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Wildcats’ motto: In Russ We Trust

Citizen Staff Writer



For Arizona interim basketball coach Russ Pennell, it’s like those airline commercials: “Need to get away?”

Yeah. Maybe some time in April.

He got back to the team hotel in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday after an 87-77 victory over Oregon, tossed on his sweats and walked for an hour along the Willamette River.

“And the whole time, I was thinking about USC,” said Pennell, whose Wildcats play the Trojans at McKale Center on Thursday night.

“That’s just coaching. You can’t even sit there and go, ‘Gosh, we just beat Oregon and swept a road series,’ because we’re only as good as the next game in most people’s eyes.”

Pennell is Mr. Positive and seems to be in a perpetual good mood, so it sounds a little strange when he talks about how he’s not exactly having a lot of fun this season. Don’t misunderstand.

He’s enjoying being around the players and accepts the challenges of the job, but it’s hard for him to stop and enjoy the moment when life is going a thousand miles per hour.

“You can’t sit back and really think about what you have accomplished or what you’re trying to accomplish until you’re done,” he said.

It’s a little too early for the “Mission Accomplished” banner, but how about a few big pats on the back for Pennell?

I still think this: Arizona associate head coach Mike Dunlap should have taken over when Lute Olson retired in late October. Dunlap was next in line. He had the experience. It was his duty. Taking over was a responsibility and possibility he should have envisioned.

But I sure am glad he didn’t take the job.

Not that Dunlap demurred for the sake of the program, but it’s worked out just fine to have Pennell as the lead man, the face and voice of the program. In Russ We Trust.

He hasn’t asked what the program can do for his career, he’s just relentlessly asked what he can do for the program.

“I have really tried to engross myself in this team, and I did that for two reasons,” he said.

“No. 1, they deserved it. With me being their coach, I needed to give it my full attention. No. 2, I knew if I would do that, I wouldn’t have time to think about the future. The future for me has always worked out wherever I’ve been.”

His future at Arizona might be down to as little as eight games – seven in the regular season and another in the Pac-10 Tournament. It could, if things go poorly, all be over a month and a day from tomorrow – March 11.

Things are not going poorly now, though. The Cats have won five in a row, boosting their record to an NCAA Tournament bubble-worthy 16-8 overall and 6-5 in the Pac-10.

“I see this ‘business’ approach,” he said of the way the team prepares. “It’s not like, we won and we’re all giddy and we’re running around like crazy. It’s, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ I’m enjoying that.”

OK. So he is enjoying something . . . well, other than the TV show “24.”

“I love that show,” he said. “I wish it was on every night.”

That’s his weekly one-hour escape from the nearly 24/7 coaching grind, the inexorable march to March. When he looks at conference standings from around the country, he sees about a dozen teams just like his.

You don’t want to be the one who stumbles amid the jumbles.

“There are a bunch of folks with 15, 16, 17 wins,” Pennell said. “We’re right in that mix. What I have told the team is, ‘All we’ve done is kept ourselves in the picture for whatever we’re trying to get to at the end.’ ”

Arizona is just one of 21 teams from the six major conferences who have 15 through 17 victories . . . so, yes, there is still much work for the Cats to do to separate themselves from the pack.

To finish with a winning record in Pac-10 play, Arizona has to finish 4-3 against teams it went 2-5 against in the first round of the conference schedule.

But at least the Wildcats are in position to be in position, which is more than you could have said – more than I said – a few weeks ago.

Whatever way it goes, the Arizona program will go on, and so will Pennell, who has the marketable skills to be a head coach. It won’t be here. He knows that. But somewhere.

He has tried before.

He has, in the past decade, interviewed at Ole Miss, Oral Roberts and Arkansas-Little Rock.

“As far as having my own program, there was a day when I was younger when I was consumed with that. That was all I wanted,” he said.

“Along the way, things become more important. Family. Spending time with my wife and kids was huge. . . . I would love to continue to be a head coach somewhere, but it has to be the right fit for me and my family because quality of life is No. 1 with me.”

That’s all for the future. After he watched Monday night’s episode of “24,” it was back to thinking and dreaming of USC.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:


‘There are a bunch of folks with 15, 16, 17 wins. We’re right in that mix.’


UA interim head coach


THURSDAY: USC (15-7, 6-4) at Arizona (16-8, 6-5), 8:30 p.m. Thursday, FSNA

SATURDAY: No. 11 UCLA (19-4, 8-2) at Arizona, 11 a.m. Saturday, CBS

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