Q&A: Getting to Know Russ Pennell
Phoenix Mercury interim head coach Russ Pennell, 52, brings nearly 30 years of coaching experience to his new role with the Mercury, including the last 15 years in the state of Arizona.
Pennell was an assistant at Arizona State University from 1998-2004, head coach at the University of Arizona from 2008-2009 and most recently head coach at Grand Canyon University from 2009-2013.
Pennellís four-season tenure at GCU saw him compile a 72-44 (.621) overall record, including an outstanding 42-16 (.724) mark over the last two campaigns. Pennellís rebuilt program in 2010-11 earned the Antelopesí their first winning record since 2006-07, and his new culture produced a 19-8 (.704) mark in 2011-12, and a 23-8 (.742) record in 2012-13. The school made two-straight appearances in the NCAA Division II Tournament, and lost just two home games in his final two seasons.
PhoenixMercury.com caught up with Pennell to gain further insight into his coaching philosophy, the whirlwind past few years and what the X-Factor can expect to see on the court.
PhoenixMercury.com: Youíve previously said that you didnít want to start another coaching career unless the next opportunity was a great fit. Why the Mercury?
Russ Pennell: The opportunity to work with world-class athletes. As we all know, the WNBA has the best womenís players in the world. To have that honor and privilege to coach in that environment and to stretch yourself professionally and work with that caliber of an athlete was just the right fit at the right time. I couldnít be more excited about it.
Phoenix Mercury.com: Youíve been in a relatively similar situation as you are now filling in for Lute Olson at the University of Arizona en route to guiding the team to the Sweet 16 that year. What kinds of things did you learn from that experience that will help in the transition to the Mercury?
Pennell: Absolutely. That was an adverse time for players, coaches, everyone Ė the same could be said here. Corey is very popular and did an outstanding job Ė won championships. I know the emotional ties players have to coaches; I totally understand that. What I need to do is make sure that I endear myself to these young women and let them know Iím here for them.
We have to correct a few things to move in the right direction.
Phoenix Mercury.com: What, in your opinion, are the differences between the menís and womenís game?
Pennell: I think the game, in and of itself, isnít that different. You still have to pass the ball well, move and set screens, box out and play defense. Iíve had experiences coaching women in the past. Between the time I was at Arizona State and the University of Arizona, I had a basketball academy. A number of those young women went on to play in college.
What I loved most about the womenís game was the camaraderie, the all-for-one mentality. Weíre at a higher level now, but I feel like that will help me out. But when you get inside that rectangle, the game is the game and it doesnít matter a whole lot if theyíre men or women Ė theyíre basketball players. Iíve ran a similar style of offense in my career and I feel like my learning curve will be quick.
Phoenix Mercury.com: Why is effort and playing hard so vitally important to you as a coach?
Pennell: I think without supreme effort, youíre never going to be successful; you have to play the game the right way. It has to be with everything you have. That will be a challenge that Iíll set before the team. Letís get better on the defensive end. Letís rebound the ball better. Letís be hard-nosed. Letís be tougher. You can win a lot of games just grinding it out. You might not shoot the ball well, but if you play hard and with defensive intensity you have a chance to win.
The only two things that get my ire as a coach are someone who wonít play hard and someone with a bad attitude. If they have a good work ethic and great attitude, Iíll coach them all day long and weíll get better.
Phoenix Mercury.com: How does it feel to be inheriting a squad full of All-Stars?
Pennell: It feels kind of like when I was at the University of Arizona, like someone gave me a Ferrari and told me I could drive it as fast as I want Ė just donít wreck it. This is a very talented team. Thereís a team here in place that could win the WNBA Championship if we catch fire at the right time. Thatís exciting as a coach.
The thing I need to do is help them get to the level they want to be at.
Phoenix Mercury.com: Whatís your assessment of the Mercury? What works and what needs to improve?
Pennell: No. 1, Iíd love to get healthy. It will obviously help getting Penny [Taylor] back. One thing that I saw is a need for attention to detail on the defensive end. Theyíre not in stances, not keeping their man in front of them, just little things that can slip.
We have to get better at helping one another. Youíve got the best shot-blocker in the world behind you in Brittney Griner, but you canít keep putting her in a situation to block every shot. Sheís going to foul out by doing that and youíre going to wear her out.
I think on the offensive end, we need to take better quality shots. If we can shore up those areas and make sure our best players get touches and shots, we can make a dent in this thing.
Phoenix Mercury.com: Youíre universally considered one of the ďgood guysĒ in basketball. What do you attribute that to?
Pennell: I try to be myself. What you see is what you get. Iím kind of a plain-spoken guy from Southwest Missouri. My dad was a high school coach for 45 years and both my parents were educators. Iíve been around coaching my whole life and always tried to treat people fair. What Iíve always tried to do is be cordial and kind to people and treat them the way Iíd want to be treated.
Phoenix Mercury.com: This might be your first time in the WNBA, but youíre no stranger to women. Talk about your family and how you will approach coaching WNBA players.
Pennell: I have my wife, Julie, and my daughters, Morgan and Emily, and a big Ďol dog named Lucy. A few years ago I went out and bought a male dog just for companionship [laughs].
But I think once the players get on the court, you donít look at them as a male or female Ė theyíre a basketball player. You need to have that respect and coach that way. The ball still has to go in the hoop and you still have to get stops. Thatís the way Iím going to approach this thing and I feel really comfortable about coaching the players.
Phoenix Mercury.com: What do you want Mercury fans to know about you as a person and a coach?
Pennell: Weíre going to do our best. Weíre going to do our best to make this a championship caliber team by the end of the year. I know there will be fans that will be upset that Corey isnít here and I understand that. Thatís part of the job. I lost my job about five months ago. This is part of the profession of basketball.
My deal is Iím not trying to replace Corey Gaines. Iím not going to do anything but to help this roster of players achieve great things. Weíre going to shore that up with an honest days work. Iíll be in the film room; Iíll be grinding it out. All I know is to go to work, do it hard, and hopefully that will be good enough.