By LARRY VAUGHT
John Pelphrey knows he’s led a blessed life – but he does have one major regret that likely will never go away.
He was Mr. Basketball in 1987 after leading Paintsville to the state tournament. He signed with Kentucky and coach Eddie Sutton before the program was hit by NCAA probation. He became one of “The Unforgettables” for new coach Rick Pitino. He played in 114 games at UK and averaged 11.5 points per game. He was part of that epic overtime loss to Duke in the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Region final.
He was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, Marshall and Florida before becoming head coach at South Alabama and then Arkansas. After being let go at Arkansas, he returned to Florida as an assistant and the last two years has been an assistant at Alabama.
But he has one regret — and it’s a big one.
When Joey Couch, his former Paintsville teammate and long-time friend, passed away in December, he was unable to attend the funeral because of his work schedule.
“I was coming home from watching my daughter play and (former Paintsville) coach (Bill Mike) Runyon. I knew it wasn’t something good for him to be calling,” said Pelphrey. “Even now, it’s hard to believe. Just a lot of emotion, sadness, heaviness.
“Everybody loved Big Joe and he loved everybody. Every tournament that we used to play in, he would get the sportsmanship award and I was always wondering why that was, so I started paying attention. He would knock people down all the time. He was a football player, a rough and tumble guy. But every time he knocked somebody down he would pick then up and say, ‘Are you okay buddy?’ That’s just Joey.”
Couch came to Kentucky to play football. He was not a priority recruiting target for Kentucky but became an all-SEC lineman.
“The experiences that we had together, it’s hard to explain. Paintsville wasn’t a basketball school. To be able to stay together and to accomplish the things we did together …you know Joey scored over 2,000 points in high school. He had over 1,000 rebounds. When Joey came to Paintsville, he was as good or better than any of us,” Pelphrey said.
“There is so much where our lives are intertwined. It’s probably the first time for me, and we all experience death, but that was traumatic.”
Pelphrey struggles to explain what made Couch so special to him. Couch was the only one allowed to call Pelphrey “Big Red” because of his red hair. Pelphrey never let anyone else get away with calling him that.
“Just never had to question where he stood with you when it comes to being a friend or loving and caring about the (Paintsville) Tigers or the Wildcats.” Pelphrey said. “You lose somebody like that, it is just hard to put into words what it is.
“Somebody told me a story and I had forgot about it, but Joey used to carry a bag of dog food around in the back of his car and if he saw a stray dog, he would give it a handful of food. He just had an unbelievable heart. If he saw you coming it was going to be a hug and huge smile. That big heart never changed.
“You are going to be hard pressed to find anybody who crossed paths with the guy who didn’t have a similar story or feel the same way. Just a great, great loss. We will never get over it. A lot of us will be able to learn to deal with it, but that is something you never get over.”
Couch had some personal struggles in his life but had put his life back together. He moved back to Paintsville and his friends were thrilled with how he had progressed when he suddenly died at age 49 of a heart attack.
“We all have a story and all stuff to deal with. He battled through some stuff just like we all do. He had actually tracked my dad down and helped him with some insurance,” Pelphrey said. “My dad needs the insurance … he needs to stop driving but that is another story. But Joey was just always kind and helpful to the very end. That’s just who he was.
“I think we all have things we want to accomplish and things we want to do and sometimes that gets outside out of relationships unfortunately. But the true measure of the man … the way people would look at him, feel about him. His riches were great. We miss him and that’s never going to change.
“I don’t have a lot of regrets in life at all. I’ve been fortunate and blessed. But me not being able to be there (at Couch’s funeral) and pay my respects … we all work for somebody and everybody has a boss now, but I regret not being able to be there for Joey. That’s one regret that won’t ever go away.”