"I don't think either one of us like it because for one of us the season will be over after this but it is what it is," said Pelphrey, the former Florida assistant coach under Donovan who will be trying to lead his fourteenth-seeded South Alabama Jaguars (24-6) to a first round upset of Donovan and his third-seeded Florida Gators (27-6) in a 2:55 p.m. game at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Like it or not, it's the matchup that CBS and the NCAA selection committee wanted. When March Madness begins the network is always looking for story angles and this one is a natural since Donovan and Pelphrey are so close that Pelphrey even named his daughter (Ann-Marie Grace Donovan Pelphrey) after his friend, mentor and blood brother.
"We can't control who we play in this NCAA Tournament," said Pelphrey, who was Donovan's assistant coach at Marshall for two years and at Florida for six. "He [Donovan] will have the mighty Gators ready to go and we'll have the Jaguars ready to go and we'll see what happens. I had this occur once before in the NCAA Tournament (Florida 2000), we played Oklahoma State with a chance to go to the Final Four and Coach (Eddie) Sutton (OSU coach) brought me to college basketball both as a player and a coach [at Kentucky] and Sean (Sutton, Eddie's son and OSU assistant) was my college roommate. We were both fighting to go to the Final Four. A lot of the emotions I had then I'll have now. It will be disappointing to somebody but we feel very fortunate to have this opportunity."
The relationship for Donovan and Pelphrey began during Rick Pitino's first year at Kentucky back in the 1989-90 season. Sutton had been fired and Kentucky was on NCAA probation with only eight scholarship players.
"When he first got to Kentucky he played every day," Pelphrey recalled. "We only had eight scholarship guys and in order to get through practice, Billy had to play and he was better than half our team."
Donovan moved up to a full-time assistant's job the next year and though he didn't have to play as much to get the Wildcats through practice, the relationship with Pelphrey continued to grow.
"He was always great to be on the court, to spend time with," said Pelphrey. "He spent a lot of time with me off the floor."
Pelphrey graduated from Kentucky in 1992, played some professional basketball for a year in Spain and then landed a job as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State under Sutton for a year. Donovan, who moved up Pitino's ladder to assistant head coach, left the Kentucky fold in 1994 to take the head coaching job at Marshall. One of the first calls he made when he started to form his staff was to his good friend Pelphrey.
"When I got the head job at Marshall, in terms of knowing the system, knowing me, myself knowing him and the way he would work, he was somebody I thought would be a great basketball coach," said Donovan, who captured his second straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championship on Sunday in Nashville.
Pelphrey said yes to Donovan on the phone then as quickly as he could got in his car and drove 12 hours to Huntington, West Virginia to start the new job with his good friend now turned boss. Working under Sutton had whetted Pelphrey's appetite for coaching but there was so much to learn and he wanted to learn it all with Donovan and from Donovan.
"When I got to Marshall I had coached but I had no idea about recruiting," Pelphrey said. "I had no idea where to start. I'm sitting in an office. I've got a desk and a phone, a legal pad and a pen so what do I do now? I picked it up and I walked in his office and I sat there for the next three months. I look back now and I think this guy must have had incredible patience because I know I drove him nuts with just a thousand questions."
Two years later, Donovan got the call from Jeremy Foley to become Florida's basketball coach. Pelphrey came with him and the two of them got the Gators started on what has been the greatest basketball run in school history. In their third season, the Gators made it to the NCAA Tournament and they've been a fixture in the Big Dance ever since.
When he was Donovan's top assistant at Florida, Pelphrey earned a reputation as a great recruiter but also as a coach who instilled toughness into the players. When he played at Kentucky, Pelphrey was somewhat of an enforcer even though he didn't have the typical enforcer's body. Long and lean, Pelphrey had elbows like razors. Foul a teammate with a bit too much gusto or take a cheap shot and there would be hell to pay. A Pelphrey elbow to the solar plexus served as a subtle reminder that for every action there is an all too painful reaction. When he was coaching at Florida, tough guys like Brent Wright and Donnell Harvey played the game the way Pelphrey did at Kentucky --- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
In their fourth year at Florida, they took the Gators to the national championship game where they lost to Michigan State. Donovan was just 34 at the time. He has taken the Gators to six more NCAA tournaments since that unbelievable five-game romp that got the Gators the shot at taking home the big trophy. Pelphrey stayed two more seasons at Florida before taking the South Alabama job. When he got the job in Mobile, he felt well prepared. He had played under Sutton and Pitino, two of the game's greatest coaches, and coached under Sutton and Donovan.
He learned plenty under Sutton and Pitino, but he readily admits that it was Donovan who prepared him to be a head coach.
"Other than my father he's probably the most influential male in my life," said Pelphrey. "He's just a special, special guy on a lot of fronts. Make no mistake about it the guy is a phenomenal basketball coach. There's not one facet that he's weak in but he's even a better person."
He is aware that there are plenty of fickle Florida fans who think that Donovan is still somewhat of a novice as a coach, still more of a great recruiter, so-so bench coach. Pelphrey almost laughs at the suggestion that Donovan has weaknesses as a coach.
"The thing that's almost flattering with Billy is that people expect him to do certain things," said Pelphrey. "There's a lot of coaches that aren't held to that same standard. He's an unbelievable coach who has played in a Final Four and coached a team to a Final Four. In the next ten years everyone is going to look at him in a different light. By then he'll have about 500-600 wins and he'll probably have been to 20 straight NCAA Tournaments. He'll more than likely will have own more SEC champioinships and SEC tournament championships than anyone else, been to some more Final Fours and probably a national championship or two.
"When you look at what he's done it's just remarkable. I don't know anyone who can compare and compete with what he's done. The expectations that people have put on him are because he's had such success at a young age."
Meanwhile Pelphrey has turned South Alabama's program around. It could have happened last year but injuries turned promise into a 10-18 season. This year the promises became reality with the turnaround to 24-6 and the Sun Belt Conference automatic bid to the Big Dance with a huge win over favored Western Kentucky in the finals.
He admits that he talks to Donovan regularly and in so many ways patterns what he does after the things that Donovan has taught him. The relationship is more solid than ever, more like brothers than it's ever been.
But just like brothers who sometimes have to compete against each other, they'll go head to head Thursday in Jacksonville. Once the game begins, all love will be lost for a couple of hours.