Majerle will replace Pennell as GCU head basketball coach

Three years ago, Russ Pennell was hired by Grand Canyon University to begin preparing its men’s basketball program to move up from Division II to Division I.

The school wanted a ‘big name’ to bring national recognition for its program and be a recruiting magnet – and Pennell had just led the University of Arizona to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.

But, despite taking the Antelopes to the Pacific West Conference championship last year, Pennell won’t get to see his assignment through to completion.  GCU has apparently found a bigger name to lead its basketball program to the next level – which begins with the start of the 2013-14 school year.

That name can be found in the Phoenix Suns’ Ring of Honor, recognizing the NBA team’s most honored players of the past, and also on several popular restaurants around the Phoenix Valley.

GCU officials will announce at a Monday morning news conference that Dan Majerle will replace Pennell to lead the Antelopes into Division I play as the newest addition to the Western Athletic Conference.

To most basketball fans, particularly those in the state of Arizona, he’s affectionately known as ‘Thunder Dan’, the hard-charging NBA All Star who played eight seasons for the Phoenix Suns and became a fan favorite for his work ethic and blue-collar style of play.  His popularity has continued, 11 years after his retirement from the game, as he spent four years as a Suns broadcast analyst and five seasons on the Suns’ bench as an assistant coach. He also operates a string of popular Valley restaurants that bear his high-profile name.

Majerle resigned from his assistant coach’s position in late January when the Suns fired head coach Alvin Gentry and passed over him and the lead assistant, Elston Turner, to replace Gentry for the remainder of the season.

It’s not hard to see why Grand Canyon snatched the ‘free agent’ up and will keep the local legend in the state.  But it was a surprise to the general public because Pennell has been winning at the school since he took over in 2009.

After the UofA opted not to keep him on as head coach, following his interim season when Lute Olson suddenly resigned, he was quickly picked up by GCU prior to the 2009-10 season and since has taken the ‘Lopes to a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances and compiled a 42-16 record during his tenure at the west Phoenix college.

The men’s team was knocked out of the NCAA  tourney yesterday in the first round when they were trounced, 85-59, by Seattle Pacific. They went 19-8 last year and also lost in the first round.

But Pennell posted a 23-8 overall record and tied for second place in the Pacific West Conference.  And a day after the first-round loss to Seattle Pacific, he’s out of a job.

According to the school, Pennell resigned.  But a statement on the GCU website, from the university’s president, Brian Mueller, offered this insight: “In light of our upcoming move to NCAA Division I status, we have come to a mutual decision that it would be in the best interests of the University and Coach Pennell if we took different paths at this time.”

I dunno….does that sound like a resignation?

But, regardless of what may have been going on behind the scenes, Pennell appears to have done a good job with the program.  He won’t have trouble finding another coaching gig.  Unfortunately, it’s the way the game is played at this level.  There are two kinds of coaches, they say… those that have been fired and those that are about to be fired.

Whatever the reason for the change, GCU is getting a ‘name’ that will help tremendously in the recruiting effort, which will be critical to being able to compete at the D-I level, and a coach that has played the game at the highest level and truly appreciates the opportunity to be able to continue in the game as a coach.

Majerle’s arrival at GCU coincides with the appointment of Jerry Colangelo as an assistant to the president at the small private Christian school.  It would be a logical assumption to believe that the former Phoenix Suns’ owner had at least a small role in the hiring of one of his favorite players.  Colangelo is scheduled to be on hand Monday morning for the 10 o’clock presser.

One last point of interest to this story…

The hiring of Majerle has also created a new sports trivia question: He’s not the first former Phoenix Suns player to serve as a head basketball coach at GCU…who was the first?

OK, just in case some sports junkie tries to catch you with this one on one of your next visits to a Majerle Sports Grill, here’s the answer:

Paul Westphal, another fan favorite who spent six years (1975-80, 1983-84) in a Suns uniform during two separate stints, was an Antelope head coach in the mid-80’s and took the 1987-88 team to a national title when the college was still playing in the NAIA.

Looks like Majerle has a tough act to follow.