Arizona basketball: O'Neill, Pennell staffs have thrived

2012-10-28T00:00:00Z Arizona basketball: O'Neill, Pennell staffs have thrivedBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 28, 2012 12:00 am  • 

From his basketball home in Japan, Reggie Geary exchanged emails recently with Phoenix-based Russ Pennell, and Geary could probably still hear chuckling on the other end.

Their bond, built in just a year on the 2008-09 Arizona Wildcats interim coaching staff, remains that strong. As does their pride: All the assistant coaches Pennell had while coaching in place of Lute Olson during that season are thriving in professional basketball.

Geary was Japan's coach of the year last season with Yokohama, Mike Dunlap is head coach of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, and Matt Brase is an assistant coach with the D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Meanwhile, Bret Brielmaier, an undergraduate assistant that season, is a video coordinator for the San Antonio Spurs.

"Reggie emailed me the other day, and we were laughing about it," said Pennell, now the head coach at Grand Canyon. "I said, 'You're coach of the year over there. Mike is with the Bobcats. Matt works for the Rockets, Bret for the Spurs.' I said, 'Man, can I crank out some assistant coaches or what?'"

Arizona's previous interim staffers, the group headed by Kevin O'Neill when Olson took a leave of absence in 2007-08, have also made big jumps. O'Neill (USC) and then-assistant Josh Pastner (Memphis) became college head coaches, while the other assistant, Miles Simon, now has a high-profile career as a pro basketball trainer, travel-team coach and ESPN television analyst.

O'Neill effectively lost his job in April 2008 when Olson returned for six months before retiring that October, Pastner joined John Calipari's Memphis staff that spring, and Simon departed. And all of the coaches from the 2008-09 season left when Sean Miller was hired.

Yet they all landed elsewhere without a bruise.

They were interim, but their careers were not.

"As crazy as those years were, everyone went on and had success," said Brase, the former UA walk-on who grew up with the program as Olson's grandson.

Pastner and Pennell said it's not a coincidence, crediting the Hall of Famer who brought them in.

"You've got to give Coach Olson credit in hiring good people," Pastner said. "He hired good people in different roles, and when you hire good people, good things can happen. Matt, Bret, Jesse (Mermuys) - I mean those guys are in great spots, and they're not spots that are easy to come by. It's very, very hard to get those spots."

For another thing, those years of adversity may have strengthened each of the coaches' resolve. Both teams made the NCAA tournament despite having to cope with Olson's leave of absence in 2007-08 and Olson's retirement before the 2008-09 season.

"What has happened for all of us made us mentally tougher," Pennell said. "It taught us that when bad things happen, you can turn it around and get a bunch of people on the same page."

All of them also gained a year of new experiences. Pastner, who said he's been lucky to learn under Olson and Calipari, said he still uses some of O'Neill's NBA-influenced terminology today.

"That year with Coach O'Neill, I know it wasn't easy, but I learned a lot of basketball," Pastner said. "I think every experience in life you can take something from."

For the 2008-09 staffers, there was also a giddy feeling of accomplishment to build on. The Wildcats took what was perhaps the last spot in the NCAA tournament field that season and waltzed all the way into the Sweet 16 behind what Pennell called the "Big Three" of Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill.

"We had some pretty good players with Chase, Nic and Jordan, and the other guys played their roles," Pennell said. "They all put their personal agenda on hold and tried to help preserve Arizona for a year. We all have that bond."

Here's a rundown of where those interim UA staffers have landed:

2008-09

Russ Pennell

• Age: 51

• At Arizona: Interim head coach, 2008-09

• Then and now: Head coach at Grand Canyon (2009-present)

Mike Dunlap

• Age: 54

• At Arizona: Associate head coach, 2008-09

• Then: Assistant coach, Oregon (2009-10), assistant coach, St. John's (2010-12)

• Now: Head coach, Charlotte Bobcats

Reggie Geary

• Age: 39

• At Arizona: Assistant coach, 2008-09

• Then: Assistant coach, SMU (2009-11)

• Now: Head coach, Yokohama B-Corsairs (since 2011-12)

Matt Brase

• Age: 30

• At Arizona: Assistant coach, 2008-09

• Then: Graduate assistant, Grand Canyon (2009-11), basketball operations assistant, Houston Rockets (2011-12)

• Now: Assistant coach, Rio Grande Valley Vipers

Bret Brielmaier

• Age: 26

• At Arizona: Undergraduate assistant coach, 2008-09

• Then: Workout coach, San Antonio Spurs

• Now: Video coordinator, San Antonio Spurs

2007-08

Kevin O'Neill

• Age: 55

• At Arizona: interim head coach, 2007-08

• Then: Assistant coach, Memphis Grizzlies (2008-09)

• Now: Head coach, USC

Josh Pastner

• Age: 35

• At Arizona: Assistant coach, 2002-08

• Then: Assistant coach, University of Memphis (2008-09)

• Now: Head coach, University of Memphis

Miles Simon

• Age: 36

• At Arizona: Assistant coach, 2005-08

• Then: Various roles

• Now: ESPN analyst, private workout coach, California Supreme AAU coach

Jesse Mermuys

• Age: 32

• At Arizona: Director of basketball operations, 2006-08

• Then: Assistant video coordinator, Denver Nuggets (2008-09), advance scout, Nuggets (2009-11)

• Now: Director of player development, Houston Rockets

Adam Cohen

• Age: 26

• At Arizona: Student manager/assistant video coordinator, 2005-08

• Then: Graduate assistant, University of New Orleans, 2008-09; video coordinator, USC, 2009-11

• Now: Assistant coach, Rice

Jamal Boddie

• Age: 25

• At Arizona: Student manager, 2005-09

• Then: Ticket office intern, Fresno State (2009-10)

• Now: Assistant director of basketball operations, USC

On StarNet: See Sean Miller discuss the approach to the Humboldt State game at azstarnet.com/video

Up next

• Who: Humboldt State at Arizona, exhibition

• When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

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