Patrick Finley: Ex-Wildcats coach Russ Pennell is handling unfairness of life

Fired at Grand Canyon despite winning mark, he seeks the right job
2013-06-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:17:42Z Patrick Finley: Ex-Wildcats coach Russ Pennell is handling unfairness of lifePatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

If karma exists, Russ Pennell will be somewhere on your television next year.

Maybe he'll be coaching - though many high-level assistant posts are filled.

Or perhaps he'll get into a career he always thought would work for him: broadcasting.

"There are so many networks," said Pennell, who served as Arizona State's radio analyst before a return to coaching and a magical run as the Arizona Wildcats' interim coach in 2008-09. "Maybe they'll run out of people and hire me."

Even after being dismissed from Grand Canyon University this year, Pennell can elicit a self-deprecating chuckle.

His life is not bad, and he knows it. He woke up Wednesday morning in Honolulu, where he's vacationing with his wife and two daughters. They made a pact to put away their cellphones and spend time together all week, one last hurrah for his daughter Morgan, who's entering her senior year of high school.

After the way Pennell was let go by GCU in March, he deserves a break.

Someone should buy him a mai tai. Or three.

The night before the Antelopes' Division II West Regional playoff game in March, Pennell was told he wouldn't return as the team's coach. He'd heard rumors all week and finally had them confirmed.

The school said he "resigned" and the decision was "mutual." If you believe that, I've got oceanfront property on Ajo Way to sell you.

Pennell went 72-44 in four years and 42-16 in his last two. He lost two games in the school's 2-year-old arena and was supposed to be the face of GCU as it entered Division I next season.

His players found out before the playoff game - "Some things leaked out," Pennell said - and were distracted in a 26-point loss to Seattle Pacific. The last few times Pennell took a timeout, he saw tears in his players' eyes.

"The message I told them is that life is not always fair," he said. "Life sometimes hits you with some hard stuff. It's how you handle that that's important."

Pennell's friends teased him that the success of his last two years earns most a people a raise, but it left him without a job.

I wondered what he told his friends when they asked why he was let go.

"Two days later, when there was a new coach there, I think that explained it," he said.

Pennell was told he wouldn't return on a Thursday. That next Monday, the school announced that former Phoenix Suns star and unofficial Mayor of the Valley Dan Majerle would take his place, a move undoubtedly aided by new Special Assistant to the GCU President Jerry Colangelo.

That GCU would choose sizzle is understandable. The for-profit school caters to online students as well as those who walk its central Phoenix campus. Buzz equals dollars.

"I can't understand what that is, that they want," Pennell said. "I had that job to do, and I think I did it to the best of my ability. …

"We did not have a losing season. The last two seasons we went 42-16. We were on the rise. I did, for me, as good as I can do."

Pennell's days since have been strange, he said. It's different to not be goal-oriented every day, and it's wonderful to spend time with the women in his life.

He's talked to some friends in coaching about returning as an assistant - his family is willing to move - but the job has to be right. He's sure there's a market for someone who in five years as a head coach made a tournament three times and the Sweet 16 once.

"I'm 52 years old and I don't want to start over," he said. "It's got to be the right fit for coaching.

"I have a real interest in doing broadcasting."

He understands that most television guys are broken in slowly, doing a handful of games in their first year. He's fine with that.

"I would miss coaching," he said. "I would love to be able to do something else if that's the right direction to go. Maybe over time I'll catch a break and do that."

He deserves one.

Give that man a microphone.

Contact reporter Patrick Finley at pfinley@azstarnet.com or 573-4658. On Twitter @PatrickFinley.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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