Back To Where He Began

MOBILE, Ala. — Below giant blue, green, red and yellow plastic mushrooms, a group of South Alabama students basked in the 65-degree weather Tuesday afternoon. They snacked on slices of pizza at Mellow Mushroom, located "just down the hill" from the Mobile campus, in the words of Arkansas coach John Pelphrey.

It's a spot Pelphrey visited often during his five seasons as South Alabama's coach. The restaurant literally served as a second office for Pelphrey, who recollected Monday about downing pepperoni and sausage pizza with Esperanza dressing for dipping purposes.

"We'd have a lot of meetings down there," said Arkansas assistant coach Tom Ostrom, who joined Pelphrey for his last three seasons at South Alabama. "He loved that place. I know he'd get a lot of work done there before practice."

Pelphrey won't have time to hit Mellow Mushroom today, as he and his Razorbacks must prepare for their 8 p.m. game at South Alabama. But at some point on the trip, Pelphrey's mind surely will conjure up memories from his days spent in Mobile, including those at this near-campus eatery.

Earlier in the week, Pelphrey adamantly insisted he wouldn't be distracted by his return to South Alabama, but even he admitted his personal emotions could kick in once Arkansas arrived. After all, Pelphrey said he held only positive feelings toward his first stop as a college head coach.

"I'm sure there will be something when I walk back into the Mitchell Center," Pelphrey said.

Getting To Mobile

Pelphrey has Alabama coach Mark Gottfried to thank for recommending him for the South Alabama position.

In 2002, Gottfried's father Joe, the athletic director at South Alabama, was readying to search for a new basketball coach. Joe Gottfried wanted a "high-profile assistant, a young guy who had some familiarity with this part of the country."

Pelphrey's name was the first given to Joe Gottfried by his son.

"After that, I went up to watch Florida play against Mark at Alabama, just to see John's interaction and involvement throughout the game," South Alabama's athletic director said. "I came away impressed, and that's where it began. I talked to (Florida coach) Billy Donovan, to (Florida athletic director) Jeremy Foley and to (Louisville coach) Rick Pitino.

"I was convinced. Now, I just had to convince him to take the job."

Once the Jaguars' coach resigned, Gottfried flew down to Gainesville and had dinner with Pelphrey and his wife, Tracy. That meal took place on a Monday. The school announced Pelphrey as its next basketball coach just four days later.

Pelphrey evidently didn't let South Alabama's recent struggles, including a seven-win season in 2001-02, keep him from eagerly accepting the job. His comfort level with Gottfried, a former basketball coach, was a major reason. He also realized winning was certainly possible at South Alabama, as six different coaches proved throughout the school's brief history.

Jimmy Taylor, Cliff Ellis, Mike Hanks, Ronnie Arrow, Bill Musselman and Bob Weltlich all won more games than they lost there.

"I could have stayed at Florida another 10 years and worked for Billy," Pelphrey said. "I cared about him that much, and I enjoyed it that much. I didn't leave just to go. I knew I wasn't going to trust my family to just anybody. I was told I could trust Joe Gottfried, and they were right."

Pretty soon, Gottfried learned he could trust Pelphrey, as well. Just before being introduced in Mobile, Pelphrey received a phone call from famous West Virginia alum Jerry West. Interview with us first, West pleaded. Pelphrey told West Virginia — and an interested DePaul a day later — that he already committed to Gottfried and that he wasn't prepared to renege.

"I saw right then how loyal a person John Pelphrey is," Gottfried said.

Away From Hoops

Off the basketball court, life in Mobile exceeded Pelphrey's expectations. In fact, Pelphrey said his entire family loved Mobile so much that the move to Fayetteville didn't come without mixed feelings.

The Pelphreys became deeply involved with their church, Dayspring Baptist Church. And Heron Lakes Country Club gave the family a Sunday brunch site, John a golf course, Tracy a tennis court and little Jaxson and Grace a swimming pool.

"I know it was tough for them to make that move (to Arkansas)," Gottfried said. "They had made a lot of good friends here. They were involved with their church, involved in the community. Their kids liked school. Tracy liked it here. He saw this as a place where he could stay a long time."

One of those friends, Ben Hannan, raved about how Pelphrey genuinely put his family and friends first.

A year after Pelphrey came to Mobile, Ben Hannan was hired away from North Carolina-Charlotte to coach the South Alabama golf team. John and Tracy Pelphrey took Hannan and his wife, Jill, out to dinner on their first visit to Mobile. Hannan joked this week that it didn't take long for Pelphrey to start asking for golf tips.

Hannan didn't hold back, eventually going on to help Pelphrey with the pull-cut he always struck with his driver. Pelphrey and Hannan separately admitted that some of their most enjoyable respective times revolved around golf rounds played during the summertime "dead period" for basketball recruiting.

"We'd drop by each other's offices all the time," Hannan said. "We'd talk about everything, usually our teams and our programs, but he was so great about being a consistent sounding board for me. I learned so much from him about coaching."

Displaying Patience

While Pelphrey's personal life thrived, turning around South Alabama was no quick fix. A handful of players transferred out before Pelphrey took over, and the program was actually down a scholarship because of being placed on NCAA probation.

His first season produced only 14 wins. His second season brought two fewer victories, and Pelphrey's frustration nearly broke him after his third team went 10-18.

"I grew more during that third year there than any other year," Pelphrey said. "It was the most difficult year I've ever had as a coach. I knew we were getting better. It just wasn't showing up."

Gottfried never wavered in his support, however. He knew how far the program had fallen, and he respected how Pelphrey approached rebuilding. He watched Pelphrey "stay committed to following a plan."

Pelphrey recruited the high school ranks hard, but he also welcomed a few talented transfers from other Division I programs. Two of those transfers — Demetric Bennett (SMU) and Daon Merritt (Richmond) — ended up playing integral roles on Pelphrey's last two teams that won 24 and 20 games respectively.

Once Pelphrey had his own players in place, Gottfried said fans got hooked on his exciting style of play.

"John played 94 feet," Gottfried said. "He liked to get the ball out and run. If you look at the history he had been around, he used a combination of all of that to use a style of play that's entertaining.

"His teams were so fun to watch. They pressed, got up and down, and took 3s if they had them."

Pelphrey left the program in such healthy shape that former coach Arrow decided he'd rather return to coach South Alabama than continue a successful stint at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Arrow said he expected an overwhelmingly appreciative response from the Mitchell Center crowd tonight, a scene that could — at least for a moment — distract Pelphrey.

"I bet they give him a big ovation," said Arrow, who coached the Jaguars last season and from 1988 to 1994. "Then, I hope they forget every bit about it and consider him the enemy."

That wouldn't bother Pelphrey, or Gottfried, at all.

"People here truly understand what John did for our program," Gottfried said. "He had a plan to turn this around, and he did it the right way. I wasn't looking for a quick fix. I wanted someone to put a base together, and he left us a great base.

"That's why if I'm the administration and fans at Arkansas, I'd trust he'll get it done there, too."

Today's Ticket

Arkansas at South Alabama

When: 8 p.m.

Where: Mitchell Center, Mobile, Ala.

Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-FM 105.3, KUOA-AM 1290

Records: Arkansas Razorbacks, 2-1; South Alabama Jaguars, 2-2

Coaches: Arkansas, John Pelphrey (second season); South Alabama, Ronnie Arrow (second season, ninth overall at South Alabama)

Series: Arkansas leads 4-0 (2-0 in Mobile)

Last Meeting: Arkansas won 101-82 in 1992 in Mobile

Probable Starters

Arkansas (2-1)

Pos. Player Ht. Class PPG

G Courtney Fortson 5-11 Fr. 14.7

G Rotnei Clarke 6-0 Fr. 15.0

G Stefan Welsh 6-3 Jr. 10.3

F Michael Sanchez 6-8 Fr. 8.3

F Michael Washington 6-9 Jr. 16.3

South Alabama (2-2)

G Domonic Tilford 5-10 Sr. 16.5

G Bryan Sherrer 6-0 Jr. 6.8

F LaShun Watson 6-5 Jr. 7.0

F Brandon Davis 6-6 Sr. 17.0

F DeAndré Coleman 6-7 Sr. 10.5

South Alabama Since Pelphrey Arrived

Arkansas coach John Pelphrey took over a struggling Jaguars program starting with the 2002-03 season and needed only four years to reach the NCAA Tournament. He left Mobile for the Arkansas job in April 2007 after leading South Alabama to an 80-67 record in five seasons.

Season W-L Finish

02-03 14-14 No Postseason

03-04 12-16 No Postseason

04-05 10-18 No Postseason

05-06 24-7 NCAA First Round

06-07 20-12 NIT First Round

07-08* 26-7 NCAA First Round

* under current coach Ronnie Arrow

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