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Wildcats’ anthem under Pennell could be ‘We Are Family’

Citizen Staff Writer

Los ANGELES – No matter what happens with Arizona basketball the rest of this season – otherwise known as the Pennell Family’s Excellent Adventure – there is one thing that will endure.

Interim head coach Russ Pennell has put the family back in the Arizona basketball family.

Best of all, he has done it with his dad by his side, in his ear, on the bench, arm in arm.

Years from now, when many of us might judge the season on what is still yet to come – NCAA Tournament or no NCAA Tournament – you gotta think that Russ and Dewey simply will remember this as a father-son chance of a lifetime.

“The biggest thing is that most of us as adults don’t get to spend day after day with our parents,” Russ said. “To have this opportunity to share something we love so much – basketball – that’s priceless.”

He’s right. How do you put a value on that? In this crazy, mixed-up world that has been Arizona basketball, this is one thing that has turned out so much better than expected.

Father and son haven’t spent this much time together since Dewey coached Russ at Pittsburg (Kan.) High School three decades ago.

They could never have imagined being thrown together like this.

When Dewey retired last year from a long high school coaching career, stepping down at Little Rock (Ark.) Christian Academy, he and his wife decided to move closer to Russ and the grandkids in the Phoenix area, where Russ ran a basketball academy.

Dewey was so popular at Little Rock Christian that fans made T-shirts with his face on them.

“Last year, Russ did a clinic in the Phoenix area, and I went up with him,” Dewey said.

“He introduced me and said, ‘My dad and I have always wanted to work together, but it never worked out.’ We had no idea it would be down here, not in our wildest dreams.”

Dewey bought a home in Queen Creek and figured he would help his son at the academy. Then Pennell got the job last spring as an assistant coach at Arizona. And then life changed forever when he got the interim head coaching position after Lute Olson retired in late October.

Fearing charges of nepotism, Russ never would have suggested that his dad join the team. But it was assistant coach Mike Dunlap who proposed just that, and athletic director Jim Livengood agreed.

“I’ll be forever indebted to Arizona,” Russ said.

Matt Brase was elevated from director of operations to assistant coach. Dewey rented a house in Tucson and took part-time control of Brase’s old job.

“It’s been such a blessing for both of us,” Dewey said.

And for Arizona.

The Pennells – with Russ’ optimism and folksy personality, and Dewey’s grandfatherly approachability – helped instill calm into a potential calamity of a season.

“He never once said he was going to get the (full-time) job, but he still did the job as if he was going to be here 20 years,” Dewey said.

“People have come up to him and told him they are appreciative of that. They feel the players have gotten back to playing the game and having fun.”

Watching and critiquing and cajoling as his son directs one of the nation’s premier programs, Dewey said he is most proud of the non-basketball stuff – the way Russ has steered the team through a second season of unforeseen and unprecedented circumstances.

“I think Russ has been positive with the players all along,” Dewey said.

“At first they didn’t know how to respond because they have been through quite a bit. He kept telling them that we’re going to get through it together.

“I think they finally started believing him because he was so consistent in what he did and what he said.”

Russ and Dewey’s coaching philosophies have similar roots. Dewey worked camps for many years with legendary coach Eddie Sutton, and Russ played for Sutton at Arkansas and coached with him at Oklahoma State.

Another thing father and son share: They don’t swear.

“I have coached for more 40 years and never said a curse word to a player,” Dewey said. “Now, that doesn’t make me a saint. But he doesn’t curse either. I’m pleased with that.”

Dewey sometimes has to pinch himself as he travels to the arenas of the Pac-10.

“I went to Mac Court in Oregon and walked up to the top of the place,” Dewey said. “One seat was behind a beam and you could only see half the court. It was amazing.”

Thursday, Dewey will sit on the bench and looked around Staples Center as the Wildcats take on Arizona State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament.

Soon, it will all be over, and Arizona will bring in a new head coach.

Dewey, 70, will go back to Queen Creek.

“One of the high school coaches asked me if I would be available to help him. I might do it,” Dewey said. “Or I might just play golf.”

Golf. Father and son share that, too.

“He beats me, and I don’t like it,” Dewey said. “He doesn’t cut me any slack.”

“When we play,” Russ added with a laugh, “it’s on and it’s real.”

Russ, 48, has positioned himself as a potential head coaching candidate, although that’s not what is on his mind right now. Dewey said his son won’t take any ol’ head coaching job, toiling at a lower-level school that routinely gets bashed by the big boys.

“It’s not an ego thing with him,” Dewey said. “I think he would be happy going back to the Phoenix area and develop players, tutor players one on one.

“But I think what he really would like to do is get a farm and raise cattle.”


“That’s my ultimate goal – to have enough wealth to buy a ranch,” Russ said.

“My dad’s family had a farm and horses and cattle. I love horses. I just love large animals. That would be a dream of mine someday. I guess I’m a frustrated cowboy.”

For now, he’s UA’s interim head coach working with his dad. The dream of owning a ranch can wait.

Russ is living a dream right now.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:


Wildcats’ anthem under Pennell could be ‘We Are Family’




Dewey Pennell

Russ Pennell

Continued from 1C

UA (19-12) vs. ASU (22-8)

When: noon Thursday

What: Pac-10 tourney first round

TV: FSNA Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5 FM

> Postgame analysis at www.tucsoncitizen.com.

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