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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The Pennell era concludes

    Members of the UA basketball team share a moment in their locker room after the loss to Louisville. Despite the loss, coaches and players said this season could be considered a success because of the squads run to the Sweet 16.
    Members of the UA basketball team share a moment in their locker room after the loss to Louisville. Despite the loss, coaches and players said this season could be considered a success because of the squad’s run to the Sweet 16.


    INDIANAPOLIS – The media assembled in Arizona’s locker room following its blowout loss to Louisville, but unknowingly rushed past a touching scene in the team’s bathroom.

    The brief exchange spoke volumes.

    Unnoticed by the herd of reporters and cameramen preoccupied with player reactions, UA interim head coach Russ Pennell and his father, Dewey, quietly gave each other one last “”thank you,”” followed by a hug.

    Both Pennells parted ways with red, teary eyes. Russ left to do his final post-game press conference as Arizona’s head coach. Dewey lingered around the locker room, absorbing the atmosphere one last time with the guys who accompanied his unusual journey during the past five months.

    Tears, not because the Wildcats suffered their all-time worst loss in the NCAA Tournament, but because the ride was over.

    In a season where the Wildcats used all nine lives and then some, Indianapolis ended the rocky road of 2008-09.

    “”I just thanked him for, you know, bringing me along basically,”” said a choked up Dewey, almost unable to finish the sentence. “”This really meant a lot to me. I’ve really enjoyed working with him and working with the guys. You’re around these guys and you learn to love them.””

    Before the game, the Wildcats were written off like a bad check. Overdrafted. There went their credit, and the house money Arizona played with into its Sweet 16 run.

    By halftime, Russ symbolically stepped down off the raised court and departed into the locker room as a lame duck.

    After having stood on the big stage for the past few weeks, the end of his magical run stung like lemon juice in an open wound.

    This time, David Bagga nailed a final-minute 3-pointer and nobody flinched. The bench didn’t budge. The Big Three just sat sidelined, emotionless, staring into the vast rafters filled predominately with Louisville fans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

    With seconds remaining in what felt like a 75-point lead, Louisville’s Kyle Kuric dunked home an “”F-you”” two points after Russ Pennell waved off the troops – adding a jalapeño kick to that lemon-juice-filled, wide-open wound.

    But while a double-digit loss like Friday night’s catastrophe against Louisville would’ve spelled disaster at any other point in the season, the post-game atmosphere in the locker room felt strange.

    Strange, as in the anticipation that Arizona faces in the next upcoming weeks. Or days – who knows? That’s the strangest, most interesting twist. A group of 11 guys that have been through a roller coast of emotions throughout the season – they’re far, far from settled or content heading into the bleak 2009-10 campaign.

    “”There’s just so much uncertainty,”” said UA forward Zane Johnson. “”We don’t know who the recruits are going to be, if there are any coming in. We don’t know who our coaches will be. It’s all up to Mr. Livengood and how he handles things.””

    Meanwhile, across the street, the carcass of the 1997 National Championship lies in a demolished pile of scrap metal and ruins as the RCA Dome’s last remains.

    Now, it’s time for another era to begin rebuilding Tucson.

    “”The University of Arizona is a basketball icon. It has been for 25 years,”” Russ Pennell said. “”And there’s tradition, and tap into that tradition. Whoever comes in needs to understand what Lute built. And go ahead and build on top of that.””

    So where does Russ go from here?

    Where does a guy who suddenly went from radio commentator to Sweet 16 coach end up after shedding the interim tag?

    “”I will make a bold statement right now,”” he said. “”I will be coaching somewhere next year. OK? It might be my daughter’s eighth-grade team, but I will be coaching somewhere next year.””

    Chances are, if Russ wants a high-profile assistant job, or head coaching job, he’ll have to leave the state of Arizona.

    Certainly, quality of life will remain his biggest factor in wherever Russ ends up – that’s something that contributed to his move from Phoenix to Tucson. With two daughters in elementary school (Morgan, 12, and Emily, 9) the Pennell family’s future looks uncertain right now.

    But Russ’ efforts in a Sweet 16-caliber season have surely proven him on the highest level.

    At the very least, he’ll never have to buy a drink in Tucson again.

    “”I think it’s a weird situation he was put in, but I think he did a phenomenal job with us,”” Johnson said.

    Russ’ counterpart, associate head coach Mike Dunlap, will head back to Denver in the next few days after he finishes up academic paperwork, ensuring that the next regime makes a smooth transition.

    Just like that, Russ and Dunlap will clean out their desks soon – if they haven’t already.

    “”I’ll be out quick, though,”” Dunlap said.

    Oh, how quickly it went by.

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