Livengood chooses Russ Pennell as interim head coach

Bryan Roy

UA spokesman Richard Paige interrupted the seemingly endless stream of questions about 23 minutes into Russ Pennell’s inaugural press conference as interim head coach.

“”Excuse me for a second. Russ just needs to get downstairs to prepare for practice,”” Paige said.

Pennell gazed into the cameras and paused for a moment before thanking the media, walked over to shake hands with Paige and then proceeded to exit the Lohse Room in McKale Center with an enormous grin.

Granted, this isn’t the happiest era of the Arizona men’s basketball program, but Pennell has evolved from a no-name assistant coach to leading one of the nation’s most prestigious basketball universities.

And at that moment, it all sunk in.

“”Obviously when I woke up this morning, I didn’t expect to be sitting in front of (the media),”” Pennell said. “”To me, this is about a group of kids over the next five months. You’ve got a group of kids sitting downstairs that have been rocked to the core, which shows their great love and admiration for the man they came here to play for in Coach Olson.””

UA athletic director Jim Livengood announced Friday that Pennell would serve as the interim head coach for the next five months, but didn’t provide a long-term solution beyond this season.

Due to the sudden sequence of events over a span of just 24 hours, Livengood consistently kept focus on the current coaching situation and diverted questions about the future.

The only long-term speculation that Livengood did confirm, though, is the implication of a national search.

“”At this time, there are no further coaching plans,”” Livengood said. “”What happens in the future is in the future. Our first priority is right here, right now. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves – we have a season to compete in.””

Throughout the afternoon Thursday – between the time ESPN broke the story at 9 a.m. and when Livengood officially announced Olson’s retirement at 5 p.m. – much speculation on the Internet assumed that UA associate head coach Mike Dunlap would take the position as interim head coach.

However, Livengood denied those reports that were “”misstated and quite honestly just plain wrong,”” and said Dunlap – who earns $375,000 – wanted to continue his role as associate head coach.

Livengood’s vague yet sincere responses to 37 minutes worth of questions ended with one clear message: The situation between last season’s lingering leave of absence and Thursday’s retirement will be treated differently, despite the obvious similarities that left the Wildcats without its Hall of Fame head coach.

And most certainly, Livengood will not rush the decision or search process in naming Olson’s successor, after prematurely dubbing former UA assistant Kevin O’Neill that role last year.

“”I don’t think anybody has a road map. I’ve done this for a long time; doesn’t mean I have all the answers,”” Livengood said. “”Every situation is different. Last year was different because that was a leave of absence.””

Candid and honest with his responses, Pennell spoke from the heart at the press conference, as he described the dejected mood from the players and current status of the team.

Pennell, who joined the Arizona coaching staff on May 5 as Olson’s second assistant, compared his situation to that of the players in terms of how he relocated from Phoenix to achieve something greater in the realm of basketball.

Pennell met with the team just minutes prior to Friday’s press conference, and delivered a motivational pep talk – similar to how Olson told Pennell to “”Bear Down”” in a phone conversation earlier that day.

“”I’ll tell you exactly what I said to (the team). I started off by saying that back (on) the first of April, I got a call from Lute Olson, asking me to uproot my family and move to Tucson, Arizona,”” Pennell said. “”Telling 12- and 8-year-old (children) they’re moving when they never moved in their life is not an easy task. Selling a house, buying another one, going through all of that – all because I thought I was coming to work for Lute Olson.

“”And then I asked them, ‘Does this story sound familiar to you guys? Did you come here to play for Lute Olson?’

“”I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’re in the same boat here. All we have is each other, and we’ve got to get through this. Now the task for us is to follow up on that. We’re in this thing together, and yes, it’s not easy right now, but you’ve got two choices: You can give up or you can fight.’ And I’m not going to let them give up.””

Last season, O’Neill implemented his strict man-to-man defense and slow-paced offense during his one-year tenure, a completely opposite philosophy from Olson’s zone defense and spread-motion offense.

Pennell plans to keep Olson’s blueprints this season, and certainly won’t write off this year’s chances at securing the program’s 25th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

“”I know from talking to those kids today that they’re competitors – they’re Wildcats,”” Pennell said. “”They want to carry on the great tradition that the University of Arizona has enjoyed over the past couple years.

“”This is not some year we’re ready to dismiss and just get onto whatever regime is next,”” he added.

Pennell grew up as the son of Dewey Pennell, a high school and college basketball coach. Though Russ Pennell realizes he may not be considered a household name, he said being born into a basketball family has given him 47 years and nine months of basketball experience.

Russ Pennell spent the past two seasons with the Arizona Premier AAU basketball program in the Phoenix area, after serving as an assistant coach under Rob Evans at ASU from 1998 to 2006. Evans gave Pennell free reign of the Sun Devils offensive sets, providing him with head coaching experience without actually being a head coach.

Pennell also spent time in the Southeastern Conference at Mississippi and the Big Eight – a precursor to today’s Big 12 – at Oklahoma State.

“”If I had an opportunity to make a difference, whether it would’ve been as an assistant, I just couldn’t let them down,”” Pennell said. “”I’m real big on loyalty.””

Loyalty – something Livengood and the program have sought over the past two tumultuous years.