Russ Pennell prides himself on creating a family atmosphere on the teams he coaches.
But that also means family responsibilities.
“I love my daughters, but they know they have standards to meet if they want to stay in my good graces,” Pennell said Friday at his introductory news conference. “The reason I’m standing here is I have a college degree. If I really care for a kid, I need to make sure he gets one.”
Pennell, the new University of Central Arkansas men’s basketball coach, know he has taken over a program that has been the weakest academically in the athletic department with the issues reportedly getting serious.
“If you don’t go to class, you’re not gonna see the court; if you don’t turn in your assignments, you’re not gonna see the court. It’s really that simple,” Pennell said. “I know it’s easy to stand here and say this. But you have to back it up with action, and my players will understand this. If they are not willing to be held accountable for what they do, they won’t be with us.”
He said he learned about accountability as a young assistant coach.
“I got a call at 3 a.m. about a player in trouble at a local club, I decided I did not want that again,” he said. “There are good kids around the country you can find to come here. And we’re going to win games with good kids. But we’re not going to compromise our principles to do that.”
Pennell has coached under Eddie Sutton and Lute Olson, both of whom are among six coaches to have won 800 games. He played for Don Dyer, one of the most successful coaches in UCA history and the winningest coach at both UCA and Henderson State.
“What they all had in common was their attention to detail, and sometimes it doesn’t seem like the most important issue at the time,” he said. “For example, I don’t want players wearing anything to practice but UCA gear. I’ve seen players wear NBA gear at places. That tells me they want to be different, not part of the team.
“All those coaches were also very competitive and they care about kids. They created a family environment and that’s what I want to do here.”
When Pennell served as an assistant to Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, the program was at a low ebb. When he joined Rob Evans’s staff at Ole Miss, the Rebels had not won 20 games since 1938. He went with Evans to Arizona State when it was recovering from a point-shaving scandal.
“If UCA was not successful in anything else, I would look at it differently,” he said. “But it has had success in everything but men’s basketball (no winning seasons in Division I and an average of eight victories a year). Because of the success and the direction it is going in other sports, there’s potential here.”
Dyer and former UCA assistant coach Tommy Reed both attended the news conference. In a question-and-answer session, Reed called the hire, “a home run, definitely a home run.”
Also attending the conference was former UCA player Robbie Davis, who often went against Pennell as point guards when they were teammates.
When Davis was asked if he every thought Pennell would become a coach.
“Not here,” he said with a smile.
From all indications, this one is a game-changer.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)