While he was in administration at Ole Miss, Brad Teague first encountered Russ Pennell, who was an assistant basketball coach for the Rebels.
“I didn’t really know him that well at the time,” said Teague, who as University of Central Arkansas athletic director, named Pennell Thursday as the next men’s basketball coach. “I was impressed with how involved he was. He always seemed to be in the huddle (giving instructions). He always seemed to be helping calling plays. I got to thinking he must be pretty good the way (head coach Rob Evans) was using him.
“When I came here, I learned he was a UCA grad. We’ve kept in touch for several years. When we hired Corliss Williamson, he was on the list but he had just taken the job at Grand Canyon State and the timing wasn’t right. He’s always been on the radar.”
Pennell, formerly a point guard for the University of Central Arkansas and a former assistant at Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Arizona State and Arizona, succeeds Clarence Finley, who took over for this season after Williamson resigned last summer to become an assistant with the Sacramento Kings of the NCAA. Finley and his staff will coach the Bears’ remaining two games at Northwestern State on Thursday and at Stephen F. Austin on Saturday and will also coach the Bears (8-19) if they qualify for the Southland Conference tournament.
Pennell, 53, is best known for taking the University of Arizona to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 2009 after Lute Olsen resigned for health reasons. He then went on to Grand Canyon State, where was the head coach from 2009-13 before being replaced by former Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle after a 23-6 campaign and two straight postseason appearances. He then served as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA and led them to the Western Conference finals, resigning last October to pursue college coaching again.
“I consider it (UCA) a good situation with a lot of potential,” said Pennell in a phone interview from Arizona. “But I know there is a lot of football. But I’ve always followed the Bears from when they went from Division II to Division I.
“The opportunity was right this time. I like the direction the athletic program overall is going and I think we can do that with the basketball program. When I met with (president) Tom Courtway and Teague and they outlined their vision for UCA and where they wanted to go with the program, it was an easy sell.”
“He fits the profile we want great,” said Teague. “He’s a team player. He supports all sports other than just basketball.”
He’s a native of Pittsburg, Kan., who played for the Arkansas Razorbacks before transferring to UCA to play point guard for Don Dyer.
“I’ve had the privilege to work from two coaches who have 800 wins (Sutton and Olson) and I’ve learned from them, but I’ve also learned from my father as much as anything,” he said.
Dewey Pennell, his father, guided Little Rock Christian teams to one state championship and one runner-up finish.
UCA, which played for the NAIA title in 1991 and 1992, has not had a winning season as an NCAA Division I member. Since 2008-09, the Bears are a combined 57-119. They have averaged eight wins a season (same as the football team with about three times as many games) and have averaged three SLC wins per season.
“Coach Finley has been as gracious and professional about this as anybody I’ve known,” Teague said. “He worked very hard. He has supported all our programs. We just needed to make a change. I’ve been upfront with him throughout the process and he has been upfront with me. He understands the situation.”
Teague said the timing of the move (before the regular season ended) was to have a new coach in place for the high school state tournaments that begin this week.
“We had a narrow window,” he said. “We wanted to have a coach in place by the state tournaments and also get ahead of the college tournament talk and possible coaching changes that will follow beginning next week.”
UCA has set a news conference at 1 p.m. Friday in the board room at Wingo Hall to introduce the new coach.