, Pelphrey even joked with play-by-play man Mike Nail.
"I didn't even notice that they were up next," Pelphrey said.
He has known, or hoped at least, that this day would eventually come. And he has known how strange it would be. He truly wonders which color his relatives will root for, Wildcat blue or Razorback red. He even laughed about putting his father through a series of questions before giving him a ticket.
Rupp Arena regulars won't face the same predicament. They're all for the Wildcats after the opening tip. But before the game starts, before Ashley Judd and friends cheer on the Wildcats, Pelphrey will surely get a standing ovation.
"He'll be warmly received," Tipton said. "These people loved John. He was always a popular player. His jersey isn't up there because of physical skills. It's up there for staying when he could've left and making sure Kentucky basketball lived on."
ARKANSAS AT KENTUCKY
WHEN: 1 p.m. TV: CBS (Cox Ch. 5, 710 HD)
WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
RECORDS: Arkansas, 18-7, 7-4 Southeastern Conference; Kentucky, 14-10, 8-3
RADIO: KXIO-FM 106.9; KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KFPW-AM 1230; KQBK-FM 104.7; KHGG-AM 1580; KHGG-FM 103.1; KDYN-AM 1540; KDYN-FM 96.7; KTTG-FM 96.3
COACHES: Arkansas, John Pelphrey (18-7, 1st season; 98-74, 6 seasons); Kentucky, Billy Gillispie (14-10, 1st season; 114-68, 6 seasons)
SERIES: Kentucky leads 21-7 (9-2 in Lexington)
LAST MEETING: Kentucky beat Arkansas 82-74 on Feb. 3, 2007 in Fayetteville
Hometown: Paintsville, Ky.
College: Kentucky (1988-92)
Head Coaching Jobs: Arkansas (2007-present), South Alabama (2002-07)
Assistant Coaching Jobs: Florida (1997-2002), Marshall (1995-96), Oklahoma State (1994)
Notables: Won the 1987 Mr. Basketball award for the state of Kentucky. ... Started 90 of 114 career games at Kentucky, posting a career scoring average of 11.0. ... Had his No. 34 jersey number retired at Kentucky in 1992 and ranks 29th in school history in scoring with 1,257 points. ... Played professionally in France and Spain over the course of one year before becoming a coach. ... Named the 2006 Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
Pelphrey's statistics at Kentucky
Year G FGM FGA Pct. 3FG 3FGA Pct. FTM FTA Pct. Avg.
1988-89 22 14 24 58.3 2 5 40.0 8 13 61.5 1.7
1989-90 28 112 259 43.2 44 120 36.7 97 129 75.2 13.0
1990-91 28 131 303 43.2 62 164 37.8 80 102 78.4 14.4
1991-92 36 145 296 49.0 52 144 36.1 108 139 77.7 12.5
Totals 114 402 882 45.6 160 433 37.0 293 383 76.5 11.0
Arkansas at Kentucky
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