ORLANDO — University of Florida assistant John Pelphrey, who led two different programs to NCAA tournament bids during a nine-season head-coaching stint, was endorsed Saturday for the University of South Florida job by his mentors and two of the most influential men in college basketball.
Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan, his current boss, and Louisville’s Rick Pitino, coach of last season’s national champions who first worked with him as a Kentucky player, both said Pelphrey would be an excellent choice for USF.
Additionally, CBSSports.com reported Saturday that another Pitino protégé, Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, has emerged as a serious candidate for the USF position. According to the report, Masiello has drawn the support of Outback Steakhouse co-founder and Tampa resident Chris Sullivan, a close friend of Pitino who could be ready to ramp up his financial support of USF athletics.
Masiello, who just finished his third season at 25-8 with Manhattan, would not comment on the USF position when approached after the Jaspers’ 71-64 loss against Pitino’s Cardinals in Friday’s wee hours. Masiello also played for Pitino at Kentucky and served six seasons as a Louisville assistant.
Pelphrey, the former head coach at South Alabama (2002-07) and Arkansas (2007-11), said he has not been contacted by new Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan, who is finishing his stint as UCLA associate athletic director and won’t arrive in Tampa until April 7. Pelphrey said he would be interested in the USF position, but is first concentrating on his duties with the Gators, who are headed to their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance.
Harlan hasn’t offered specifics about his USF coaching search timetable. He said USF will employ a search firm to locate candidates. He will be open to sitting head coaches and assistants.
“I think John would be a great fit at USF,’’ Donovan said. “Sometimes what happens is you take difficult jobs. I think John took two very hard jobs. Had he been given one more year (at Arkansas), he had a lot of players coming back and a great recruiting class, I think he really would’ve had it going there. It would be a tremendous loss for us, but I want what’s best for him and his family.’’
Pelphrey, who followed former USF coach Stan Heath to Arkansas in 2007-08, guided the Razorbacks to a 23-win season and an NCAA tournament victory against Indiana in his first year. At South Alabama, he won the 2006 Sun Belt Conference tournament, but his 24-7 team fell to Florida in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
Overall, Pelphrey is 149-122 as a head coach — 80-63 at South Alabama, 69-59 at Arkansas.
“John is one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever been around and he would play an exciting, pressing style, which I think is important at USF,’’ Pitino said. “I think it’s a better job now, believe it or not, then when they were in the Big East. Even with a new arena or whatever, they still couldn’t compete in recruiting with the Syracuses and Louisvilles of the world. Now they’re on par with everyone (in the American Athletic Conference). Just get a guy in there now who can recruit, play a style to excite fans, drum up the support and I think you’ve got something really special.’’
“My perception of USF is they’ve changed leagues so much and the program has been in a constant state of flux,’’ Donovan said. “They’ve clearly made a commitment to their facilities. Tampa is a great city. I think they’re in the right league (AAC) now. It’s manageable. The Big East was too hard of a jump and now the program is in a good place. I’d be excited for John to get a shot at running USF’s program. He’d be terrific.’’