On Oct. 2, 1986, Tom Penders, the basketball coach at Fordham University, called his players together. He had stunning news: After seven years at Fordham, he was resigning to become the coach at Rhode Island.
His name had been linked with other coaching jobs in the past. It was common knowledge that he was job-hunting. He had openly sought the University of Miami job in 1984 and his name had been mentioned in connection with other schools.
The players had heard this and they knew that Penders and Fordham Athletic Director Frank McLaughlin were not on the best of terms. Yet, when Penders told them he was leaving, they were shocked. The start of practice was only 13 days away. Even Bob Quinn, Penders' top assistant and close friend, was stunned.
"I knew Tom was going to Rhode Island to talk about the job," he said. "But I never expected him to come back and say, 'I'm going.' It caught everyone by surprise. . . . The young kids were confused. The seniors felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them. I figured I was out of a job. It was messy."
What Quinn and the players did not know was that Penders' resignation was merely the opening act in a season-long melodrama. It is a story that involves resignations and firings, rumors, innuendo and confusion. It involves one game in which Fordham almost blew an eight-point lead in the final second and another suspended because of a death in the stands. There is one miracle victory that defies belief and five straight overtime losses that mystify everyone.
"It's been wild, right from the day Penders left," said Andre McClendon, a freshman guard. "One day it's one thing; the next day it's something else. Just when you think nothing crazier can happen, something does. You get to the point where you don't even think about things anymore because, if you do, you'll be crazy, too."
Fordham is a Catholic school in the Bronx with about 8,400 undergraduates. It has a long basketball tradition, although its most famous alumnus was football player Vince Lombardi. Its campus, hard by the Pelham and Mosholu parkways, is a pretty pocket of land in an otherwise dreary area.
Fordham's basketball teams have been to the NCAA tournament three times, in 1953-54 and 1971. That last time, the coach was Richard (Digger) Phelps, a 29-year-old upstart who took a talented group of players recruited by his predecessor, Ed Conlin, and got them to believe in themselves. The Rams went 26-3, upset Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden and took then top-ranked Marquette into overtime before losing. That team sold out the Garden twice and breathed life into New York City basketball. Phelps became a folk hero.
"We didn't even understand what we were doing," said McLaughlin, who was paid $8,000 that year as the school's first full-time assistant coach.
Fordham finally lost in the NCAA round of 16 to Villanova. But the future was bright, until Phelps walked out on a long-term contract to move to Notre Dame. He went from hero to traitor overnight. To this day, mention of his name on the Fordham campus is likely to draw a glare.
With Phelps gone, the program slipped and, by the time Penders came on the scene for the 1978-79 season, the Rams were not even a shadow of what they once had been. Penders, who had pulled a tattered program together at Columbia, did the same at Fordham. The Rams made the National Invitation Tournament five straight seasons, but they couldn't quite make it back to the NCAAs.
In the fall of 1985, McLaughlin returned. A 1969 Fordham graduate who had grown up only a couple of miles from campus, he had gone with Phelps to Notre Dame and then become the head coach at Harvard.
But Fordham called him. Would he be interested in returning to his alma mater as athletic director? "I told them no," he said. Fordham persisted. The money was good and it was home. He dislikes recruiting, even relatively low-key Ivy League recruiting. "I'm not a workaholic," he said.
He took the job in October, 1985. Penders, who had wanted the job himself, was not thrilled. The two didn't have any major fights that year, but they didn't go out for a beer together very often, either. That season, for the first time in six years, Fordham didn't make the NIT, finishing 13-17. McLaughlin wrote Penders during the summer, saying he saw no reason why Fordham should not win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title occasionally and "take the next step."
Penders had called his first five years the greatest in Fordham history. Yet, McLaughlin's message was clear: do more. "When I saw that letter," Quinn said, "I was amazed. Tommy had one bad year and he was out of favor."
McLaughlin says that isn't so, but it led directly to Penders' decision to leave. In September, Rhode Island's head coaching job opened when Brendan Malone moved to the New York Knicks. Rhode Island offered a five-year contract. Penders, with three years left on his contract, asked Fordham to match it. "We feel," McLaughlin said, "that three years is ample security."
Penders didn't. He left.
McLaughlin then fired Penders' two assistants, Quinn and Buddy Mahar. Their contracts, he said, were contingent on Penders being the coach. The coaches say that is not true, that Fordham owed them a paycheck until the end of this season. Quinn turned in his leased car and began wondering what to do next. The players met and voted to ask McLaughlin to name Quinn coach.
After calls to Al McGuire and an old friend, Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins, McLaughlin realized finding a coach he truly wanted in October was going to be impossible. Two days before practice was to begin, he asked Quinn to take the job on an interim basis.
"I was torn," Quinn said. "I certainly wasn't happy with Fordham, but the kids had all gone to bat for me and I thought I owed them something."
Quinn, 40, took the job Oct. 13 with the proviso that he would not be a candidate for the full-time job. He says that's fine with him and he now wants out of coaching.
When Quinn returned, his players were relieved. "We were all worried they would hire someone brand new and he would come in and change everything," said junior Greg Pedro. "We thought we had the talent to have a pretty good year if we had someone coaching us who understood us and whom we understood."
They showed their talent early, winning three of four going into the final of the Wheatshocker Classic in Wichita, against Wichita State. "Great atmosphere there," Pedro said. "There were 14,000 people all going crazy."
Fordham received a strong dose of home cooking during that game. Wichita State shot 59 free throws, Fordham 21. Six Rams fouled out and a seventh was ejected for fouling flagrantly. With a minute left, Fordham trailed by seven.
The Rams sent the game into overtime. Then, they trailed by three with six seconds left and Wichita was at the foul line. The shot missed and Pedro made a three-pointer at the buzzer. Double overtime.
By now, the Rams were convinced they were meant to win. They took control in the second overtime and led by eight with one second left. Thrilled, several players on the bench grabbed a bucket and went to pour ice water on Quinn. Just then, Wichita State made a three-pointer. The Rams drew a technical for the ice-water act. Both shots were good and suddenly, the lead was three and Wichita State had the ball at midcourt. The ball came inbounds, a three-point shot went up and . . . "It hit nothing but net," said Tom Parrotta. "I was guarding the guy and, when it went in I thought, 'Oh my God, we really blew it.' Then I saw their coach (Eddie Fogler) going crazy and I looked at the ref and realized he was saying it came after the buzzer."
Wichita State then invoked a Missouri Valley Conference rule that gives a team the right to look at instant replay in such a situation. At this point, McLaughlin came out of the stands.
"This is not a Missouri Valley Conference game and we don't play by those rules," he said. Turning to Quinn, he said, "The game's over. Take the team to the locker room and don't bring them back unless it's to accept our first-place awards."
Quinn did just that. "Frank showed me something there," he said. The Rams came back--and accepted their trophies.
They were 4-1. It looked as if a fairy tale were unfolding.
When the Rams awakened, they were back in the Bronx and Wichita became a memory. A loss at Hartford was followed by a one-point loss to Seton Hall when Pedro's layup was blocked at the buzzer. The close ones began getting away in bunches. The record was 7-5 on Jan. 10 when they bused to Fairfield to play the defending MAAC champion.
With 1:42 left, Fordham led, 70-66. An important road victory was in its grasp. Suddenly, as Fairfield set up its offense, there was a commotion in the stands.
The grandmother of Fairfield's Troy Bradford, sitting behind the Stags bench, had collapsed. While paramedics rushed about, most of the players sat on their benches and waited. An ambulance arrived but the woman died before reaching the hospital. She had had a heart attack. Back at the gym, after a delay of 45 minutes, the presidents of the schools and their athletic directors met at center court. They suspended the game.
The Rams lost their next three games, two in overtime, including Manhattan at home. Manhattan had been 2-26 in the 1985-86 season. Clearly, Fordham's team was shaken. It managed to beat Columbia, then lost in overtime to La Salle. That was followed by two losses in three games, the second one at home in overtime.
"We could easily have 16 or 17 wins by now if we had played well in the close games," Pedro said. "Since Wichita, we haven't. It's been unbelievably frustrating."
For everyone. Quinn, a small, soft-spoken man with an easy smile, points to the gray at his temples and says it is recent. "The last month has drained me completely," he said. "You would think, with all we have gone through, somewhere we would catch a break. This is a good group of kids and it isn't a bad team. We still deserve something out of this season."