'Zona interim coach Pennell fights on through despite tenuous tag
Before Arizona, Pennell was semi-retired from college coaching for five years
Pennell took over as head coach after only six months as Lute Olson's lieutenant
MIAMI -- Like so many American workers these days, Russ Pennell doesn't know exactly when the ax will fall. He only knows it will.
"After our next loss," Pennell said Saturday, "we're done."
Arizona's interim -- the word even leads Pennell's profile in the Wildcats' media guide -- head coach leaned against a wall Saturday in a hallway at AmericanAirlines Arena and refused to ponder anything but the present. On Sunday, his 12th-seeded team will face 13th-seeded Cleveland State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats win, the accidental head coach and his team will advance to the Sweet 16. If the Wildcats lose, Pennell and assistants Mike Dunlap, Reggie Geary and Matt Blase will soon find themselves unemployed.
Arizona will embark on a national search to find a permanent replacement for Lute Olson, whose October retirement threw one of the nation's most consistent programs into turmoil for the second consecutive season. The names floating around include Villanova's Jay Wright and Minnesota's Tubby Smith. There's no guarantee either man will end up in Tucson, but that's the caliber of coach Arizona administrators want.
A few weeks ago, SI.com examined college football's destination jobs. The basketball version probably would include Arizona, which has fantastic facilities and location and plays in a conference that is respected, but no so top-heavy that the same one or two teams win every year. Also, there is that 25-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, currently the nation's longest.
In other words, Pennell's resume probably won't stack up even if the Wildcats play into next weekend. He understands that. He'll still pour every ounce of himself into coaching them for as long as he works in the cramped office vacated when former assistant Josh Pastner left for Memphis. Olson's former office remains vacant.
So how did Pennell get here? A year ago, he was a happy former college assistant who ran Arizona Premier, the basketball training facility he founded after he left the college game in 2004 following 14 years as an assistant at Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and Arizona State. He coached a travel-ball team. He provided color commentary for radio broadcasts of Arizona State basketball games. He sang in the church choir.
Then Olson called, looking for an assistant. The legend mentioned that many of his assistants had taken over their own programs. He asked Pennell if he was interested in being a head coach. "Absolutely," Pennell replied.
"I didn't realize he meant six months later," Pennell said.
Pennell, the son of a longtime high school and small-college basketball coach, knew he wouldn't dodge the bite of the coaching bug forever. "I think he still had that desire to coach somewhere if the situation was right," Pennell's wife, Julie, said. "I don't think he was going to go somewhere and just sit there. But he had so many fellow coaches -- head coaches -- saying, 'You really need to be back in.'"
Husband and wife discussed the offer. They had made a deal when Pennell left Arizona State in 2004, and they wanted to make sure Arizona fit the parameters. "We pretty much made the decision that it had to be a really good situation to go back to," Pennell said. "Ironic, huh?"
Olson had taken a season-long leave of absence in 2007-08. Interim head coach Kevin O'Neill guided the Wildcats through that season, and O'Neill had a deal in place to take over when Olson retired for good. When Olson returned in April, he tore up that deal and canned O'Neill. He hired Dunlap as associate head coach. The offer to Pennell was another piece of the staff makeover.
When Olson resigned in October, Arizona officials offered the interim job to Dunlap. He turned it down, hoping to avoid the very situation in which Pennell finds himself. So, 23 days from the Wildcats' season opener, Pennell found himself at a press conference explaining how he will lead a team with a 24-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances.
First, Pennell and Dunlap -- who seem to speak an equal amount in Arizona huddles -- needed to make sure they didn't lose the players, whose emotions were understandably frazzled after a year of O'Neill and Olson's sudden departure. "It took a couple of days for it to sink in and for me to let my emotions go," forward Chase Budinger said. "Once I did that, I put my trust in the other coaches. The biggest thing they kept on telling us was they were in the same situation as us. ... They kept telling us we all had to stick together."
Stick together they did, through one-point losses to Alabama-Birmingham and Texas A&M and through wins against Gonzaga, Kansas and UCLA. All the while, the staff has coached as if it didn't know it was about to be fired. Geary keeps recruiting. Dunlap keeps tweaking Arizona's 3-2 zone. Pennell keeps inspiring. "They know they're probably not going to be there next year," Budinger said. "We know they're probably not going to be there next year. That's the reality of things. They're still doing their jobs. ... That just shows the character of these men."
After Arizona State bounced the Wildcats from the Pac-10 Tournament, they had a 19-13 record. The streak seemed in jeopardy, but the Wildcats' resume gave them reason to hope. Arizona's name surfaced in the bracket to howls of power-conference collusion. After the Wildcats whipped fifth-seeded Utah on Friday, those howls ceased.
On Sunday, Pennell will lead the Wildcats one more time. It may be the last time. After that, who knows?
Pennell politely declines to discuss anything beyond the 2008-09 season, but his friends have some ideas. Tim Healey, the voice of Arizona State and Pennell's former broadcast partner, believes if Pennell wants, he can make a fine living behind the mic. "I was sadder to lose him as a broadcast partner than I was to see him go to our archrival," Healey said. "He was a fabulous analyst. He's ESPN-good."
Or, in these harsh economic times, an enterprising athletic director may want to follow the suggestion of Arizona State sports information director Doug Tammaro, who still hasn't forgotten the night when Pennell, then a Sun Devils assistant, belted out the pre-game national anthem with his church choir. "He's the only person I know," Tammaro said, "who can broadcast the game, sing the national anthem and coach."
Pennell will deal with those possibilities later. He wants to be a head coach, but the economy could keep a lot of mediocre head coaches employed this year. So far, the only jobs of note that have opened -- besides Arizona -- are Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, and those schools probably will want a longer head-coaching resume than Pennell's.
Instead of worrying, Pennell will coach his team. "You can't script something like this," he said. "The interesting thing and the exciting thing is that you just never know what life deals you. Sometimes it's tough times. Sometimes it's great times. Like this one."
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