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The Great John Pelphrey Debate: JHawg vs. Whit E. Knight

The history of America is rife with great debates: Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists, Lincoln vs. Douglas, Kennedy vs. Nixon. Now, we present another confrontation that is sure to remembered and studied for decades to come ... JHawg vs. Whit E. Knight.

John Pelphrey is the subject of their debate, which they conducted via e-mail earlier this week. Though the two disagree on Pelphrey, they are actually good friends in real life and have also been great friends of this blog, penning occasional posts over the years. Thanks, guys, for your time. Now, on with the show ...  

Whit: Let me begin by saying that I am not a big advocate of Pelphrey, in fact I am sort of lukewarm. He's OK, worse than some coaches, better than others (Stan Heath, I am looking at you). I know people are frustrated by his coaching, but his teams play good defense and they play together, and that goes a long way with me. Also, as noted in the Mississippi State broadcast, they score more than a quarter of their points off turnovers, which is the type of basketball Razorback fans cheer. We have RPI two-star quality wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt and are still the only SEC team to beat Alabama.

It's like Harry King said, the Hogs are just good enough and just bad enough to drive the fans crazy. But this year so far has been an improvement over last year and I think the program is moving in the right direction, just not fast enough for some people. (By the way, even after the last two losses, Ken Pomeroy and RPI Gamer are projecting Arkansas to finish 18-12, which is not as good as 19-11, but still progress.)

J. Hawg: I confess this exercise seems like I am kicking a man who is already on the ground and puking. I like Pelphrey, I really do. But, Whit, c'mon, his record is not markedly different from Stan Heath's. And when Stan finally got good players, he couldn't motivate them or take them anywhere. He was fired and Pelphrey inherited the most talented team since Richardson's 1995 team. That netted us one NCAA win. So Pelphrey's team plays good defense? That's debatable (see, for example, the utter inability to defend in-bounds plays), but for me, playing good defense is not something to be lauded; it is a fundamental requirement. Assuming the "projections" are right, this team is still under-achieving, and the problem with this sort of creeping progress is that it inures the fan base to mediocrity.

Whit: Whoa, that's quite a statement about Heath's last team. To me they were an aggregate of selfish underachievers. Let's talk about unrealistic expectations. 1994 and 1995 were great, but let's face it, before Eddie Sutton led us out of the desert, the Hogs had not done as well as second place in the SWC (at that time a second-tier basketball conference) for 15 years. We had a great run for the next 20 or so years after that, but since then, Arkansas has not been a top-tier team. We have not been past the second round of the NCAA since 1996 and only have two above .500 finishes in the SEC since 2001. Everyone relishes the glory days, but they are past. The question is how to get back to the top level and I don't see how firing Pelphrey this year will help us do that.

J. Hawg: I'm not sure I understand, Whit. People said the same thing during the Nutt era about the football team (1964 was a long long time ago), and used it as an excuse not to expect better. Bobby Petrino arrived in Fayetteville and in three years has turned our expectations around completely. Now we _expect_ to be a Top 10 team. You are right, the question is how do we get back to the top levels in basketball: how does keeping Pelphrey another year help that? The much lauded Second Coming of the Triplets? People forget that Eddie Sutton was a proven winner _before_ the Triplets, and that with a lesser coach, those teams would not have been anywhere near as successful. I say the only way to do this is to get the basketball analog of Petrino.

Whit: Recall what happened in 2007. First there was the Dana Altman fiasco, and then one humiliating rejection after another from the other coaches we contacted (Calipari wouldn't even talk to us). Pelphrey, the poor sap, actually wanted the job, hoping he would be asked, didn't mind being choice No. 6 or 7 or whatever he was, and was proud to be associated with the Razorback program and its fans. He believed in us, I think we should believe in him and give him the opportunity to show what he can do with this new class, which is the culmination of years of hard work. Say we do fire Pelphrey. Who that we would want would be willing to coach at a program that has just fired its third coach in the last decade and whose fan base is ready to riot?

I do not want to see our once-proud program suffer again the humiliation we went through four years ago, and I don't want to see another Stan Heath coaching the Hogs. And just like we would have trouble attracting a top coach, what four- or five-star recruit would want to go to a school that is on its fourth coach in 10 years? Stability is important in building a top program. We are not Duke or North Carolina or Kansas. Basketball players outside Arkansas are not dying to be Razorbacks, we need to give them a reason to want to play here.

J. Hawg: I was happy when Pelphrey was hired, and thought we had gotten lucky. But in today's market four years is plenty of time to get things turned around, if you are a quality coach. It hasn't happened; and I don't see any real sign it will. And, please, let's not assume that the travesty of 2007 would be repeated. You know as well as I do that the rejections by coaches were more the result of the Scary Two-Headed Monster of John White and Frank Broyles than they were a comment on Arkansas, its facilities, or its fan base. A professional search, conducted by a search firm, and performed in an orderly fashion, will net us plenty of possibilities. And right now, I am having a hard time imagining we could do worse than Pelphrey.

No good coach will be scared off by us firing mediocre performers. Stability has nothing to do with building a top program. I give you Calipari. (No, take him, please.) This sort of "Oh well, I guess we don't deserve better" infuriates me. Come on. Get the right coach and this program would rocket to the top of the often-horrible SEC. You don't need 30 players, like football, or even all four and five stars. You need a coach who is professional and smart. Whit, nothing could be more humiliating than losing to Ole Miss at Bud Walton. Nothing. Get over the last search. Not an issue.

Whit: A poker analogy sums up our situation. With the recruits we have coming, we are pot-committed to Pelphrey. We can't fold and hope we get a better hand later. The incoming class is the strongest argument for giving Pelphrey one more year. This is the kind of class that can elevate us to the next level and build the foundation for the future. How many of these recruits would jump to another school? I suspect only Mickelson and Ross would stay. Remember that when Richardson was fired, a future NBA All-Star opted out of his scholarship and went to Arizona. As Jim Harris pointed out in the podcast, it takes time to build recruiting relationships. Pelphrey is now at that point where he has those relationships. Unless we got some miracle hire, the new coach would have to start over and we would again be wandering in the desert.

J. Hawg: This is your best argument. Next year's class. Problem is, I'm not sure any of them will play for Pelphrey except for Mickelson and Ross. I will go on record right now: Madden will be suspended for one or more games. (Easiest prediction, ever. Except that Pelphrey's teams will give up points on an in-bound play.) The other kids may have grade/admissibility problems. Assuming all of them show up, stay eligible, and Pelphrey keeps the suspensions to, oh, five or so, it is the sort of class that can build for the future, assuming you have a coach who can coach. That's where I think you are missing the point. It comes down to this: can Pelphrey coach well enough to fulfill the promise of the new recruits? If yes, then we win. If no, then this class falls apart anyway, and we gain nothing except one or two more years of desperation waiting on a new coach. Back to your poker analogy: I think we're pot-committed with a pair of jacks. Not a pretty position.

This is my problem -- nothing I have seen indicates that Pelphrey has what it takes to coach at this level. His offense is mickey mouse. He cannot defend the in-bounds play. He can't seem to motivate the players to perform hard throughout the game. His substitution patterns are nothing short of bizarre. His players don't respect him. All the suspensions are not the sign of a great disciplinarian; they're the sign of someone who cannot get respect any other way. I was watching one of our earlier losses in a bar. It is a sign of my utter disgust with this program that I don't remember which one. The sound is off. At one point, late in the game, fighting to get back in it, we steal the ball and head upcourt, players spreading out to fill lanes and Rotnei drifting to his favorite three-point spot. Suddenly, the players stop. There's been a whistle. Rotnei looks to the ceiling in disgust, other players whip around, obviously upset. I assume there has been a dreadful foul call. But no, Pelphrey has called time out. That moment summed up a lot. As it did minutes later, when we lost in some horrible way, and everyone sitting at the bar laughed. You want to talk humiliation? 6,400 fans. Losing millions of dollars in revenue. Fans, good fans, laughing at a loss.

So give him another year. We'll be a little better with the talent coming in. Might win 19 or 20 games in an awful second-tier conference. Forgive me for not wetting myself with excitement.

Whit: Let me break with precedent and have both the first and last word here. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to criticize Pelphrey. But you overrate how good his current players are. Other than Powell, nobody on the Arkansas roster could start for anyone else in the league except LSU and Auburn. I don't think they are underachieving. I realize people don't like this argument, but on talent this team was picked to finish fourth in the SEC and that's the worst they could do, and 7-9 might get Arkansas to third. Well, then that's bad recruiting, you say. He had a load to fill his second year and going from South Alabama to Arkansas he didn't have the relationships built and had to take the best available, which turned out unluckily. Some weren't SEC-caliber and others proved to be discipline problems or the case of Courtney Fortson, uncoachable.

Maybe I am just making excuses, but he is turning that around with Powell and then Wade and Scott, who has been hurt and can't show what he can do. But they are the start of the road back. I think with better players, he will have significantly better results and it will be the type of basketball we enjoy. Next year could be pivotal for the program and firing Pelphrey jeopardizes that.

At any rate, as you started out saying, this whole exercise is probably academic. Arkansas fans most likely are going to get their wish and Pelphrey will be fired. I just don't think the end results will be what they want.