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McCollum's Column: Pennell may be in the right place at the right time for UCA

Posted: March 5, 2014 - 8:38pm

About two decades ago, the late Arch Jones was in a downer mood.

Jones, the longtime faithful assistant to Don Dyer who succeeded the legendary coach and eventually became co-athletic director, had tried (and tried fervently) to hire Russ Pennell, a former point guard for the Bears who was considered one of the up-and-coming young assistant coaches in major college basketball.

Pennell turned him down for greater opportunities.

Pennell, as an assistant to Rob Evans at Ole Miss, had recruited the Arkansas players who helped begin the string of frustrations the Rebels have inflicted on the University of Arkansas basketball program.

UCA was NCAA Division II at the time. Pennell was a finalist for the Division I Oral Roberts post that eventually went to Eddie Sutton’s son, Scott. He then went on to top assistant’s posts at Arizona State and the University of Arizona. When the legendary Lute Olson resigned in 2008 for health reasons, Pennell took over as interim coach and led the Wildcats to a surprise Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA tournament.

When Arizona didn’t retain him as fulltime coach, he became the head coach at Grand Canyon State for three seasons and was forced out after a 23-6 season by Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, reportedly so he could hire his good friend and former Suns player Dan Majerle. Pennell went on to coach the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA before he resigned last fall to pursue opportunities coaching men’s basketball, saying there were some possibilities this spring.

At 53, Pennell will become the new UCA men’s basketball coach and it should excited Bear supporters everywhere. It could turn out to be one of greatest, at least the one with the richest roots, hires by the school in its athletic history, certainly potentially the most revitalizing.

Here’s a guy who has played and/or coached under Dyer (the winningest coach in UCA history) plus Hall of Famers Eddie Sutton and Lute Olson. He has been a top recruiter and a well-respected assistant coach at the highest of basketball.

Although a native of Pittsburg, Kan., he has Arkansas roots. His father, Dewey Pennell, coached the Little Rock Christian teams that were some of the best in Arkansas a few years ago.

It’s a twist of fate and fortune that Pennell, who has been speculated for position every time it has opened since Dyer, is finally available.

Despite his credentials, he faces a challenge.

The once-proud UCA men’s basketball program is at its lowest level, in performance, record, and fan interest, as any time in my three decades of covering the Bears.

Since UCA joined NCAA Division I and the Southland Conference, the Bears’ record is as follows: 10-19 (3-13 SLC), 10-10 (3-13 SLC), 5-24 (1-15), 8-21 (3-13), 13-17, 7-11). They are currently 8-19 entering the final weekend. What’s worse, rumors are swirling that the academic lapses are serious.

Let’s don’t point fingers at interim coach Clarence Finley, a good man, a good coach who worked tirelessly and did everything asked of him during the interim period. Finley, who conceded in preseason that he had “to win some games and he understood the challenge when he took the job after Corliss Williamson resigned to head to the Sacramento Kings, was unfortunately at the steering wheel of the Titanic.

This UCA team has no inside game, is one of the poorest free-throw shooting teams in the NCAA, has no power forward, no true point guard, is prone to major defensive and mental lapses and hurt itself from the beginning with academic suspensions.

It is limited and terribly flawed. It’s to Finley’s credit that he and his staff kept the Bears playing hard and playing their best ball toward the end of the season.

It has been obvious for some time that a change was needed. The Bears have had no relevance as an NCAA Division I program and the fan base (both adults and students) was eroding bigtime.

With almost a year to decide on the direction of the program, Teague, who gambled with the hiring of Williamson (a great person with star power but who had no major college coaching experience), has done his homework. He and Pennell have obviously met and talked long before now.

I can’t think of a better person to try to get the runaway train under control than Pennell. He knows how to win, he knows how to build programs under trying conditions, he’s labored under and against some of the best of all time, he has a great network of connections from colleagues and potential recruits and his enthusiasm will be contagious. He knows how to embrace a challenge.

This hire was a long time in making. It won’t immediately grow into full fruition.

But a good seed that has been planted — one that is a strong hybrid of much success at several different places.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)

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