No regrets for Arizona assistant who turned down interim position

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MIAMI -- We introduced you Saturday to Russ Pennell, the accidental head coach of the Arizona basketball team, but we barely brushed on the other key figure on the Wildcats' bench. What about the guy who turned down the job?

Sunday, Mike Dunlap stood in the middle of a joyous Arizona locker room. The 12th-seeded Wildcats had punched their tickets to the Sweet 16 with a 71-57 win against Cleveland State, and the man who refused to accept an interim tag couldn't be happier for them. "It's a beautiful story," Dunlap said. "It's a story that could have gone left or could have gone right."

Instead, the story will continue this week in Indianapolis. The last team into the NCAA tournament is one of the last 16 alive thanks to players who refused to quit and coaches who refused to allow their egos to hamper the development of young men they grew to adore.

At times Sunday, Pennell and Dunlap stood and paced the sideline. During timeouts, Pennell sat in a chair and dispensed his wisdom. Dunlap took a knee alongside and dispensed his. To someone who hadn't seen the Wildcats play, it would have been nearly impossible to determine which was the head coach.

That was by design. In October, after legend Lute Olson's sudden resignation, Dunlap's refusal to take the interim job and Pennell's unlikely ascension, Arizona's staff spent days in discussion to decide on the united front it would present to the world. Pennell would face the media and, by virtue of that arrangement, receive a disproportionate share of blame or credit. Decision-making, however, would be done by committee.

So why did Dunlap say no? He could have had the keys to one of college basketball's premier programs, even if only for a few months. Principle, Dunlap said. "I said, 'If you give me or anybody else the interim label, you're going to lose four recruits that are high-end,'" he said. "That's not a good way to deal with things, and I believe in doing things right." The Wildcats did indeed lose all four commitments for the class of 2009, but Dunlap said Arizona officials had determined they wanted to conduct a national search after this season.

"Basically, what they said was, at that time, I wasn't good enough to coach this team. Let's face it," Dunlap said. "That's perfectly OK. It's a huge corporation. It has huge tradition. I didn't take it personally. I understood."

A day after the dust settled, Dunlap, who had spent the past two years as a Denver Nuggets assistant, shipped his wife, Mollie, and three children back to the Mile-High City. They had been in Tucson two months. Dunlap didn't want the family to put down a few roots only to move again this spring, and he also wanted his oldest son, Holt, to graduate with his high school class this year.

With his family gone, Dunlap threw himself into his job. "I'm a 16- to 18-hour worker," he said. "All I want to do is work myself to exhaustion and get to the pillow."

Dunlap can handle a workload. This is a man who once ran a 100-mile marathon. He also knows how to build a winner. He succeeded in his three seasons as head coach of the Adelaide (Australia) 36ers from 1995-97, and then he moved on to Metro State, a Division II school in Denver. Under Dunlap, Metro State made nine consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament and won national titles in 2000 and 2002. Those Metro State teams won with innovative defensive schemes similar to the ones that have helped Arizona to the Sweet 16.

When Pennell was named head coach, the staff had 23 days to prepare the Wildcats for the season. Knowing they didn't have time to polish fundamentals and install a scheme, coaches moved straight to installing the scheme. Now, Arizona is basketball's version of an option football team; if you don't have time to prepare, the Wildcats will give you fits.

"We made a choice in a compressed time period, and it worked," Dunlap said. "We throw a lot at our opponent. In the NCAA, the preparation time is minimal. So we do things that are a little unusual defensively, and in the thin air, it works."

Sunday, Arizona ran a trap out of its base 2-3 zone that frustrated the Vikings all day. Chances are, Dunlap, Pennell and the staff will cook up something new for top-seeded Louisville on Friday. It should be noted, by the way, that Louisville coach Rick Pitino could be a candidate for the Arizona job -- if he chooses.

Arizona's current coaches will work with the players for as long as they have them. After Friday's win against Utah, Dunlap called out forward Jamelle Horne during a meeting at the team hotel. Horne, Dunlap said, had a bad habit of injecting levity at ultra-serious moments, and Horne needed to understand when to laugh and when to scowl. Horne wore a game face from that moment until tipoff.

"He probably didn't like what I said," Dunlap said Sunday.

"You're damn right I didn't," Horne yelled, laughing again.

For the most part, the coaches have stayed positive. They had little choice. They've also kept their egos in check. Pennell said he never experienced a moment's awkwardness with Dunlap, even though Dunlap could have had his job. "When I first got the job [as an Olson assistant], I didn't know Mike, but I knew a lot of people who did," Pennell said. "People kept saying, 'You're going to love his knowledge. You're going to love being around him. You're going to learn a lot.' He's been unbelievable to work with. His knowledge is off the charts."

Neither Pennell nor Dunlap expected to be thrown into this situation when they signed on last year as Olson assistants, and they have bonded through adversity. As Arizona guard Zane Johnson hit a pair of free throws in the waning seconds Sunday, Pennell walked down the bench and gave Dunlap a congratulatory fist bump.

Dunlap doesn't regret turning down the interim job. "If I were to have a regret at this point, it would be totally selfish about what the returns were," he said. "I'm a purist. I made my decision on principle."

After the Wildcats' next loss, Dunlap will return to his family in Denver. "I'll be vapor as soon as this season ends and make sure the new guy has plenty of room," he said. "The last thing he wants is some lame duck sitting around the office."

Dunlap said that after Arizona officials explained the interim situation to him, he understood this year would be "a chapter in a long book." But what a chapter it's been. "It's a dream. It's tremendous, given the hardships we went through," Dunlap said. "Also, it's a tribute to communication, and it's a tribute to simple goals. We stuck to that."