Russ Pennell starting to rev up the GCU hoops program

Russ Pennell is starting to make his move at Grand Canyon University, hoping to upgrade from what he’s been driving up and down the basketball court this year.

Prior to GCU, Pennell spent just one season at the helm of the University of Arizona basketball program, taking over as interim coach when Lute Olson suddenly retired a couple of years ago.  He once said that coaching at the high-profile Pac-10 school was like renting a Lamborghini.  “You want to drive it as fast as you can until you have to give it back.”

When he was asked to give it back, after compiling a 21-14 regular-season record with the Cats and taking them to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, he landed at GCU, even though he had other offers from D-I schools.  The college, a private for-profit institution in west Phoenix, is an NCAA D-II school and plays in the Pacific West Conference.

GCU officials reasoned that the quickest way to get national visibility was to build a successful men’s basketball program.  Enter Pennell, a coach who’s been on the national stage.

The 49-year-old Pennell, who just got his first year at GCU under his belt, has just added a couple of top junior college players to his 2010-11 recruiting class.  That generally means a coach is looking to rev up his roster with more seasoned players in the hopes of getting over the hump a little more quickly.

The Antelopes were a .500 team last year, but they won 10 of their last 13 games to breathe some excitement into hopes for next year.

Junior college players Kyle Speed from Kansas and Fletcher Wynn from North Carolina, will join local high school graduates, Braylon Pickrel (Red Mountain HS, Mesa) and Micah Fetters (Hamilton HS, Chandler) in the recruiting class.

Speed is a 6-foot guard who averaged 14.1 points and 4.8 assists last season for Johnson County CC, and Wynn is a 6’2″ guard who averaged 13 points and four assists for Louisburg College and led them to a 29-6 record.

Despite a short-lived coaching stop at UofA, Pennell’s name should be familiar to local sports fans since he was an assistant at Arizona State from 1998-2006, and provided commentary the next year for the ASU basketball games on the college’s radio network.  He hired on in Tucson in May of 2008 as an assistant.

But his quick splash as a head coach at UofA has helped with recruiting.  “I did my homework on Coach Pennell,” said JUCO recruit Speed,  “and it opened my eyes about where he has been and what he has done in his career.”

When announcing Pennell’s hire, Grand Canyon officials pointed out that they are expecting him to be able to take the program to the next level.  They are planning on an on-campus enrollment surge over the next couple of years from 1,800 to 5,000 students.

To move its basketball program in that direction, the school has added a new practice gym and locker room, and a 5,000-seat arena is scheduled for completion by October of 2011.  Pennell has a staff of three assistants, more than most D-II colleges, and a back pocket full of scholarships.

GCU has also announced plans to apply for Division I-A status next year.

By that time, Pennell may be driving a newer, improved model.  But that Lamborghini is still off in the distance.

(photo credit: Marc Serota)