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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    A new deck of cards

    Phyllis Goodman spent the past 24 years watching her fresh-faced children develop and graduate under their ageless father – a man committed to offering guidance and support regardless of the circumstances.

    She looked on from section 16 of McKale Center in high spirits and energy throughout the ups and downs of their family.

    Children, as ever Wildcat roster since 1983.

    Father, as in Lute Olson.

    The iconic Arizona basketball super fan, now 75, stands alone as McKale Center’s most recognizable active figure throughout the program’s storied history.

    Goodman’s heart and passion began long before the rich basketball tradition in Tucson. Standing proud with her classic cardinal “”U of A”” sweatshirt and signature blue Arizona wool-woven hat, the fiery Goodman has arrived early and never missed a minute of action – jumping, cheering, dancing and singing “”Bear Down”” season after season.

    But in today’s uncharted era, as these Wildcats embark on a journey without their legendary Hall of Fame head coach, the phrase “”Bear Down”” couldn’t be more meaningful to Goodman.

    The program’s father is gone for good after a second consecutive dramatic departure.

    “”I knew all along there had to be something wrong – this was not coach Olson,”” a teary-eyed Goodman said, who has attended games since before McKale Center’s erection in 1973. “”Nobody ever said a bad word about him, so something was very wrong.””

    Indeed, the past two years of Olson’s legacy confused fans like Goodman. But the dust has settled and the reality of life without Lute now adorns today’s new era of basketball.

    The long-term health of Olson’s program remains unknown – it’s something that UA athletic director Jim Livengood persistently looks to maintain while players and assistants adjust without Olson.

    This time, for good.

    Pennell brings hybrid of philosophies, behaviors between Olson and O’Neill

    Avoiding the 2007-08 season’s turmoil begins with a completely brand-new coaching staff – and motto.

    Last season the abrupt and intense adjustment process rocked the Wildcats after then-interim head coach Kevin O’Neill completely revamped Olson’s style.

    O’Neill implemented a strict man-to-man defense, which eliminated Olson’s zone, and an offense comprised of slow, set plays, which eliminated Olson’s up-tempo style.

    Arizona finished 19-15, limped into the NCAA tournament and clinched another first-round loss.

    After experiencing both extremes, the Wildcats will once again adjust to common ground: Interim head coach Russ Pennell enters with a style that is a hybrid of the two preceding regimes’ styles and temperaments.

    “”My style and my philosophy is so close to what they were used to, that I think the adjustment is not nearly as great as if I was a really pattern offensive coach,”” Pennell said. “”Really, a lot on the floor has not changed.””

    Throughout the first two exhibition games, Arizona has run a 1-1-3-zone defense crossed with man-to-man principles. On top of that, UA associate head coach Mike Dunlap – the team’s de facto defensive specialist – installed a 2-2-1 full-court press to keep opponents out of sync and eat up shot clock time.

    Over the past few weeks, terms such as defensive “”mastermind”” and “”chemist”” have circulated through Pennell’s press conferences when describing the role of Dunlap with the team.

    Pennell also admitted that the defense still remains a work in progress throughout the ongoing adjustment process. But as practices shift from a walk-through, step-by-step procedures to the game day-like intensity, Pennell sees things finally clicking together.

    “”It’s a little different,”” senior forward Fendi Onobun said. “”Every coach has their own style, but basketball players adjust and that’s what we’re able to do and that’s what we’ve been doing.””

    The human side of coaching basketball

    Despite suffering from the requested transfer of freshman center Jeff Withey, Pennell and his staff have kept his team focused on their goals and roles as the team and its coaching staff adjusts to each other.

    The ominous camaraderie from last season’s downfall is making a comeback.

    “”Both (exhibition) games, both sets of refs came up and said something to me: ‘Your guys look like they’re having fun,'”” Pennell said. “”These guys would know; they refereed them last year. That gives me some great feedback of where we’re at. I think that they’re open to us coaching. Not just me, (UA assistant coach) Reggie (Geary) and coach Dunlap especially.””

    Added point guard Nic Wise: “”Dunlap and Pennell set out each and every day what their roles are. If you get out of line, they snap on them and make sure they get back to their roles.””

    After he returned from last season’s leave of absence, Olson cleaned house and hired all three coaches: Pennell, Dunlap and Geary.

    Pennell realizes that despite his interim status, any of the three newcomers could be leading this season’s crisis-save mode.

    “”I’m really blessed with guys like Mike and Reggie,”” Pennell said. “”Either one of those guys can be sitting (here). Mike pulls me off guys all the time, then I pull him off guys.

    “”I’ll crawl in a foxhole with those two anytime,”” Pennell added.

    Whether its a foxhole, or at a restaurant spending extra time off the court with players, Pennell is striving to build trust within the program.

    By appearing as a personable figure to the team, Pennell hopes players recognize the staff as more than just coaches screaming plays and punishments, he said. During times like these, Pennell wants reciprocal dedication and effort from his team – like that of Goodman.

    “”My husband was president of the Wildcat Club years ago,”” Goodman said. “”I told him if we ever split up, he can have the kids, the house – I wanted the basketball.””

    Livengood, staff careful to move forward

    The search for Olson’s permanent successor will be executed with privacy – something UA athletic director Jim Livengood stressed when addressing the media on Oct. 24, when Pennell was named interim head coach. As a result, players and coaches aren’t exposed to the amplitude of distractions and speculation that process would entail.

    Before moving on to any further plans in terms of filling the coaching vacancy, Livengood pushed to keep any further distractions to a minimum.

    Embattled with questions regarding the long-term future of his newly-inherited program, Pennell began his inaugural press conference making one thing clear and simple: This was about a group of student-athletes for the next five months.

    “”This basketball team has quality players on it; this is not some year that we’re ready to dismiss and get onto whatever regime is next,”” Pennell said. “”The goals here are the same that they’ve always been.

    “”Will we measure up to that? Time will tell,”” he added.

    After all, this is a team about to begin with its third head coach in as many years. And in the case of junior point guard Nic Wise, Pennell became his seventh head coach in seven years – he attended four high schools in Houston.

    Both Livengood and Pennell knew normalcy wouldn’t blossom overnight after Olson’s sudden series of events. Just two days before officially announcing his retirement on Oct. 23, an upbeat Olson addressed the media in his first press conference since announcing his return on April 1.

    Now, as a replacement for Lute Olson looms next spring, Livengood will likely conduct a search through a private search firm – the same means he found Niya Butts for the women’s basketball program this year.

    “”We have not decided on that yet, but in all likelihood, something like that will happen,”” Livengood said. “”We’re just not ready to make that public information yet.””

    Private search firms allow coaches to be contacted discreetly, eliminating speculation from the media, fans and other universities.

    The UA paid $10,000 plus expenses for Butts’ search to Champ Search, a Southern California-based private search firm.

    “”We’re going to look at a number of things,”” Livengood said. “”Right now, the focus that I mentioned last week, was making sure this year’s team has settled in. I think we’ve done that.””

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