Friendship + basketball
Published: Thursday, March 16, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 16, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
In the tunnel underneath Veterans Memorial Arena, Florida coach Billy Donovan and South Alabama coach John Pelphrey greeted each other with handshakes and hugs, smiles and small talk.
The staffs from both teams gathered after Donovan's news conference Wednesday to exchange pleasantries. This wasn't the tension of Red Sox-Yankees, Frazier-Ali.
The edge should sharpen today, when No. 3 seed Florida opens NCAA Tournament play against No. 14 seed South Alabama in a first-round Minneapolis region game.
Sentimentality will vanish at tipoff, with a season at stake
"He'll be trying to rip our face off," Pelphrey said. "All the friendship, all the love will be going out the window for those two hours."
Florida, coming off its second straight Southeastern Conference Tournament title, enters this tournament with a high seed and high expectations. Playing 75 miles from campus, UF should enjoy the benefits of a partisan crowd.
It's a similar setup to 2003, when Florida entered as a No. 2 seed and played close to home in Tampa. But the Gators are hoping for a different result. In that season, Florida didn't advance beyond Tampa, losing to Michigan State in the second round.
In the backdrop will be Donovan's first game against Pelphrey, his former top assistant. Pelphrey left Florida in 2002 for South Alabama and has managed to turn the program around in four years. South Alabama, with a school-record 24 wins, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
"I'm very proud of the job that John has done," Donovan said. "I think John being here and seeing the success that he's had, always makes you feel proud and it creates a level of opportunity for other assistants, Donnie Jones and Anthony Grant."
Donovan said he watched the Sun Belt Championship game with a rooting interest, hoping South Alabama would earn the automatic bid, "I probably would have been rooting against him if I knew I was going to play him," Donovan said.
The relationship for the two was forged when Donovan broke into coaching as a graduate assistant at Kentucky. Pelphrey was the star guard on the Rick Pitino-coached teams in the early 1990s that were coming off probation.
Pelphrey said Donovan often filled in as a player in practices because of Kentucky's lean roster in the probation years.
"Billy was better than half of the team," Pelphrey said.
When Marshall hired Donovan as head coach in 1994, the first call Donovan made was to Pelphrey. Pelphrey took the assistant job, arriving at the small school in Huntington, W. Va., with an office, an empty legal pad and tons of questions.
"The next three months, I know I had to drive him nuts," Pelphrey said. "Always the same questions. I look back and see how much patience he had, it was incredible. But that's what makes him such a special person."
So special that Pelphrey named his six-year-old daughter, Anne-Marie Grace Donovan, in honor of his mentor.
"Outside of my father, he was probably the most influential male in my life," Pelphrey said.
Donovan hired Pelphrey because he saw qualities as a player that would make him a good coach, with a personality fit for recruiting.
"John was somebody who was a great competitor, had a great ability to lead as a player and had a good feel and understanding for the game," Donovan said. "People liked to be around him. That's why I hired him at a young age. I trusted him, I knew him and I knew he would get the job done."
Donovan and Pelphrey also knew each other's competitive nature. Often, the two would spend mornings playing pickup games at Gullickson Hall, Marshall's gym, long before practices started.
Pelphrey doesn't view his familiarity of Donovan and his program as an advantage. Both teams play similar, pressing, up-tempo styles. It's been four years since Pelphrey coached at Florida. One of Pelphrey's assistants, Tom Ostrom, last coached at UF two years ago.
"I don't see it helping either side because I haven't been around their program for four years," Pelphrey said. "I'd be shocked if he had any idea what we were doing or knew anything about our personnel before this week. If anything, we might have a slight advantage because we get to see them a lot on television. Our games aren't really televised that often."
The friendship should have little impact on the players, who will be facing elimination for the first time this season. Florida comes in with a size advantage inside, with no South Alabama players able to match 6-foot-11 forward Joakim Noah or 6-9 center Al Horford. The Jaguars will try to compensate with depth, moving players in and out while playing a running, pressing style.
Florida sophomore forward Corey Brewer couldn't imagine facing his best friend in a game.
"It's going to be really weird for coach, but it's basketball now," Brewer said. "When (Thursday) comes, you can't be friends anymore."
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