Arkansas fired basketball coach John Pelphrey on Sunday after four seasons and will immediately begin the search for his replacement.
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Pelphrey was 69-59 with the Razorbacks, including an 18-13 record this season. Arkansas lost to Tennessee in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Thursday, the third straight first-round exit for the program.
”I wanted to give John every chance possible, and I felt like four years was fair to John given the situation he took over and given the commitment that was made to him when he arrived here,” athletic director Jeff Long said. ”I had very high hopes that John could be successful, and I think John could be successful in another situation.
”But it wasn’t happening here at Arkansas.”
Long said he made his decision after a meeting with Pelphrey on Sunday morning. Long said he weighed many options, including what he called the ”overall student-athlete experience” and declining attendance in Bud Walton Arena.
Long also noted the importance of starting the coaching search as early as possible in order to keep the candidate pool wide open. He said he would move forward without the help of a formal committee or search firm, preferring to limit the search to himself and his internal staff.
Long didn’t offer any prerequisites for the new coach. He also didn’t set a timetable, though he said many coaching searches wrap up around the time of the Final Four.
”I want someone that can lead our young men on and off the court, have high standards, have high goals and have accountability in our program,” Long said. ”That’s the kind of person I’m going to look for.
”I’m interested in winning.”
Rob Evans, the former Mississippi coach and an assistant at Arkansas under Pelphrey, was named the interim coach. Long said Evans would coach the Razorbacks if they were selected to play in the NIT.
Pelphrey replaced Stan Heath as coach of the Razorbacks in 2007-08 and finished 23-12 in that first season. Arkansas advanced to the NCAA tournament that season, defeating Indiana before losing to North Carolina. The Razorbacks struggled in Pelphrey’s next two seasons, winning 14 games in each. This season marks the third straight year Arkansas has missed the NCAA tournament.
”I’m disappointed we’re not in the NCAA tournament,” Long said. ”Our student-athletes are disappointed. That’s where we expect to be, and that’s where we’re going to be.”
Junior forward Michael Sanchez said the team met with Pelphrey at his house Sunday afternoon, calling the meeting ”emotional.”
”To see a coach I’ve grown with and built a relationship with was hard,” Sanchez said.
Pelphrey’s salary was $1.245 million at Arkansas and he had three years remaining on his contract. He is due $1.8 million from Arkansas, a figure which could be less if he finds another coaching job during that time.
Arkansas saw a steady decline in attendance in Pelphrey’s four seasons. The Razorbacks averaged 17,148 in his first season, 16,043 in his second and 13,182 last year. This season, the school averaged 12,022 in 18 games in the 19,200-seat Walton Arena.
During its national championship season of 1993-94, Arkansas averaged 20,134 at home. This season, the school drew a season-high 14,174 for its game against Mississippi in February.
”Certainly, men’s basketball and football are two revenue generators here,” Long said. ”I will tell you, it was not the overriding concern. If I believed that we had a coach would continue to build our program and get us to that level, I would not have arrived at that decision solely based on empty seats in Bud Walton Arena.”
Two weeks ago, following a home loss to Mississippi State that cost the Razorbacks second place in the SEC West and a bye in the conference tournament, an advertisement ran in the statewide Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The ad called for Razorback fans to contact university officials ”on the future of Arkansas basketball before too much time passes.”
It listed addresses for university officials, including the school’s Board of Trustees members, and Long called the ad ”cowardly” on Sunday.
A picture of Pelphrey with an underclassmen recruit also surfaced last week in apparent violation of NCAA rules regarding early contact. Long said the picture had no bearing on his decision, calling the possible violation ”minor” and ”secondary.”
Arkansas currently has one of the top incoming recruiting classes in the country signed for next season. Long said the remaining staff has attempted to contact the signees, and he would do the same in the near future.
”I think we’ll definitely reach out, but ultimately the decision is going to be up to them whether they still want to come or not,” junior point guard Jeff Peterson said. ”I want them to come, (Sanchez) wants them to come, the rest of the team wants them to come because we know how special this place can be.”
Pelphrey repeatedly faced questions about his future in recent weeks, each time saying he wouldn’t be distracted by speculation or anything not focused on the court. He won’t have to worry about potential distractions after Sunday.