As John Pelphrey roamed the Arkansas sideline and waited for the final seconds to tick down in a 75-43 blowout loss to Florida with a disgusted look on his face, he had no idea how soon he’d be back in Gainesville.
The head coach of the then-12-6 Razorbacks, Pelphrey was refocusing and trying to get his team ready for the next SEC game on the schedule.
Little did he know, less than three months later he’d be back in Gainesville meeting with Billy Donovan, the coach whose team had just embarrassed his, as the newest Florida assistant coach.
Despite finishing the season 18-13, the Razorbacks decided to move in a different direction, firing Pelphrey on March 13.
When Larry Shyatt, Florida’s associate head coach, took the Wyoming head coaching job on March 31, Donovan wasted no time getting his old friend back to Gainesville.
He had coached Pelphrey as a player at Kentucky, and Pelphrey had coached as an assistant with him at Marshall and Florida from 1995 to 2002 before Pelphrey began his career as a head coach.
Less than four months after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of his mentor, Pelphrey was back in Gainesville.
This time it was all smiles.
“This is a special place, there’s no question about that for me and my family,” Pelphrey said. “The lasting impression, the things we have, is this is one of the best places we’ve ever lived.”
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Pelphrey arrived with Donovan in Gainesville in 1996 after the Gators hired the Marshall head coach to run their program.
The Gators were just two years removed from a Final Four appearance under Lon Kruger, but had fallen quickly after their run in the Big Dance, finishing with a 12-16 record in 1995, before Donovan and his staff took over.
Early transition to the Donovan era wasn’t easy.
“First two years we were here we lost,” said Pelphrey, reflecting back on the 13-17 and 14-15 seasons the Gators had in Donovan’s first two years as head coach.
But Donovan’s hard work and dedication quickly paid off, as did some of the overall improvements athletic director Jeremy Foley helped make to the program.
“We had renovations to the O’Dome, we were building the practice facility, and then all the sudden some of the recruiting things took place and [we had] a chance to play for the national championship in 2000,” Pelphrey said. “It was just a magical, magical time in my life.”
With Florida’s success and Donovan’s patient, guiding hand boosting Pelphrey’s career, the assistant quickly emerged as one of the up-and-coming names in college basketball.
He played a huge role in landing South Dakota star Mike Miller, one of the biggest recruits of the early Donovan era.
“As a young coach, Billy allowed me to do a little bit of everything, from recruiting, to coaching, to all those types of things,” Pelphrey said.
Before long, teams with head coaching vacancies began to notice.
In 2002, the University of South Alabama took a chance and hired Pelphrey as their newest head coach, separating the young coach from his mentor in Gainesville.
After he spent five years there and coached his team to an 80-67 record, the University of Arkansas came calling for the former SEC star.
Pelphrey spent four years as the head coach at Arkansas and put together a 69-59 record before he returned to Gainesville to rejoin Donovan’s staff.
“It’s certainly a blessing to have a chance to be with (him again),” Pelphrey said.” He played such a big part of my life.”
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Pelphrey credits much of his development as a coach – and as a person – to the countless hours Donovan put in working with him.
Even after Pelphrey left to become a head coach, the Florida coach would reach out to him and provide advice on how to handle certain situations.
“That guy does so much for me,” Pelphrey said. “The patience he has, I am embarrassed to say there’s probably no way I could have that for somebody else. What he did for me, just with basically teaching me everything about being a coach, I’m eternally grateful.”
The two have been through far more than just basketball games together, too.
Donovan was in the hospital when Pelphrey’s first son, Jaxson Hamilton, was born in 1997. Pelphrey’s daughter, Grace Donovan, who was born in 1997, is named after the Florida head coach.
Donovan and his wife Christine were there to comfort Pelphrey and his wife Tracy after the miscarriage of their son John Patrick in 2003.
Those experiences helped the two develop a strong bond, one that wasn’t broken when Pelphrey left Gainesville to become a head coach.
“Those first six years were amazing,” Pelphrey said. “I think we’ve stayed connected the next nine. Obviously it’s at arm’s length a little bit, it’s different. But there’s never going to be a total disconnect because of the relationships we’ve had. We’ve always been connected since the very first day.”
One of the first things that drew Pelphrey to Donovan was how genuine he was as a coach. He’s the same guy on the court as he is off it.
“Obviously everybody understands how great a coach he is, how good at recruiting he is,” Pelphrey said. “But I think also when you get a chance to be around him over an extended period of time, you really understand that he’s just a great human being. Just a great human being.”
It’s one of the reasons he said Donovan is so personable. When it boils down to it, there’s nothing fake about the Florida head coach.
“He’s a normal guy,” Pelphrey said. “He has no idea he’s a Hall of Fame coach. He does not know that. That’s pretty cool, because in life – especially our profession – success changes people. It doesn’t for Billy. When you get a chance to spend time with him, you start to see that. You see that’s real, you see that’s genuine because you see that every single day.”
Knowing that about Florida’s head coach and having the relationship he does with Donovan made coming back to Florida an easy choice.
He never considered going anywhere else.
“I probably don’t see myself taking this opportunity anywhere else,” he said. “You’re talking about a guy that there’s only one place in America that after two and a half weeks he would have gone back to work – I’m pretty fortunate.”
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When Donovan started the coaching search to replace his three assistants, he knew he wanted one thing: familiarity.
“The first person I hired was John, because I really felt like I needed somebody that knew me, knew Florida, knew the way to do things,” Donovan said. “I coached John for three years at Kentucky, and John was with me nine years – two years at Marshall, then seven years here – and did an incredible job.”
Pelphrey had a slightly different view of his work during his first stint in Gainesville as he talked about his previous experience at Florida.
“I’m sure looking back on it that I was a tremendous pain in the neck to him,” he laughed. “Hopefully I can be better than I was the first time around.”
The 43-year-old has a lot more experience to draw on in his second go-round at Florida.
That level of understanding and knowledge that comes with experience is something Donovan feels will greatly benefit the team.
“John, not only being here, but going to South Alabama and going to Arkansas, has a wealth of knowledge and things that he’s experienced that I think he can make the people inside of our offices better from his experiences,” Donovan said.
Because of their history working together, too, Donovan doesn’t think there will be any kinks moving forward as they get the team used to a new staff.
“One of the things you try to do is you try to create a level of chemistry inside your staff,” Donovan said. “When John was here and Anthony (Grant) was here and Donnie Jones was here, it was not by mistake that we had really, really good teams. I think our staff reflected what a team was all about. The biggest thing to me is that when you have a person on your staff that makes every person on your staff better, you have a very valuable person.”
And it may be because he’s learned so much from Donovan, but Pelphrey echoed the exact same sentiments when talking about what he wants to bring to the team.
His goal is to take care of his role to the best of his ability so Donovan can focus on everything he needs to do to coach the team up and win games.
“For me, if I can focus on those things, then I have a chance to be at my best and be a part of a staff and a coaching team that has the chance to bring out the best in Billy and the best in our team,” Pelphrey said. “Ultimately, that’ll be the best for the University of Florida, and ultimately that means winning.”
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Given Pelphrey’s resume, his hire was an interesting one.
As Pelphrey admitted himself, there wasn’t any other program in the country he would have taken a job as an assistant at after being a head coach for nine years.
Many might wonder when the new Florida assistant will leave to take another shot at being a head coach somewhere.
But Donovan made it clear in the hiring process he wasn’t looking for someone to come in and work on his staff for just one year.
He wants guys who are invested. Guys who will work tirelessly to get the program back to the very peak of college basketball.
He thinks he’s found that in Pelphrey.
Given his relationship with Pelphrey and Pelphrey’s previous history at Florida, Donovan is confident he will be the right fit.
Pelphrey’s comfortable in the Gainesville area. He and his family have plenty of friends from their first stay they still keep in touch with regularly.
“We started some relationships here in this community, and they’ve continued to develop,” he said. “You’re talking about people that every decision we make for our family in terms of career and some of those types of things, there are people in this community that those questions get bounced off of.”
Those relationships, combined with how much work Pelphrey put in to build Florida’s program in his early days with Donovan, make him feel like a part of the Gator Nation.
“I was here before the renovations to the O’Dome, I was here before the practice facility was built, I was here before the first national championship game,” Pelphrey said. “So I feel like I’m a little bit invested. For me, this is not just another place. This is a special place.
“Last week when my family was in here, I could see them start to get excited about school, where they’re going to go to school. I could see them get excited about where we’re going to live, what their rooms are going to look like, the smiles on their faces. My wife getting excited about how close it was to the grocery store, to Billy’s house, whatever the case may be. I knew this was right.”
Donovan knows just how important it is to have guys on the program that truly care about it. In a way, he’s always considered Pelphrey part of the Florida family.
“You want to have guys that bleed Orange and Blue,” Donovan said. “I think even though John was at South Alabama, he was at Arkansas, he is, in a lot of ways, I think he’ll tell you, a Gator.”
Pelphrey’s right there with him.
“My focus right now is on my faith, on my family, and on my Florida.”