DAVID SANDERS / arizona daily star

The steady plan behind Mike Dunlap's career path is not a road map to a specific place, just a goal to constantly pick up skills and a faith that the rest will take care of itself.

Read his well-accomplished résumé — read him — and you may understand why Dunlap opted to remain as the UA associate head coach in the wake of Lute Olson's sudden retirement last month.

"I'm a big (John) Wooden guy: Believe in the process and good things will follow," Dunlap said before Olson retired. "It's been an absolute joy ride for me, and I've enjoyed the people I've worked with where I've been, because I'm a process guy. … I've really enjoyed the profession because I haven't been target-related and also had some good things come my way."

Dunlap has wandered from Division I assistant coach with several schools, to small-college head coach at Cal-Lutheran, to head coach in Australian pro basketball, to head coach at Division II Metro State in Denver and to the NBA, where Dunlap was an assistant coach of the Denver Nuggets for two seasons before joining Olson's staff at Arizona last spring.

For Dunlap, 50, joining the Nuggets was another segment of his learning curve, a chance to see up close the top strategists of the game's highest level — as well as a chance to learn how to deal with huge egos that can sometimes dominate the playing floor.

So by last spring, when a number of Division I schools contacted him about openings, Dunlap had plenty of head coaching experience. He knew the international game. He had NBA experience. The only piece missing, in Dunlap's mind, was working at an elite-level college.

Not able to easily make the jump to an elite job he wanted — the coach said he was a finalist for the Cal job Mike Montgomery accepted — Dunlap opted to work under Olson at Arizona. He signed on for $375,000, but the value to him went beyond money.

"I knew I could learn from coach Olson and plug into (high-level) recruiting," Dunlap said last month before Olson resigned. "Third, I could take a breath from the pro game back into college. When (Cal) fell away, I felt this was the best way to get back into the college level and also learn."

Staying in place

However, when Olson suddenly retired Oct. 23 and Dunlap became the expected interim head coach, things threatened to change quickly. There would be head coaching decisions to make. Futile recruiting efforts to lead. Appearances and other time demands.

There wasn't a lot of upside, either. If Dunlap was named interim head coach, and the Wildcats did anything but go very deep in the NCAA tournament, he'd probably still be swept away in March. If the Wildcats struggled to break .500, Dunlap would have been the face of that struggling team forever.

Either way, Dunlap would have an "interim" tag permanently on his résumé.

A day after Olson retired, Dunlap told UA athletic director Jim Livengood he wanted to remain in his position, and Russ Pennell was given the interim head coaching role.

"I know where my marks are. I'm very relaxed," Dunlap said after Pennell's promotion. "From this chair, I can do a lot of development. It was very clear what coach Olson wanted me to do. Some recruiting. A lot of coaching. Overseeing a lot of academic stuff and be a chief of staff.

"I get to keep my same responsibilities and that part makes me very, very happy."

While the move created the awkward appearance of Pennell leapfrogging over the more experienced Dunlap, both coaches say it has not been an issue.

"Russ is the head coach, so every day he'll bring in things he wants done and it's my job to fill those requests," Dunlap said. "I've been in that chair for 17 years, so my experience is going to do nothing but help me."

Dunlap said he has a good relationship both with Pennell and assistant Reggie Geary, even though none had worked together before Olson hired his all-new staff in the spring.

Geary is the former Wildcat player who served as a head coach in the NBA's Developmental League. Pennell is a former Arizona State, Mississippi and Oklahoma State assistant who ran an elite youth basketball program and did color radio commentary for the Sun Devils.

And Dunlap is the associate professor, hired at more than double Pennell's $150,000 salary, though Pennell said Dunlap carried himself as an equal.

"I never did think that he was my boss," Pennell said. "We were colleagues. We worked together. Did I understand the significance of his being an associate head coach? I get that. I know there's a pecking order.

"Coach Dunlap and I have really developed a good friendship in a very short time, so this is not going to be hard at all because of that friendship and the fact that we're very alike in our philosophies."

A man of the world

Both believe strongly in the motion offense, which is a major reason Olson brought them aboard after having pledged to his returning players that they would return to "Arizona basketball" instead of Kevin O'Neill's half-court schemes from last season.

Pennell picked up his version under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, while Dunlap has had a number of professional influences — from Ed Goorjian, a former Loyola Marymount head coach and UNLV assistant under Jerry Tarkanian; to USC's George Raveling; to Pete Newell to Wooden and Olson.

While coaching the Adelaide 36ers, Dunlap created a network of international recruiting contacts that he began to tap at Division II Metro State in Denver. There, Dunlap's internationally built squad dominated the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. He went 248-50 over nine years and won two Division II national titles.

Joan McDermott, Metro State's athletic director, said Dunlap was the first of the school's coaches to aggressively recruit internationally. She said he was "great friends" with Australia's top coaches and immensely helped those who came to play for him.

"He's a master teacher of the game," McDermott said. "He sets really high expectations for them, but he's really good about building good relationships. These kids would run through a wall for him."

Already this fall, the Arizona players have seen that side to Dunlap.

"He's very assertive but at the same time encouraging," senior forward Fendi Onobun said. "That's one thing I've really noticed: his assertiveness and perfectionism. He's going to get the best out of you. He's definitely helped me."

McDermott said Dunlap ran a very effective matchup defense at Metro State, and he is expected to implement it at Arizona. Dunlap is also working with the big men, while Geary handles the guards and Pennell the wings and the offense.

As an assistant for the Nuggets, after he left Metro State in 2006, Dunlap focused on player development, game scouting and practice planning. It was the same role that every Nuggets assistant held under utilitarian-minded head coach George Karl, but Dunlap brought a particular optimism to the role.

Dunlap likened the NBA experience to getting a doctorate. This season, there's no telling exactly what he'll get, with Olson having departed and Pennell running a team that has no guarantee of making a 25th straight NCAA tournament appearance.

But, to Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien, the Wildcats can't lose by having Dunlap around.

"This guy is an elite-level coach sitting on (their) bench," Warkentien said. "He's better than all but seven or eight of the coaches that are sitting on benches in the United States. I'm telling you, he's big-time. At any level."

Mike Dunlap

• Age: 50

• College: Bachelor's degree in English from Loyola Marymount in 1980

• Experience: Loyola Marymount assistant (1980-85); Iowa graduate assistant (1985-86); USC assistant (1986-89); Cal Lutheran coach (1989-94); Adelaide 36ers coach in Australia's top pro league (1994-97); Metro State coach, Division II (1997-2006); Denver Nuggets assistant (2006-08)

• Hometown: Fairbanks, Alaska

• Salary: $375,000 for a year

• Personal: Wife, Mollie, and children, Holt, Spencer and Ellie

• Cool fact: An avid runner, Dunlap has run the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trek through California.