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Coaching duo spurs Wildcats to Sweet 16

Citizen Staff Writer

Mike Dunlap could have been Arizona’s interim head coach. This could have been his basketball team.

In a very big way, it is anyway.

Russ Pennell has been the face of the program, the steady-calm voice of the Wildcats, who, to great surprise, reached the Sweet 16 after Sunday’s 71-57 victory over Cleveland State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

So, Pennell gets airtime on CBS and ESPN. Pennell is the subject of national columnists’ praise. Fans look at Pennell and wonder, “Why not him?” as UA’s next coach.


He’s the guy who wouldn’t take the interim head coaching job.

No regrets about that at all, he said Sunday in a phone interview after Arizona’s victory. He said he declined on principle. He wanted a school’s full-time commitment.

After saying no, he called Pennell, who, like Dunlap, joined the team as an assistant last spring. The conversation went something like this:

Dunlap: “I don’t feel comfortable in taking the job. I have my reasons. They are going to come your way next.”

Pennell: “Can we do this thing?”

Dunlap: “Absolutely.”

The Sweet 16 is absolutely what can happen when you get two coaches who really don’t care who gets the credit.

If you’re wondering why Arizona, after a few years of selfish play, turned into a team-first unit this season, look no further than the examples of Pennell and Dunlap, who locked away their egos and just decided to get to the work of making the Wildcats better one day at a time.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Dunlap often takes charge during timeouts, dispensing strategy in the huddles. During game action, he frequently leaves his seat on the bench, says something to Pennell . . . and the next thing you know Pennell is yelling instructions to the team.

For a head coach, interim or otherwise, to grant that kind of authority is nearly unprecedented.

“Yes, it is rare,” Dunlap said Sunday in a phone interview.

“Russ had to give me permission to do that in the huddle, and I thank him for it. But I also had 17 years of experience on the sideline in different situations, and I thought that I could be a help. But I never would have done it without Russ’ permission.

“Our relationship is a 10 on a scale of 10. He trusted me that I would never do anything to hurt him.

“He and I have been put together in a very difficult situation, and we made it work. It’s a friendship that will be for a lifetime.”

There was this postgame exchange between the two, as passed on by the Citizen’s Steve Rivera:

Dunlap came up as Pennell was doing interviews in the hallway of America Airlines Arena in Miami.

“You need to articulate your words. Stop stuttering,” Dunlap joked.

Pennell laughed.

“You should have been here a while ago when I was buttering your hind end,” he said.

Dunlap: “It would have been the first time.”

Pennell laughed again.

Truth is, there has been plenty of buttering, as Dunlap has been the mastermind behind UA’s 1-1-3 zone, which did much of its best work of the season in the NCAA Tournament.

He has been tireless behind the scenes, working with players one-on-one and quietly forging relationships that go beyond basketball. He is to Pennell what Jim Rosborough was to ex-head coach Lute Olson for so many years.

While Pennell has conceded Dunlap unusual authority, Dunlap has reciprocated the favor by not interfering publicly with Pennell’s leadership, creating a united UA front. That is why you haven’t heard much from Dunlap all season.

The open locker room policy of the NCAA Tournament has changed that. The secret is out.

It’s not that Dunlap, who is known as a brilliant tactician, dislikes or can’t handle the public part of the job; it’s just that it wasn’t his responsibility this season.

“This job required reclusiveness and quietness,” Dunlap said.

“I took on a certain role. Any kind of grandstanding or any kind of chest-beating would have hurt the leader, would have hurt the kids. It was really important to take a deep step back and get into my role.”

Dunlap coached Division II Metro State in Denver to two national titles.

He spent the past two seasons with the Denver Nuggets.

As soon as he turned down UA’s interim coaching job, he sent his wife and three children back to Denver. His oldest son, Holt, was able to jump back into his old high school for his senior year. Now he’s just a couple of months away from graduation.

“That will be a blast and he has done very well,” Dunlap said. “It has worked out.”

Dunlap knows – everyone has known – that he will head back to Denver as soon as Arizona’s season ends. He will resume his search for a Division I college head coaching job.

That also is Pennell’s goal.

Same, too, for that matter for assistant coach Reggie Geary, who has dutifully carried on with recruiting.

They have all been professionals, not letting whatever will happen after the season affect them during the season.

The wins and losses go next to Pennell’s name, but this has been a team effort.

“We’ve been successful in pushing the organization to a better place than when we found it,” Dunlap said. “The facts are on the table.”

And there’s nothing to regret about that.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:




No. 12 Arizona (21-13)

vs. No. 1 Louisville (30-5)

What: Sweet 16 (Midwest Region semifinal), NCAA Tournament

When: 4:07 p.m. Friday

Where: Indianapolis


Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM

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