'Zona interim coach Pennell fights on through despite tenuous tag
Like so many American workers these days,
"After our next loss," Pennell said Saturday, "we're done."
Arizona will embark on a national search to find a permanent replacement for
A few weeks ago, SI.com examined
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
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,
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
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
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.
Or, in these harsh economic times, an enterprising athletic director may want to follow the suggestion of Arizona State sports information director
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."