Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida men’s basketball program he returned to has aged like a fine wine, much more polished than the one John Pelphrey remembers when he first arrived in Gainesville 15 years ago.
Pelphrey and fellow assistants Norm Roberts and Matt McCall were officially introduced to the media on Tuesday afternoon, the trio’s first public appearance together since Gators coach Billy Donovan was forced to revamp his coaching staff due to the departures of Larry Shyatt, Rob Lanier and Richard Pitino.
When Pelphrey followed Donovan to UF from Marshall in 1996 along with current Alabama coach Anthony Grant, the O’Connell Center needed a face lift and there were no basketball practice facility or national championship appearances.
By the time Pelphrey left to become head coach at South Alabama in 2002, a lot had changed, including his relationship with Donovan. They were not only colleagues but friends for life. That’s what made it so easy to come back to Florida after Pelphrey was let go after four seasons at Arkansas.
“The guy leading the program here is somebody you want to be around,’’ Pelphrey said. “I think it’s a miracle. I feel like I’ve got ownership in the program already. I knew this was right.’’
To show how glad he is to be back, Pelphrey accessorized his dark suit with a pair of Gator cuff links Tuesday.
“These are new ones,’’ he said.
There’s a lot of newness around the UF program since the Gators fell to Butler in the Elite Eight in New Orleans a little over six weeks ago. As Donovan worked carefully to fit the right pieces in place on his bench, Pelphrey was his first hire.
Prior to stops at South Alabama and Arkansas, Pelphrey spent eight seasons with Donovan, two at Marshall and six at Florida. During his time at UF, the O-Dome was remodeled, the team’s modern and spacious practice facility was built, and the Gators made their first trip to the national championship game, losing to Michigan State in 2000.
Pelphrey helped lay a lot of bricks in the foundation of the program.
“I felt like I really needed somebody that knew me, knew Florida, knew the way to do things,’’ Donovan said. “John knows me and I know John, and that was important to me going forward.’’
After hiring Pelphrey, Donovan quickly added former St. John’s coach Norm Roberts, a well-respected veteran who is closely aligned with Kansas coach Bill Self the way Pelphrey and Grant are to Donovan.
Roberts adds a different voice and outlook to the staff, which is something Donovan wanted once he hired the familiar in Pelphrey.
In making his final hire, Donovan added a young coach with strong Florida ties in McCall, who grew up in Ocala and whose father played football for the Gators.
McCall spent the past three seasons working for Mike Jarvis at Florida Atlantic, forming strong recruiting ties in South Florida and developing a reputation as a hard worker eager to make a name in coaching.
McCall is a UF graduate who started working with the basketball program as a student manager, later moving into the role of Donovan’s director of basketball operations. The chance to return to his alma mater was one he couldn’t turn down.
“Part of the motivation of maybe watching that extra game, or making that extra phone call was to be able to get back here,’’ McCall said Tuesday. “I was always in constant contact with Coach Donovan.’’
McCall’s first year with the program was Pelphrey’s final one, but they remembered each other well once reunited with Donovan.
“You hit it off with Coach Pel right away, I don’t care who you are,’’ McCall said. “We stayed in pretty good contact. To be able to be back here, it’s like neither one of us ever left.’’
That kind of connection is what has Donovan so excited about his new staff. He expects them to develop the same kind of chemistry he had with Shyatt, Lanier and Pitino the past couple of seasons.
However, this offseason has been unlike any other for Donovan, who led the Gators to the Elite Eight last season for the fourth time in 15 seasons. With McCall on board for less than two weeks and Pelphrey and Roberts still juggling new jobs away from families living out of state, they have taken a crash course in building relationships with the current players and on the recruiting trail.
So far, so good in Donovan’s view.
“This is an important time for us right now,’’ Donovan said. “They have been hard at work trying to establish those relationships and pick those things up. I’ve had one person leave every year for a long period of time. But when you have three people leave at one time, you’re really starting over.
“I’ve got a group of guys now that I think can make our program better, they can make each other better,’’ Donovan said. “I think that each guy – Norm, John and Matt – can bring some things to the table that I think we can all complement each other in a way to help us to get to another level.’’
While Pelphrey and Roberts add experience and head-coaching experience to the mix, McCall brings youthful energy and perhaps a closer connection to UF than any other assistant Donovan has hired.
That played a large role in McCall getting the job.
“What you want to do is you want to have guys who bleed orange and blue,’’ Donovan said. “He is a Gator. The University of Florida really, really means something to him. Being a young guy, I think he lives and breathes the profession, recruiting, and what goes into it.
“He’s really got to work around the clock in a lot of ways. He has got to make an incredible investment with his time and energy for us to continue to take the next step as a program.’’
McCall looked ready for the challenge on Tuesday, eager to prove Donovan right for bringing him back to UF.
“Right now I’m too excited to sleep,’’ he said.
Pelphrey is also excited, recharged at the opportunity to rejoin his longtime mentor and friend and to bring his family back to a place they called home for six years.
“The experience we had the last time we were here with Anthony and Billy and Donnie [Jones] and all those guys, it was just a magical, magical time in my life,’’ he said. “This is a special place.’’
NOTES: Donovan said freshman forward Patric Young and incoming freshman guard Bradley Beal have been invited to play for USA Basketball this summer, part of the reason an international trip is unlikely for the Gators. “As much as I wanted to make it happen, it’s probably not going to happen for our team, but that’s OK,’’ Donovan said. … Forwards Erik Murphy and Cody Larson remain suspended indefinitely for their recent off-the-court troubles. “I’m disappointed with what’s happened,’’ Donovan said. “I don’t think that those kids and their families are a reflection of what has happened, but I do think that this thing needs to get resolved, and once it gets resolved and once I find out what the resolution is, then I think I can react.’’