For basketball guru and current interim head coach of the Phoenix Mercury, Russ Pennell, 15 years of Arizona coaching residency has led to four different basketball programs. Pennell has become a fixture in the state, floating between college programs at ASU, UofA, and Grand Canyon, before ultimately landing on the professional stage. The coach’s perennial success has carried over into the WNBA, where he took the reins of a once underachieving Phoenix Mercury mid season, and brought them to the conference finals.
Tucsonans ought to be familiar with Pennell’s uncanny ability to turn displaced basketball teams around in the span of just a few games. In the 2008-2009 season, Arizona men’s basketball was in a disconcerting era of uncertainty, forced to come to terms with the reality that its days as a national powerhouse may be over. The team was coming off a nightmarish season under one year coach Kevin O’Neill that left the entire city with doubts; doubts about the future, doubts about the present, and doubts about whether or not the wandering army of UofA basketball players could find their way without their true general, Lute Olson. After Olson’s official retirement, Pennell was given a last minute opportunity as interim head coach for Wildcats. Pennell shocked life back into the city, leading the Arizona team to a 21-13 record and a Cinderella-esque Sweet 16 appearance in the National Tournament. Pennell’s coaching was admired, to the extent that he was considered for Pac-10 Coach of the Year, though he did not win the final vote. Despite only coaching one season, Pennell’s leadership enabled his players to produce Arizona’s most successful run between 2005 and 2010.
Now, four years after his shining year in Tucson, Pennell seems to be working his magic once again. Led by a former WNBA MVP, Diana Taurasi, and a revered number one pick in Brittney Griner, the Mercury set their sights high going into the 2013 season, but after the team struggled to gel under long time head coach Corey Gaines, the organization sought out Pennell to take over the program.
Pennell attempted to bring the team together as one unit, stressing the importance of defense, and making conscious efforts to keep them as comfortable as possible. Pennell, who is no stranger to being the newcomer, is adamant about not disrupting the team rhythm. Too often have teams seen the new head coach who barges into the locker room, desperate to assert himself as the alpha-male (or female) by implementing a new playbook, placing players outside of their natural roles, and making examples of those he is unhappy with. Pennell explained to his team that he would be the one with the learning curve, and that he would try his best to unify and guide the team without making himself the focal point. As Pennell explains, it is better to have one person learning a new system than an entire team. Given the squad’s 9-4 record and conference finals appearance under Pennell, it would appear that the coach has once again proved himself the man for the job.
Basketball coaches everywhere should take note of Pennell’s method. By catering to the needs and weaknesses of his players, the Mercury’s coach has brought out their strengths. In the eyes of adversity, Pennell triumphed in Tucson, and now also in Phoenix. He has become the Arizona Miracle Man, capable of making the best of any situation. The coach has a knack for swooping into unfortunate circumstances, and turning them into more than respectable seasons in which he helps players reach their potential, and find their way to success.