TUCSON - Russ Pennell, who admits he is not a household name, was introduced as the University of Arizona’s interim head men’s basketball coach Friday.
“When I woke up this morning, I didn’t expect to be sitting in front of you,” Pennell said.
Pennell did not learn until Friday morning he would be named the interim coach. Right after he “swallowed really hard,” Pennell said he accepted on the spot.
Meanwhile, UA athletic director Jim Livengood said he will “announce very shortly” the process the school will take in conducting a national search for a permanent head coach.
Pennell spoke with retired UA coach Lute Olson before noon Friday. “He called to congratulate me, tell me he was proud of me, and to bear down,” he said.
Pennell said he was in a staff meeting Thursday when he heard for the first time that Olson was retiring. Matt Brase, Olson’s grandson, had seen the news on ESPN.
Livengood said associate head coach Mike Dunlap did not turn down an offer to be the interim head coach. He said offering Dunlap the interim job “was not part of the discussion.” Dunlap will remain on staff as associate head coach.
Assistant Reggie Geary will also remain on staff; Livengood said he did not discuss the interim job with him. No other assistant will be added “at this time,” Livengood said.
Pennell spoke briefly to the team Friday, calling their attitudes “very receptive.”
Asked whether he plans to stay beyond this year, Pennell said simply, “I’m coaching the next five months.” The season begins Nov. 1 with the Red-Blue Game.
“We’re going to be playing in the preseason NIT,” Pennell said. “And guess what? They don’t care that your coach left.”
Pennell called Dunlap “one of the best coaches in the country” on the defensive end; he said he wants to run a fast-paced offense mixed with motion half-court sets.
He said that he is focused on UA’s players, who he said “have been rocked to the core” by Olson’s retirement. “To me this is about a group of kids over the next five months,” Pennell said.
Pennell, 47, was hired to the UA staff May 5, collecting an annual salary of $150,000. Livengood said he and Pennell had not agreed on a raise for the interim position, but he “will be treated fairly.”
Pennell provided color commentary for the Arizona State radio network during the 2007-08 season.
Pennell also ran the Arizona Premier Basketball League in Phoenix the past two years.
Pennell arrived in Tempe in 1998, following coach Rob Evans from Ole Miss, where he had served as an assistant from 1992-98. Pennell left ASU in 2006.
He played from 1979-80 at Arkansas under coach Eddie Sutton before transferring to Central Arkansas, where he played alongside Scottie Pippen from 1982-84.
The Pittsburg, Kan., native played for the Spirit Express, a traveling exhibition team based in Memphis, Tenn., from 1984-88.
“I’m a big 'Seinfeld’ fan,” said Tim Healey, Pennell’s radio broadcast partner at ASU last year “I kind of feel like I’m living in a 'bizarro world.’ In late March we were broadcasting the NIT quarterfinal with Florida together. Now in six short months, he’s the interim head coach of ASU’s arch-rival.”
When Pennell met with players Friday, he explained how, in April, he uprooted his family from the Phoenix area to move to Tucson. He told his two young daughters — who had never moved before — that they were going to Tucson.
All that, he said, for the chance to coach with Olson.
He asked players if that sounded familiar.
“Gentlemen,” Pennell told the team. “We’re in the same boat here.”