Four years ago, Russ Pennell was getting ready to lead the Arizona Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament.
The interim coach in place of Lute Olson, Pennell’s team would reach the Sweet 16 before bowing out to Louisville.
Though he did not get to remain with the Wildcats – he was replaced by Sean Miller – Pennell parlayed that job into the one he had the last four seasons at Grand Canyon University, where he was the head basketball coach.
Pennell guided the Antelopes to a 72-44 record along with two postseason appearances in the last two seasons, and with a move to Division I coming in the 2013-14 season, things were looking up for a program that was already on the rise.
Then the school decided it wanted former Phoenix Suns great and assistant Dan Majerle to be the head basketball coach.
“The thing is when you are in this profession that I’m in, things happen that sometimes kind of blow people’s minds,” Pennell told Arizona Sports 620’s Doug and Wolf Monday. “In our situation, I’m really happy with what we’ve done for four years.”
The thing is, nobody really saw this coming, Pennell included.
“GCU has determined that they wanted to go in a new direction; they have that right, that’s their prerogative,” Pennell said. “As a coach, I understand that. I might not always agree with that — obviously I’d love to still be there and coaching this team and moving toward Division I.
“You know I was an assistant for 15 years and a head coach for one year at conferences a lot bigger than the WAC, and so that was a challenge I was looking forward to. It’s not going to happen.”
Pennell, though, said he has no hard feelings towards the school and will be there to help his former players if need be, but once that is all settled he’ll be fine with moving on.
But no doubt it stings that, after four years of running a successful program, he will not be there to see it through the transition to Division I. And that hurts.
“I felt like we were moving in the right direction,” he said. “Everything I’ve done the last four years was preparing for the day we went Division I.”
But, Pennell said he believes the program is set up for success in the future, and hopes they have some, even if he’s not around to enjoy it.
“One of the things I tell my team all the time is this: adversity comes in life, it’s coming. It comes for all of us and you have to have a bedrock foundation of something you turn to. In my case it’s my faith, and I believe that there’s a purpose behind everything that happens.
“So I don’t look at the people over at GCU as the enemy and whatever else, it was just a divine intervention that Russ Pennell is supposed to move somewhere else and do something different, and that may be hard to swallow and accept but if I don’t have that assurance, man this would be hard.”