Russ Pennell was driving to work Oct. 24 when he got a phone call. Get to the athletic director’s office. Now.
Jim Livengood had an offer: Become the University of Arizona’s interim head basketball coach. Pennell said he swallowed hard and quickly said yes.
In a span of less than 24 hours, Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson had resigned, associate head coach Mike Dunlap had declined the interim position – wanting what he called a “full commitment” from the university – and Pennell had become the accidental interim head coach.
“I bet you didn’t expect to see me here today,” Pennell said when he was introduced less than a week later at Pac-10 basketball media day in Los Angeles.
“Me, neither,” he added.
But you go into the basketball season with the head coach you have, and Pennell is nothing if not willing and unafraid and seemingly devoid of any agenda other than waking up and wondering how the Wildcats can get better that day.
“I just think it’s a fun opportunity for everybody, and you try to make the best of it,” he said. “If I wasn’t here, I would be coaching basketball somewhere.
“To me, this is another season. I understand the magnitude of it. I get that. I realize it’s going to be tough, but basketball is basketball.”
Pennell, 47, never thought he would be a head coach like this, but that’s not to say he never thought he would be a head coach.
He was an assistant to Rob Evans at Ole Miss when Evans accepted the head coaching position at Arizona State after the 1998 season. Pennell was one of two coaches who interviewed for the vacant Ole Miss job.
It went instead to Clemson’s Rick Barnes.
Pennell followed Evans to Arizona State and was one of three finalists for the head coaching job at Oral Roberts in 1999. The school reportedly offered Pennell the job, but he withdrew from consideration.
In 2000, Pennell interviewed at Arkansas-Little Rock, but the job went to UALR assistant Porter Moser.
Pennell stayed at ASU until 2006, when he left to start a basketball academy in the Phoenix area. Pennell, who began his college coaching career as an assistant to Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, also did radio commentary for ASU basketball games last season.
Those college head coaching dreams? A bit on the back burner, but the flame never died.
“What I really felt when I was running my academy was that I was not going to go back to college coaching unless it was the right fit for me,” Pennell said.
“I’ve have a couple of opportunities to get back in. It just wasn’t the right thing or the right time.
“I was looking for something specific. When Coach Olson contacted me (last spring), I thought, ‘You know, this is one more stab at this.’ Being at a place like Arizona is so high profile.”
As far as basketball goes, he believes in some Xs and Os that run counter to what last season’s interim head coach, Kevin O’Neill, implemented.
Pennell uses a motion offense, not set plays. Pennell will mix in a zone and a press on defense, not relying solely on a man-to-man scheme. Arizona will play at a faster pace this season.
But his most important responsibility is to safely steer the players, the program, through the next five months, avoiding more major drama and leaving things in order for the next head coach.
“When the next coach walks in, I think we will have done our jobs if he can walk over, open up a filing cabinet and say, ‘There’s the 2010 class and there’s the 2011 class that they have been recruiting,’ ” Pennell said.
“Now, if he wants to burn them from there, that’s his business, but they’re there. If he wants to find out what we did in practice on Oct. 29, it better be there.
“I think that’s the professional courtesy.”
That’s about all he can do. He doesn’t expect, as he puts it, a “Cinderella story ending” in March. Who knows what his personal fate will be after the season, but he can be an important bridge to the program’s future.
“I feel very sure UA is going to land a good basketball coach,” Pennell said.
He’s it for the next four months.
Mike Dunlap (associate head coach): A Denver Nuggets’ assistant the last two seasons. Dunlap, 50, posted a 248-50 record in nine years as head coach of Denver’s Metro State, with two Division II national titles.
Reggie Geary: The former point guard led UA to the 1994 Final Four. Geary, 35, was head coach of the Anaheim Arsenal of the NBA’s Development League the last two seasons.
Matt Brase: An ex-UA and Catalina Foothills High forward, Brase was the Cats’ video coordinator the last two seasons. Brase, 26, is Lute Olson’s grandson.
RUSS PENNELL FILE
Previous assistant coaching jobs: Arizona State (1998-2006) and Mississippi (1992-98), both under Rob Evans; Oklahoma State (1990-92), under Eddie Sutton.
College playing career: Arkansas, 1979-80 under Sutton. Transferred in 1981 to Central Arkansas, where he was a two-year starter at point guard, averaging a league-high 8.2 assists a game. Played for Memphis Spirit Express, a traveling exhibition team, 1984-88.
Degrees: Physical education, Pittsburg State, Kan. (bachelor’s, master’s), 1989-90.
High school: Pennell was an all-state player at Pittsburgh (Kan.) High, where he played for his father, Dewey, and graduated in 1979.
Personal: He and his wife, Julie, were married in 1986 and have two daughters: Morgan Rachel (12) and Emily Katherine (9).
His father was recently named director of basketball operations for UA.