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Jamie Vaught: Former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Pelphrey appeared Vanderbilt-bound until UK called


(Editor’s Note: For the next few months during our national coronavirus crisis, sports columnist Jamie H. Vaught will be writing about the ex-Wildcats who were featured in one of his first four books on UK basketball, using excerpts that were published in his out-of-print volumes. His latest and fifth book, titled “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey,” was released in late February 2020.)

John Pelphrey, a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball from Paintsville High School, has recently completed his first season as the head coach at Tennessee Tech after head coaching stints at South Alabama and Arkansas.

A member of UK’s 1991-92 “The Unforgettables” squad whose retired jersey number (34) hangs in the rafters of Rupp Arena, Pelphrey remains a popular ex-Wildcat as the fans still love the former All-SEC standout.

When I interviewed Pelphrey, now 51, for “Still Crazy About The Cats” book that was published in 1995, he was serving as a young assistant coach under Billy Donovan at Marshall University, which is about an hour’s drive from his hometown.

We basically talked about everything. Pelphrey mentioned that he had once decided to play for Vanderbilt coach (and future UK athletics director) C.M. Newton while in high school. He also hadn’t forgotten his very first recruiting trip as an assistant coach.

John Pelphrey remains a popular ex-Wildcat as UK fans still love the former All-SEC basketball standout.

Anyhow, Newton had recruited Pelphrey, an outstanding student, for over a year, only to find the youngster going to Kentucky, a late entry in the recruiting sweepstakes.

Newton was obviously upset when he learned of Pelphrey’s final collegiate decision in a telephone conversation with the Paintsville star. But the Vandy coach, being a former Wildcat player under Rupp, understood the situation. He knew UK would be hard to beat in recruiting if and when the Cats became involved. Pelphrey had life-long dreams of wearing a Wildcat blue jersey.

“Yeah, he was a little upset,” Pelphrey recalled. “He wasn’t really mad at me. He was disappointed, but he understood. Coach Newton was very, very honest with me throughout the whole recruiting process. I was going to Vanderbilt had Kentucky (which had coach Eddie Sutton at the time) not got back into the picture.

“Coach Newton once told me in my home with my parents that if I felt strongly about Kentucky that I should think about walking on there without a scholarship. He had played there and he understood the whole deal. I think Deron (Feldhaus) once told him it’s kind of hard to turn Kentucky down when they come calling.” (Vanderbilt also recruited Feldhaus, who was a 6-foot-7 star at Mason County High School before arriving at UK.)

After Sutton left Kentucky under a dark cloud of NCAA investigation, Pelphrey had a new coach whose name was Rick Pitino, a charismatic New Yorker who had been coaching the Knicks in the NBA. As the 6-foot-7 Pelphrey prepared for his sophomore year at UK in 1989, he wasn’t sure if Pitino knew him in their first meeting.

Added Pelphrey, “Coach Pitino came into the room and when I shook hands with him, I said, ‘My name is John Pelphrey.’ And he said, ‘I know who you are. I’ve seen the media guide.’

“But I didn’t know if he knew who I was. I wanted to make sure he knew what my name was. It was our first team meeting and we hadn’t really talked to him all summer long. I guess he was busy getting things situated, recruiting and those type of things and I hadn’t talked to him.”

And the 1989-90 Wildcats, recovering from a nightmarish 13-19 season in 1988-89 and a near-death penalty by NCAA for rules violations, slowly improved through Pitino’s positive motivation and team’s hard work as they surprisingly finished at a 14-14 mark with only eight scholarship players. Pelphrey saw himself one of the emotional squad’s key performers, starting 26 out of 28 games and averaging 13 points and five rebounds. Also, he and teammate Reggie Hanson led the Cats with 61 steals each.

“We were small, didn’t have any depth, had very little experience from the year before and were pulling an unbelievable schedule,” said Pelphrey. “He (Pitino) basically inherited a group of backup players. In the beginning, we didn’t really believe in what he was saying. I think we were a little skeptical. Then we actually got into it and saw the hard work paying off. As time went on, we gained more confidence in ourselves and more confidence in him. Our games improved and we became a pretty good basketball team.”

Prior to signing with UK after his senior year in high school, John Pelphrey originally decided to play for Vanderbilt coach (and future UK athletics director) C.M. Newton.

Pelphrey’s last game as a Wildcat was the famous 1992 Kentucky-Duke thriller in the Big Dance. It was very tough setback for him and the team after losing 104-103 in overtime. The Wildcats finished the memorable campaign with a 29-7 mark and No. 6 national ranking as they became relevant once again in college basketball.

“After the game that night, we went out and ate somewhere real, real late there in Philadelphia – me and a couple of the players,” said the red-haired Pelphrey, who had 16 points, including three 3-pointers, against Duke. “We didn’t sleep at all. But it wasn’t like when the morning came, that it was all over with. There wasn’t anything I did after the game to help. It took me a year to get over it.

“I finally realize the reason it was so tough was because we only had one year to play in the NCAA tournament. It really meant a lot to us to try to win and do as well as we could, and to have it taken away and to have your career end on a (Christian Laettner) shot with that small amount of time on the clock was really devastating for us.

“For a long time, I didn’t understand why it happened to us because I really thought all the guys – all the coaches and everybody involved – were truly committed to doing the right things. And to do the right things, good things happen to you.

“We really didn’t lose that game. We just lost that play.”

About a week later, Pelphrey and three other seniors (Feldhaus, Sean Woods and Richie Farmer) received the highest roundball honor from UK – the retirement of their jerseys – at a special awards ceremony for the team at Rupp Arena before 12,000 fans.

On C.M. Newton, who was then AD at Kentucky, Pelphrey said, “He had a big part in retiring our jerseys and I’ll be forever grateful for that. That was the greatest honor that I’ve ever had.”

Later, in 1994 after his playing days were over, Pelphrey had a scary night that he’d never forget as a recruiter for Marshall University. It took place on I-64 as he and boss Billy Donovan were traveling toward Lexington from Huntington, West Virginia, to visit a high school prospect the next day.

Former UK standout and Kentucky Mr. Basketball John Pelphrey is now the thead coach at Tennessee Tech. (Photo by Tammie Brown, Kentucky Today)

Remembered Pelphrey: “We’re riding along, talking. Everything seems fine. Coach is probably running a little fast, probably about 70-75 miles an hour. He had a brand new Cadillac. We’d just passed a semi-truck that was on the right hand side of us. There was a caravan – one of those Astro van vehicles – behind us and a family was in it.

“We came out of this lighted area into a dark area and there were three deer right across the road – one right in the middle, one right in our lane and one in the other lane. And coach ran right over it. Hit it dead center. And it kind of exploded and had blood all over the windshield. It was kind of scary.”

The incident shook them up pretty good, especially Donovan, who is a native of Rockville Centre, a suburb of New York City.

“I started laughing after I realized he was OK,” said Pelphrey. “Coach Donovan had never seen anything like that. Being from New York, he doesn’t understand why animals would run across the road. So we tease him a lot right now about that, but that was pretty wild.

“And the guys started calling us, teasing us and leaving messages that the game warden was looking for us for killing deer, stuff like that. People around here got a big kick out of it.”

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