PHOENIX — Russ Pennell fully admits that he hasn’t watched every Phoenix Mercury game in 2013.
But as he was flipping through the channels Tuesday night, the former college coach found himself glued to his television set as Diana Taurasi and Co. fell to the Seattle Storm by a score of 80-65.
“It’s kind of ironic, because I probably sat there and watched more of that game than I had in years,” Pennell said Thursday.
That game and subsequent loss — the 11th of its kind in 21 games this season — was all Phoenix Mercury president Amber Cox needed to see.
Cox decided to shake things up Thursday by relieving head coach Corey Gaines of his duties after nearly six seasons with the organization, and placed the interim tag on Pennell — a coach whose professional career has been spent entirely in men’s college basketball.
While Pennell certainly has had his fair share of success coaching in Arizona — as an assistant coach at ASU (1998-2006), interim head coach at Arizona (Sweet 16 appearance in 2008-09) and head coach at Grand Canyon University (two NCAA Division II appearances from 2009-13) — with 13 regular season games to go on the Mercury’s schedule, the question posed during his introductory press conference was a simple one.
Why take this job?
“I know a lot of people say, ‘Why? You’ve been a college coach, and you’ve coached men. Why this situation,'” Pennell said. “I think it’s very simple, you’re talking about some of the greatest women athletes on the planet. You’re talking about the WNBA.
“To have that opportunity to coach these young women and pursue a championship is something every coach longs for. When I was contacted by Amber, it was a little bit surreal because I had never really thought about something like that. But I quickly started thinking ‘Why not?'”
For Pennell, who resigned from his post at GCU in April 2013, the opportunity to coach the Mercury is a win-win.
The father of two daughters, he noted that the job will allow him to coach some of their biggest role models. But also, it gives him the rare chance to coach at the professional ranks in a rather low-pressure environment.
While preseason expectations were high for his predecessor, given that the team selected Brittney Griner first overall in the 2013 draft to pair with All-Stars Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, the current standings would suggest a trip to the postseason isn’t likely. With 13 games to go, Phoenix trails Los Angeles by four games for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Point is, the interim tag — one he had placed on him at Arizona a week before the 2008-09 season began after Lute Olsen retired suddenly for medical reasons — isn’t something that phases Pennell at this point in his career.
“I can say this without reservation and the reason I can is because I’ve been here before at the University of Arizona, but I’m thinking about the Tulsa Shock tomorrow night,” said Pennell. “If we win that game, then it’s the Tulsa Shock Sunday. I’ve learned over time and this is probably wisdom from my father — he coached 45 years of high school in the Midwest — but he used to say, ‘Some people focus so much on their next job that they don’t focus on the one they have.’
“I’ve always tried to take that to heart that my job is to coach this team as long as they let us play. As long as we keep winning, I keep getting to coach them. After that is out of my control anyways. So I think instead of worrying about that and lobbying for that or whatever, I’ve got to just do a good job with today.”
When Pennell makes his WNBA coaching debut Friday against the Shock at US Airways Center, he’ll do so with a familiar face by his side. Anthony Boone, who played under the 52-year-old at Ole Miss and coached with him the past four seasons at GCU, will join Phoenix’s coaching staff.