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Pennells show that family circle really matters

Citizen Staff Writer



INDIANAPOLIS – Some- time recently, Russ Pennell was driving in the car with his younger daughter, Emily, when the subject turned to her dad’s hoarse voice.

Emily, 9, was the family member who had the toughest time with the move to Tucson last spring, when Russ was hired as an Arizona basketball assistant coach.

All she had ever known was the Phoenix area and rooting for Arizona State, where Russ was an assistant from 1998 to 2004. She had never shown much interest in basketball.

“She kind of came kicking and screaming,” Pennell’s wife, Julie, said of Emily. “She was used to hollering for ASU and not cheering for the Wildcats. We have swayed her. She was the last convert.”

She might have become a bigger convert than anyone in the family realized.

Apparently, she wasn’t daydreaming when dad – taking a break from his favorite television show, “24″ – would bring home a scouting DVD and the family of four would sit and watch together as Russ broke down a future UA opponent.

Anyway, on this particular day in the car, Emily asked her dad what was wrong with his throat.

“I’ve been yelling too much,” Russ said.

“Yelling at the players?” she asked.

“Nah, yelling at the refs.”

Emily laughed.

Then she said, “You ought to go Floyd on them.”

Pennell recounted this story for reporters Tuesday, drawing a roomfull of belly laughs.

Emily indeed has been paying attention to her dad’s profession, smartly referencing USC coach Tim Floyd’s meltdown – two technicals and an ejection in the final minute at Arizona State on Feb. 15.

Russ resumed the conversation, saying, “Don’t you think you’d be a little embarrassed if I did that?

“No,” Emily replied. “I think that would be pretty cool.”

Pretty cool sums up the Pennell family life these days, as dad has gone from assistant coach to interim head coach to multimedia star since Arizona advanced to the Sweet 16 last weekend.

When the Pennell’s older daughter, 12-year-old Morgan, went back to school Monday, her locker was adorned with Arizona stuff, courtesy of her classmates.

“She thought that was petty cool,” Russ said.

See. Pretty cool. Again.

The stress of a basketball season, with its ups and downs and endless commentary from the peanut gallery, can take its toll on a family as well as the coach, but the Pennells seem to be coping just fine.

Part of that is an enduring faith that everything always will be OK.

Remember last year’s interim head coach Kevin O’Neill? A basketball nomad, O’Neill said one thing he had learned about housing over the years was this: Rent, don’t buy.

When the Pennells moved to Tucson in the spring, they bought.

They might have to sell and move again right after the season, but they won’t have any regrets about the joy ride.

“The fun outweighs everything else,” Julie said. “I told Russ (Monday) night, I really am proud of you. What our future is, I don’t know.”

Part of the fun has been that Russ hasn’t taken himself too seriously.

He’s had what could loosely be called an entourage. Pennell’s posse.

He typically brought in friends or family members to news conferences after home games, just to have them share in the experience. For the last game, he had Emily sit right next to him at the table; she even answered a question about how her gymnastics meets were going.

For her part, Julie keeps her distance from coverage of the team and college basketball – “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t watch ESPN all that much,” she said – while taking care of the home front.

“You know what, I don’t think anybody still knows who I am. That’s fine by me. I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of wife.

“When Russ gets home, we try to not talk about (basketball) and have family time when he’s here. We really try to keep that as stress-free as possible.

“Morgan is a seventh-grader, and when we first moved here, I don’t think anyone knew who her dad was for a long time. She kept that under wraps for a while.

“You just try to live life as normal as possible.”

Morgan just wrapped up her basketball season. Emily practices gymnastics from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. four days a week.

When he can, Russ will leave UA and pick her up from class on the East Side, saving Julie a 90-minute round trip from the family’s Oro Valley home.

“That is a treat for Emily,” Julie said.

“They can just chat about their day. I know Russ enjoys it, and she does, too.”

Pretty cool. Just some quality father-daughter time. A dab of normalcy amid a crazy five months.

Until someone says, “You ought to go Floyd on them.”

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com

Pennells show that family circle really matters


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