One of Arizona basketball's most proud postseason runs ended in the Sweet 16. And it didn't involve Lute Olson.
Russ Pennell, acting as an interim coach, brought a talented but lost team together just in time to earn a 12th seed. Today, Pennell is prepping as an interim coach for the Phoenix Mercury, which on Saturday will face the Los Angeles Sparks. A win will advance a team that fired its head coach after an 10-11 start to the WNBA's Western Conference Finals.
I spoke with Pennell over the phone on Friday to discuss his time coaching in the state of Arizona, his philosophies of taking over as an interim coach and his memories of the 2009 Sweet 16 run.
Kevin Zimmerman: Can you go through how you got the Mercury job and what were you doing at the time?
Russ Pennell: It came down in just a few hours. There was nothing behind the scenes we were working on. I got a call on a Wednesday afternoon, about 3 o'clock, interviewed that evening and they offered me the position.
As far as what I was doing, I was obviously in between jobs after being let go by Grand Canyon next year. I was prepared to sit out the season and was going to wait until spring to get back into the college game. So you know, sitting at home, taking the kids to school, things like that.
Zimmerman: What is it that has made you stick around the state as far as opportunities? Is it just keeping your family in one place?
Pennell: That's a lot about it. My family is my top priority, always has been, always will. We've been fortunate to stay in Arizona as long as we have. Certainly, the jobs have worked out in that direction. But you know, hopefully I think what's helped me as much as anything is, one thing I've always tried to do is do my job well, treat people right - just work hard at it. There's a lot of people in the world that do those type of things.
That usually lets you have some longevity. I've been real blessed to be in this a long time and have some really good people believe in me from time to time.
Zimmerman: You've kind of gotten these interim jobs ... you turned them around at Arizona. Is there any comparison you can make as far as the two situations or why you think you've had success in taking over in the middle of the season?
Pennell: There are some similarities. Both the UofA and the Mercury have had track records of success. They've both been very good. From that standpoint, what I've tried to do - and I learned a lot at UofA - you make subtle changes and some things you think can help some, but you don't go overhauling it. You don't go in and make yourself the focal point.
As I told the ladies when I got the Mercury job, "I'm the one at the learning curve here, not you guys." I've got to be real careful not to change too much to make me feel better but then you have 11 people who are confused. I think it's better the other way, that maybe at times I'm confused but they all know what they're doing. That's No. 1.
And No. 2 is both those places had great players. I had two NBA players at Arizona in Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. And we have two or three of the greatest players on the planet on this (Mercury) team. Timing has a lot to do with it, too. I think sometimes coaches get probably way too much credit but they also get way too much blame. In this instance, this isn't about me. This is about a group of women that have come together and are living up to their potential now.
Zimmerman: I saw in an Arizona Republic interview you said there's not much difference coaching men versus women. Is that really true or do they respond differently to things as far as how they handle emotions? That similar to you?
Pennell: It's that similar to me. The thing I've seen is the women's commitment to team I think is a little stronger than men. Not all men. My teams at Grand Canyon were really committed to team. But I love the camaraderie that the women have. There's a spirit about how "we" do well, not "me." But even on the court, the competitive nature, I've seen no difference, whatsoever.
Zimmerman: Taking over for you, is it sort of about getting that camaraderie together that wasn't there. I don't know if it was broken here or at Arizona, but is that sort of a huge thing for you?
Pennell: Absolutely. One of the main responsibilities of a coach is to create harmony and chemistry on this team. You can do that different ways. Number one, you try to value every player on a team, regardless if they're contributing with minutes or not. They're people that want to feel important, they want to feel like they're a part. Number two, if you do have problems, you have to nip it at the bud. You cannot let it fester. You got to get rid of any cancerous problem in the locker room or on the team. Fortunately for me, this team didn't have that issue.
Zimmerman: Going back to Arizona, what was your biggest memory? I know there was that comeback against Houston, and obviously the Sweet 16 run. What was kind of the moment that stands out to you?
Pennell: Honestly I think that team came together when we got beat by Alabama Birmingham (the second game of the year), in the game where Jamelle Horne fouled at the end. The game was tied, he kind of lost track of the score and fouled, they made two free throws and won. The reason I say that is I thought it brought us to probably the bottom of the lower level of where it was going to be. We had to go to Athens Georgia to play the last two games of the NIT. We played Mississippi Valley State, we played Santa Clara and there were probably 50 people at the game.
I think it humbled a proud team, but it made us find ourselves. We looked within and from that point on I felt like we started getting better. I think they finally got over the fact that Lute was not coming back and we had to bind together. It's funny because when you're within that, most people would say Houston game is the turning point. And obviously to beat Cleveland State to get to the Sweet 16, was huge.
I think the biggest thing was when we had to look ourselves in the mirror and say, "You know, this isn't the same Arizona we've all been used to but it doesn't mean we can't get the same results." I think that was a real, real big moment for us.
Zimmerman: Have you kept in contact with any players or, obviously, coach Dunlap has had a lot of success?
Pennell: Absolutely. In fact, I talked to Coach Dunlap the day before yesterday. Matt Brase and I talk all the time. He's in player development for the Houston Rockets. Reggie Geary and I communicate every now and again. Bret Brielmaier. All of 'em. Of course my dad was with us down there, he lives up here in the Phoenix area.
We all stay in touch. It was a special time and I think it will bind us together forever.
Zimmerman: Brielmaier is in Cleveland, right?
Pennell: Yes, he basically got moved up to an assistant coach now.
Zimmerman: Did you see back then that he and Brase would be coaches?
Pennell: Absolutely. Those guys relate incredibly well with players. The fact they were former players gives them another positive. Those guys have a unique way of communicating with players, they knew their stuff. They were tireless as far as their efforts, whether it was watching more film or working guys out. They were junkies, basketball junkies. That's why they're both climbing the ladder so quickly.