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Rivera: Pennell steers UA through rocky season

Pennell steers UA through rocky season

University of Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell talks with Chase Budinger (34) and Zane Johnson during Arizona's 84-67 victory over Kansas on Dec. 23 at McKale Center.

University of Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell talks with Chase Budinger (34) and Zane Johnson during Arizona's 84-67 victory over Kansas on Dec. 23 at McKale Center.

MIAMI – Longtime assistant coaches usually don’t get spotlight treatment, but a source sent me an interesting e-mail when Lute Olson hired Russ Pennell a year ago.

“Pennell is a good guy,” said the message from Tempe. “Take good care of him.”

The information proved to be spot on, but it’s Pennell, a former assistant coach at Arizona State, who has taken good care of himself along the way. After all, it’s his makeup and personality to find a way to succeed. He also knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

On that fateful morning in late October, Pennell received a call from Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood informing him he would be the next Arizona men’s basketball coach, replacing Olson, who suddenly retired before the season began.

It was only on an interim basis, but Pennell was ready.

“I just felt it . . . was the right time to do it,” said Pennell. “Being the coach at Arizona . . . everybody has their moment in life and mine was just my appointed time.

“Since I’ve had the job, there is no question I’ve spent a lot of time in prayer, making sure I’m doing the right things as consistently as possible.”

Getting Arizona to the NCAA Tournament for the 25th consecutive year is as consistent as one can get.

The 12th-seeded Wildcats face No. 25-ranked Utah – a fifth seed – at 4:10 p.m. Friday in a Midwest Region game.

There were times – many times – it didn’t appear Arizona would make it. UA was 11-8, sputtering in the middle of the season; and then, it limped in at the end, coming in 1-5 in the last six. UA failed to win 20, yet at 19-13 overall was deemed good enough to make the Big Dance.

“They’ve done a great job,” UA junior guard Wise said, talking about the coaching staff in general when he was asked a question about Pennell earlier this week. “Give them all the credit from the beginning to the end of the year. They knew how to manage us, especially us three (Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Wise) having played so many minutes.

“The credit goes to the coaching staff. Probably making the tournament is a high more for them because I know they didn’t want to be the coaches (who were part) of breaking the streak.”

Undeniably, it’s been a long and winding road for Pennell – from taking over for the suddenly retired Olson, to seeing freshman Jeff Withey transfer, to freshman Garland Judkins being suspended three times (and no longer in sight), to a hold-your-breath NCAA Tournament bid. Through it all, he has handled things with grace and dignity.

“I knew going in that there was going to be a lot of work to be done,” he said. “But if I didn’t think I could handle it, I would have never taken the job. Like Clint Eastwood said, ‘a man has got to know his limitations.’

“But I felt I could do this job.”

He’s done it by being himself: Good Guy Russ. Simple Guy Russ.

Pennell, 47, knows he’s no Olson, the 74-year-old Hall of Fame coach who commanded respect with his old-school presence and longtime success. He knows he’s not Kevin O’Neill, the often-quotable, often-demanding coach who filled in last season.

“I only know how to be me,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t fill the shoes of coach Olson. I know my goals and role: It was to do right by the kids and the community. I think they’ve appreciated what they’ve done on the court. I think people respect that.”

It hasn’t been easy. He says he got tremendous help from UA assistants Mike Dunlap, Reggie Geary and his father, Dewey Pennell. They’ve helped guide him with decisions and helped with the distractions.

“It’s great to have mentors on your staff; a lot of guys won’t do that,” he said. “Some (coaches) feel threatened because someone might perceive them as not knowing what they are doing. Or, for whatever reason, they feel they have to make all the decisions and not seek counsel.”

Pennell is just the opposite. He seeks input.

“It’s a mistake not to rely on people who have been there,” he said.

Now, Pennell is here in Miami, guiding UA to another NCAA Tournament with a chance to advance and break a two-year first-round losing streak.

If the Wildcats get by Utah, they likely would face fourth-seeded Wake Forest on Sunday for a chance to reach the school’s 12th Sweet 16 since 1985.

Just a year ago Pennell was announcing games in the NIT as a television/radio analyst for Arizona State. Just 10 months ago he was getting a call from Olson to possibly join his staff. Just six months ago he was the second or third assistant.

Fate – yes, he believes in it – has brought him here and put him in this situation.

And seemingly the only thing that has changed about him is his look – going from crewcut to flattop, goatee to unshaven and now well-groomed again.

“I think I have (changed), but in a good way,” Pennell said. “What’s happened is I’ve learned to rely on people around me. Because the job at the University of Arizona is so high profile you have to have good folks around you. You have to rely on them. I’ve done that. And for that I’m grateful because it’s helped me grow as a person.

“If you don’t do that, you get stuck in a rut and aren’t open to new ideas. This year has been really good in that regard.”

Steve Rivera’s e-mail: srivera@tucsoncitizen.com


No. 12 Arizona (19-13) vs. No. 5 Utah (24-9)

When: 4:10 p.m. Friday

Where: Miami. TV: CBS.

Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5 FM



9:30 a.m.: Texas A&M vs. BYU

11:45 a.m.: Maryland vs. Cal

4:10 p.m.: Minnesota vs. Texas

6:40 p.m.: VCU vs. UCLA


9:25 a.m.: Tennessee vs. Okla. St.

11:35 a.m.: Temple vs. ASU

6:45 p.m.: Wisconsin vs. Florida St.

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