From the Pittsburg High School basketball court to NCAA Division I sidelines, Russ Pennell has seen it all.



Pennell, an All-State basketball player for the Dragons during his senior year in 1979, has evolved in basketball since those days of playing for his father, Dewey, in southeast Kansas.

From the Pittsburg High School basketball court to NCAA Division I sidelines, Russ Pennell has seen it all.

Pennell, an All-State basketball player for the Dragons during his senior year in 1979, has evolved in basketball since those days of playing for his father, Dewey, in southeast Kansas.

Now, after a four-year absence from coaching, Pennell will roam the sidelines with future coaching Hall of Famer Lute Olsen at the University of Arizona as an assistant coach for the Wildcats.

Over the course of his career as a player and coach, Pennell, 47, said that the thoughts of coaching were not immediate.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” Pennell said. “Basketball is basketball and, no matter what level, it comes down to fundamentals and it translates no matter the level.”

But, the thoughts started as a player with Pittsburg High School.

“It was a great place to grow up and it gave me the values that I have taken with me my whole adult career,” Pennell said.

But, back then, the focus was on just playing the game.

“There used to be a door at the Weede and if you could jimmy it you could get in and play,” Pennell said. “If the light box was locked, usually the generator lights would be enough to play.

“I look back at the way I developed by playing pick-up games at the Weede or at the YMCA,” Pennell said. “We even used to play on an outdoor court behind the hospital.”

After high school, Pennell played college basketball with Scottie Pippen of Chicago Bulls’ fame at the University of Central Arkansas.

“It was an opportunity and I started at the University of Arkansas under Eddie Sutton and that is how I started working for him at Oklahoma State,” Pennell said. “I went to Central Arkansas and it was a blast and I tell players now that I would love to be a college basketball player now.”

Upon his graduation, he played basketball for the Spirit Express, a traveling team from Memphis, Tenn. during the 1980s.

His first coaching stint was under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State from 1990-1992.

“I went there during his first year and his staff was me, Coach Sutton, Bill Self, Jimmie Dykes, Rob Evans and we had two great years,” Pennell said. “We won 52 games in two years and won the Big 8 and won the preseason NIT.”

After his term at OSU, Pennell went with his friend Evans to Ole Miss and coach an underachieving Rebels team that consistantly found their way to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.

“I thought that this deal was easy,” Pennell said. “When we went to Ole Miss we won eight games and we had to fight to get it back to respectablity.”

But, with Pennell’s help, the Rebels won the SEC West in 1997 and 1998.

“In six years we went from winning eight games to being 10th in the country,” Pennell said. “It was a tough, tough sell because Ole Miss was never all that good in basketball so we had to sell the league to get players.”

But, his rebuilding days were not finished.

After leaving Ole Miss, Pennell went with Evans to Arizona State in 1998 to a Sun Devils team that was rocked with a point-shaving scandal.

“We were there six years and it was a lot the same,” Pennell said. “They were coming off the point-shaving scandal and in the second year that we were able to start to turn it around.

“It has been a deal where again, we had to take a program and build it.”

Pennell spent six years at ASU before leaving coaching to run the Arizona Premier Basketball Academy with fellow PHS alum Mark Nelson.

Then, he got the itch to return to coaching.

There was Olsen at the University of Arizona.

“The unique thing is that he would like to be in it for a long time and he is 20 wins from 800,” Pennell said. “He will be the fifth and when he does it, I will have been with two of those guys and that is great to be part of that history.”

After 14 years as an assistant, it would appear that the next step for Pennell is a head coaching job.

“The incredible thing is that it is all timing,” Pennell said. “First of all, there are a lot of jobs that are open and you can eliminate some of those because of the situation.

“There are a lot of good assistant coaches out there,” Pennell said. “I guess my time will come when my time comes.”

Matthew Clark can be reached at matthew.clark@morningsun.net or at 620-231-2600, Ext. 140.