Can the No. 7 choice turn Arkansas hoops around?

Updated: May 30, 2007, 1:08 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- There's nothing but pig love for John Pelphrey right now on the Razorback Club speaking tour. Everywhere the new Arkansas basketball coach goes, pressing the flesh and calling the Hogs, converts follow.

"I practice calling 'em twice a day," Pelphrey says dryly. "I will not be chastised for not knowing how."

John Pelphrey
AP Photo/Beth HallNew coach John Pelphrey has the personality to do well on the Arkansas banquet circuit. But that popularity will fade quickly if Arkansas fails to recapture its once great tradition.
He's personable. He's funny. He can good-ol'-boy with the best of them -- and in this state that counts for something.

He was born to coach, and what he wasn't born with he learned through an impeccable pedigree: He's played and/or coached under Eddie Sutton (a magical name in Arkansas), Rick Pitino (a magical name in the Southeastern Conference and beyond) and Billy Donovan (the hottest name in coaching). There's a combined three national titles and 11 Final Fours in that group, and all three men will swear by Pelphrey.

He's already signed two in-state recruits. He plans to play at a go-go tempo Hog fans know and love from Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" glory days. And he's embraced the tradition of a school that once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his own alma mater, Kentucky, at the top of the SEC.

"Every person I've talked to is fired up about him," athletic director Frank Broyles enthuses.

"I think my guardian angel was looking out for us," Chancellor John A. White exults. "I think we absolutely got the right person."

If so, it will absolutely be the best seventh choice in coaching search history.

If Pelphrey works the sideline as well as he works the banquet circuit, Arkansas will have paddled through a pond of manure and come out smelling like Hypnose Homme. It will have gotten luckier than it deserved, after unexpectedly firing Stan Heath and then turning its search for a successor into a kindergarten fire drill.

I wasn't my wife's first choice. I certainly wasn't Kentucky's first choice [as a player]. Life isn't like that. Opportunities come. I don't need to be first.

John Pelphrey

This firing and tortured hiring process probably will be Broyles' last major decision in a glorious 50-year career at Arkansas. Some will tell you it was one decision too many for the 82-year-old legend, who will retire at the end of 2007.

According to multiple sources familiar with the search, the road to John Pelphrey took a long detour through Never Never Land. Broyles' original list of candidates showed a disconnect from the reality of where his basketball program now stands nationally.

That resulted in rejections from then-Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie, Kansas' Bill Self, USC's Tim Floyd, Marquette's Tom Crean and Memphis' John Calipari. They were offered kingmaker money -- in the neighborhood of $2.5 million annually, sources said, with abnormally large incentive bonuses on top of that -- and still all of them said no.

There was brief consideration of bringing 1970s Hog hero Sutton out of retirement for a caretaker season. And then there was the Jack Bauer-length tenure of Creighton's Dana Altman, who took the job one day and took off the next. Made you wonder which program is the mid-major and which has a national championship banner in its rafters.

At that humiliating point, Arkansas took the ball out of Broyles' always-involved hands and gave it to a search firm: Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search, the same firm that assisted Minnesota and Kentucky with finding their new basketball coaches. Shortly thereafter, the serial snubs stopped at Pelphrey, a 38-year-old with four years' head-coaching experience in the Sun Belt Conference and zero NCAA Tournament victories.

That alone ran counter to Broyles' stated intention of hiring an established guy with a significant track record of success. But at least it stopped the embarrassment -- and it gave the Razorbacks a coach who embraces the job.

Stan Heath
Rex Brown/WireImage.comWhen AD Frank Broyles fired Stan Heath after a surprising NCAA Tournament berth, it started the embarrassing search for a successor.
"I wasn't my wife's first choice," Pelphrey says, smiling. "I certainly wasn't Kentucky's first choice [as a player]. Life isn't like that. Opportunities come. I don't need to be first.

"It's interesting how we got here. It's interesting how I got to Kentucky, too. That's OK. This is a dream environment for me, it really is."

If Pelphrey can repeat his playing history here, Arkansas will have an overachiever. He was Kentucky's Mr. Basketball in 1987, but then-Wildcats coach Sutton offered Pelphrey a scholarship only after Sutton had been turned down by McDonald's All-Americans Sean Higgins, Marcus Liberty and Jerome Harmon.

Five years, a coaching change, a major probation and a remarkable program resurrection later, Pelphrey finished his UK career with his jersey hanging in the rafters at Rupp Arena. He remains one of the most popular players of recent vintage at Kentucky.

And right now he is very popular in Arkansas. Of course, he's also undefeated. A two-game losing streak can change everything.

Heath had enough of those in Fayetteville to cost him his job after five seasons and no NCAA Tournament wins despite recruiting a substantial amount of talent. But he never saw the end coming.

When Broyles summoned his basketball coach to his office on Sunday, March 25, Heath thought it was merely the annual end-of-season evaluation.

"I assumed it was the same meeting we've had the last four years," Heath says.

His job status had been tenuous much of the 2006-07 season, but when the Razorbacks rallied to reach the SEC tournament final and earn an NCAA berth, the heat figured to be off.

Especially since Broyles waited more than a week to call this meeting after the Hogs' season ended in a first-round blowout loss to Southern Cal. And since Arkansas had a talented nucleus returning from that 21-14 team. And since Arkansas still was paying Richardson after his 2002 firing, would have to pay the rest of Heath's contract and then would have to pay the new coach too.

Besides, Heath said that White, the chancellor, told him after the Hogs made the SEC final that his job was secure.

"When you hear from your chancellor that you're safe and he was pleased with the finish of the season, in my opinion that's a vote of confidence," says Heath, now the head coach at South Florida. "I guess I was under a false impression that the chancellor was making that decision."

White said he talked to Heath at the SEC tourney and congratulated him on the team's run but did not guarantee that his job was safe.

"They obviously misunderstood what I said to coach Heath, and I regret that there was any misunderstanding to it," White says. "I was very supportive of him throughout his time here, and I was supportive up until I made my final decision that there would be a change."

White said he did not endorse Broyles' recommendation to fire Heath until after consulting with an unnamed athletic director. White said he was concerned about Broyles making that call on the way out to his retirement, as opposed to possibly leaving the decision in the hands of the new AD a year later.

The unnamed AD suggested that with seven scholarships available after next season, it would be better to change coaches now than to enter a huge recruiting season coming from behind. So White affirmed Broyles' call.

Dana Altman
AP Photo/Dave WeaverCreighton coach Dana Altman accepted and then backed out of the Arkansas job in April, becoming the sixth coach to turn down the Razorbacks this spring.
White also said the lag time between Arkansas' season end and Heath's termination was because Broyles did not start deliberating until after the final loss to USC. Anything prior to that would have been premature and irresponsible, White said.

"After what happened at Auburn [when the school tried to hire a new football coach behind Tommy Tuberville's back in 2003], I don't want anything that even smacks of any of that going on here," White told Broyles. "Nothing's to happen. Let's talk after the season."

So, in the week after the season ended, Broyles compiled his case against Stan Heath.

Broyles loves to have stats, facts and figures at his fingertips. When he brought Heath into his office, he laid out his reasons for termination in about 10 minutes.

Broyles cited the decline in season-ticket sales during the years since Heath replaced Richardson. He had Heath's career SEC records handy too: 31-49 overall, 7-33 on the road.

"That's below our expectations," Broyles says. "You can say, 'We got to the NCAA [Tournament], we've been successful.' Baloney. I'm not paying you to get to the NCAA."

That was Broyles using the Nolan Richardson yardstick for evaluating Heath. Under Richardson, the Hogs went to the NCAAs 13 out of 14 seasons from 1988-2001, including three Final Fours and the 1994 national title.

But the fact is, Arkansas hasn't won a single NCAA Tournament game this century. It has seen interlopers Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State take turns winning the SEC West. And its vaunted fan base -- only Kentucky has more or better basketball fans in the SEC than the Hogs -- has become apathetic.

From 1976 through 2002, Arkansas sold out its arena for 334 consecutive games. When the Razorbacks moved out of their old pit, Barnhill Arena, and into the 19,200-seat Bud Walton Arena in 1993, attendance jumped into the national top five for the next seven years. But they slid out of the top 10 in 2002 and have only made it back two seasons since then.

So Broyles went out to sell a diminished product after firing Heath. He didn't find out how diminished until the rejections started flowing in.

"Time has stood still there a little bit," Heath says.

There were mitigating factors in Arkansas' futility in the coaching search, and the administration is eager to mention them.

"You know why that happened?" White explains. "Because the Kentucky job came open. That changed the national dynamic. It was amazing the number of people who were holding up to wait and see what was going to happen at Kentucky."

Dana Altman certainly wasn't waiting to see what happened at Kentucky. He came to Fayetteville, took the job, half-heartedly tried to call the Hogs and found an uncomfortable fit. When he left after one day on the job, word filtered out that two players had failed drug tests and at least one other player had academic eligibility issues.

That created an impression of an undisciplined program in disarray, a reputation Heath vigorously disputes. Pelphrey isn't buying it either.

Patrick Beverley
Rex Brown/WireImage.comRising sophomore Patrick Beverley is the top returning scorer and one of the talents who could make Arkansas and new coach John Pelphrey a favorite in the SEC West.
"There was nothing there that was that concerning to me," Pelphrey says. "Unfortunately, nothing out of the ordinary. Having been a head coach and an assistant coach for a period of time, these are things you see in college sports. We don't anticipate anybody not being part of the team in the fall."

What Pelphrey does anticipate is having a talented roster that probably will be favored to win the SEC West. But he's cautious not to inflate expectations.

"There is a level of talent here," he says. "I'm interested to see if it's as good as everyone thinks. I'm concerned about depth in the backcourt.

"The challenge is going to be for us to mentally, to see if we can max out, overachieve. There's a perception around these guys that they're really talented. There's also a perception that they're underachievers. It's time to let these guys label themselves instead of having other people label them."

Right now the label on Arkansas basketball reads "Has Been." We'll see whether the seventh choice for a coach can change that.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.