Trying Times

University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long shares his thoughts on the Razorback basketball team's trio of home losses to mid-major foes last week, dwindling attendance and what he expects of head coach John Pelphrey in the future.

After a week in which the University of Arkansas' basketball team lost to three mid-major clubs at home and attendance got down to just 5,187 fans for Sunday's 13-point loss to South Alabama, it's natural that fans would wonder what Razorback athletic director Jeff Long was thinking about the program.

He shared his thoughts in an interview Monday afternoon with a couple of reporters about the past week and where he thought the program might be headed under third-year John Pelphrey, who he made clear would certainly not be let go at any time during the season.

"John Pelphrey is our basketball coach," Long said. "He's leading us out of the situation we are in. I don't even want to, I'll have to be careful with what I say because people interpret things different ways, but John Pelphrey is our basketball coach. He's going to be our basketball coach. He's going to lead our program for the future, absolutely."

The team has played short-handed this season due to suspensions and injuries, something that Long was quick to point out in regards to Pelphrey, who is 39-32 at Arkansas and 119-99 overall in his eighth year as a head coach on the college level.

"It's difficult for our program," Long said."I know what our program is going through. I understand what Coach Pelphrey and certainly the student athletes are going through. We're undermanned right now. we haven't had a chance to play together as a team for any extended period of time. We are a young team. They do need to play together. Unfortunately because of some of the decisions the young men have made off the court, we haven't had a chance to do that.

"Until we have a chance to get everybody together, whether it's back from disciplinary issues or injuries, it will be difficult and it will be a struggle for us," Long added. "But I think our team is committed to working hard and working through these things."

Long had earlier talked about his extreme confidence in Pelphrey, whose team jumped out to a 12-1 start last season with two wins over nationally Top 10-ranked foes, but has since won only four of its last 23 games.

"(It's) the same I had three months, six months ago," Long said.

Pelphrey said later at his press conference that he knew full well it was his job to get things turned around.

"That's my job," Pelphrey said. "I am here to lead these young men. Anybody can lead when things are great. We all want to be leaders when all things are sunny. But when the clouds roll in and the wind kicks up, that is probably the true test of ones character. Hopefully I will be able to lead them in a way that will be positive."

It was only a year ago that some were wanting Pelphrey locked into a long-term deal after knocking off Texas and Oklahoma inside Bud Walton Arena.

"Certainly (our) fanbase, and I certainly understand it, there was a fever pitch last year after those games and certainly we all feel that," Long said. "We all were excited. I don't think any of us thought we would have the second half of the season that we did and have the conference season that we did.

"As a leader, I've got to kind of keep my head about me," Long added. "I've got to steady the course. I know the direction that I want John to lead our team. I think John is doing those things and we're obviously in a difficult stretch. We've been through the reasons why we're in this stretch. We don't need to rehash those. But it's going to be awhile for our team to come together as a team and for us to see the kind of success we expect out of our program."

Long is certainly aware that Arkansas' crowds this season have dwindled with a high of 7,713 at the opener against Alcorn State to the 5,187 fans that showed up for Sunday's game.

Arkansas has sold from 11,958 to 13,794 tickets to those games, but has had just more than half or just under those showing up for what is listed as "estimated actual attendance."

That's a far cry from the day when 20,000 fans were showing up routinely when Bud Walton Arena first opened during the 1993-94 national championship season.

The Razorbacks have won just one NCAA Tournament game since 1999 with that coming in Pelphrey's first season in 2007-2008. They also missed the Big Dance five times this decade under Nolan Richardson, Stan Heath and in Pelphrey's second season.

"It's hard," Long admitted. "We've got a great basketball tradition. We've got a fanbase that loves basketball. I want them to come out. I want them to follow the team. It's important, this is a time for our fans to rally behind our team and support our team and support our coaches. They are working extremely hard. we're not together as a team, we're young, we haven't had a chance to be together and grow as a team, we're going to do that. But we need our fans to come out and support us. It's easy to sit back and criticize. but we need them to come out and support us. Razorback fans have done that. I'm sure they're going to do that as we move forward."

Pelphrey, who will get guard Marcus Britt back for Wednesday's game at Oklahoma and could add starting point guard Courtney Fortson in at the end of the first semester, summed his quest up.

He is however, unlikely, to have injured all-SEC center Michael Washington back for the Sooners as he is suffering from a sprained back that kept him out of Sunday's 74-61 loss.

"We aspire to conduct ourselves in a class manner with great character regardless of whether we are having tremendous success or whether we are really, really disappointed," Pelphrey said. "That is what we control. Not to be dismissive of winning and losing a basketball game in terms of getting the next one. We need to use it as fertilizer for future growth and we know that there are great things in our future, but we have got to show back up and go to work because there are things that we can correct right now. We are missing some things in terms of bodies with talent, but there are some things that we can correct right now so we can play better. I think that is what we are all disappointed in."

"For example, the turnovers to start both halves (against South Alabama) made things difficult for us and it wasn't anything that our opponent did to us, it was just us being careless," Pelphrey added."We can't use first-year players as an excuse. We are not going to do that....There is inconsistency with defense and rebounding. We got through stretches where it is very good and we are able to press and get out on the break and share the ball - we just have got to kind of get it all together. We have got a number of reasons we haven't been able to do that, but we have got to find a way to play well longer."

Arkansas head basketball coach John Pelphrey

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