Donovan wasn’t the most likely Wildcat assistant coach for Pelphrey to befriend during his playing days under Rick Pitino. Pelphrey was Mr. Basketball from Paintsville, Ky., Donovan was a Long Island native barely removed from a job on Wall Street.
But they shared a passion: basketball. And that was enough to spark a friendship.
“I spent an enormous amount of time with Billy in his office,” said Pelphrey, Arkansas’ first-year coach. “I’d come by in between classes, right after class, whenever. And he’d be there working late a lot of times. I’d be in the gym, see his light on and go up there and screw around and annoy him.
“We always had a relationship.”
The relationship gets a gut-check today. Donovan’s Gators are in Fayetteville for a 2:05 p.m. tip in Bud Walton Arena.
And while both coaches desperately want victories, neither friend truly wants to hurt the other.
“I don’t enjoy it,” said Pelphrey, who faced Donovan once while the head coach at South Alabama. “There is a different emotion in the game because you know how you’d feel if you lose and you certainly wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
“By the same token you want to win, and it probably makes you want to win more to be honest with you.”
Straight-faced, speaking with the media after Arkansas’ 20-point victory Wednesday night, Pelphrey called Donovan “the most influential male in my life outside of my father.”
Pelphrey then continued, never budging his expression.
“He and I think a lot alike,” Pelphrey said. “If I had a male soul mate, he’d be it.”
The comment drew laughter, even some snickers. Pelphrey didn’t care. He meant every word.
What started his sophomore season at Kentucky has evolved into a relationship so special that Pelphrey named his daughter after Donovan. “Gracie D,” Pelphrey calls her, short for Ann-Marie Grace Donovan.
“If the baby was a boy we were going to name him Donovan,” he said.
An experience Pelphrey’s first year at Marshall can help to explain the extent of the coaches’ connection. Donovan, Marshall’s head coach at age 28, had just hired Pelphrey away from Oklahoma State.
A restricted-earnings assistant in his previous job, Pelphrey distinctly remembers his first day in Huntington, W.V. Emotions ran the gamut — confused, overwhelmed and a bit petrified.
“I’ll never forget sitting in my office at Marshall, and I had a yellow legal pad and a phone, and that’s it,” Pelphrey said. “And I was sitting behind this desk like, ‘What do I do now?’ I had no clue about recruiting. Zero, zip.
“I basically spent the next three weeks in (Donovan’s) office.”
Their careers took off from there. Two seasons later, Donovan brought Pelphrey along to Florida, and within three seasons, they coached the Gators to within one win of the national championship. They enjoyed every minute, growing closer by the day, and proof of that exists in the current state of their relationship.
Pelphrey said he and Donovan trade calls or text messages once or twice a week. They took a golfing trip with friends to Ireland, winning an alternate-shot match on an improbable hole-out from the fairway by Donovan. And, of course, they talk basketball.
Asked about their relationship, Donovan responded quite like Pelphrey.
“He’s one of the closest people to me in my life,” Donovan said. “In what we do for our jobs, I don’t think that John will ever be able to do as good a job as the type of person he is.”
They always knew this day would come, or at least they always hoped. But with both of them now in the Southeastern Conference, they’ll have to compete against each other at least once per year.
Make no mistake, though.
Don’t believe for one second that either of these guys wants to take it easy on the other this afternoon. Pelphrey can vividly recall the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, his only career trip to March Madness as a head coach. The tournament committee played a cruel joke on Donovan and Pelphrey that year, matching up the Gators and Jaguars.
And Pelphrey would surely like to erase any memory of the 26-point whipping that sparked Florida’s first national-title run.
“I’ve played against him once, and he’s a mean dude,” Pelphrey said. He’s just a mean dude. I still have visions of (Lee) Humphrey and Joakim (Noah) and Al (Horford) and those guys.”
The mere fact Pelphrey advanced South Alabama to postseason play in his fourth season impressed Donovan.
“I think John really walked into a very, very difficult situation at South Alabama,” Donovan said.
That comment won’t make Pelphrey feel any better about the 2006 blowout. A payback victory might.
He does have experience this year in a similar game, helping Arkansas beat friend and former Florida assistant Anthony Grant’s Virginia Commonwealth in Puerto Rico. And Razorback point guard Gary Ervin is positive Pelphrey will put his personal feelings aside for today’s game.
“In the back of his mind, I know he’s just worried about getting the W,” Ervin said.
NO. 20 FLORIDA AT ARKANSAS
WHEN: 2:05 p.m. TV: Raycom (Cox Ch. 7, 707)
WHERE: Bud Walton Arena
RECORDS: Florida 18-3, 5-1 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas 15-5, 4-2
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
SERIES: Florida leads 10-9 (Arkansas leads 6-2 in Fayetteville)
LAST MEETING: Arkansas lost to Florida 77-56 on Mar. 11, 2007 in Atlanta in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament
Hometown: Paintsville, Ky.
Arkansas record: 15-5, 1st season
Overall record: 95-72, 6 seasons (2002-07 at South Alabama)
College playing career: Kentucky (1988-92)
Assistant coach: Oklahoma State (1993-94), Marshall (1994-96), Florida (1996-2002)
Hometown: Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Florida record: 279-106, 12th season
Overall record: 314-126 in 14 seasons (1994-96 at Marshall)
College playing career: Providence (1983-87)
Assistant coach: Kentucky (1989-94)