Tom Penders entered the reception hall in the Erwin Center, the University of Texas’ plush, 16,000-seat arena, to applause, and threaded his way between tables to the microphone at one side of the room. Munching popcorn and sipping mixed drinks in the hall, known unofficially as the Burnt Orange Room, were several hundred Texas fans, the most orange-blooded of the 12,647 who had just witnessed the Longhorns’ game with Arkansas.
Penders, Texas’ first-year coach, answered questions about the game and then told the gathering: “It’s important to do this even when we lose.” More applause.
Indeed, Texas had, only an hour earlier, lost an important Southwest Conference basketball game to Arkansas. But if someone had wandered into the Burnt Orange Room without seeing the game, he easily could have gotten a different impression.
“There are no unrealistic expectations here,” Penders said later. “People are telling me after the game, ‘Please hang in there, coach. We’re just happy to have you here.’ They’re cheering up.”
Talk about appreciative people, a man, fortyish, standing behind Penders in line at an Austin grocery store plunked down a $100 bill and offered to pay for Penders’ groceries -- and this was six months before Penders would even coach a game. Penders, taken aback, declined the man’s offer and later asked Steve Ross, UT’s basketball publicist, “Hey, what exactly happened here?”
If Penders, the former Columbia and Fordham coach, is enjoying a nice, cozy honeymoon in Austin, it’s because Texas fans and Texas basketball are just now reconciling after a long separation.
For sure, Penders, hired by Texas after two 20-win seasons at Rhode Island, has given UT fans plenty to shout about in a 12-3 season. But more important than the record is the way Penders’ upbeat personality and up-tempo game have revitalized a program that had languished under Bob Weltlich, the Bob Knight protege who replaced the popular Abe Lemons in 1982.
“No one is asking Tom for a national championship,” said John Danks, a former UT player and coach under Lemons who is now a lobbyist in Austin. “We’re just excited to have a competitive team and happy players. Regardless of what happens this year, we know we have a chance to go somewhere in the future. Under Weltlich, we didn’t have that chance.”
Ready, willing and able to play Penders’ up-tempo style, the Longhorns have scored more than 100 points six times and savored every minute of it. “Perfect choice,” said junior guard Travis Mays, whose nine three-pointers against Rice last week set an SWC record.
Under Lemons in the late ‘70s, Texas made a move as a basketball school. NIT champions in 1978, the Longhorns appeared destined for greater things in ’82 when they got off to a 14-0 start. But that team lost 11 of its final 13 games when one of its stars, forward Mike Wacker, suffered a severe knee injury. Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds fired Lemons when the season was finished.
The situation only got messier when Weltlich, who had dragged the Mississippi program into the 20th century, failed to produce at Texas. Weltlich was a Knight foot soldier, all right, but without the championship banners, and his six seasons were marked by community apathy and player unrest.
Recalling Weltlich’s practices, which were closed to the media and public, Mays said: “He’d have us diving on the floor. He was breaking our bodies down. At this point in the season under Coach Weltlich, we would be tired. Coach Penders understands. We’ll play hard, win a game, he’ll give us a day off. But Coach Weltlich would have us in here the next day going just as hard. We were all banged up. My freshman year, I was hampered with injuries. My sophomore year, injury after injury after injury. It was the abuse, the physical abuse, we were going through.”
After last season, in which the Longhorns were 16-13 and first-round losers in the SWC tournament, Dodds called the players in to discuss Weltlich. The players told Dodds they were tired of Weltlich’s walk-it-up style and constant negativism. The meeting pushed Weltlich over the edge.
Meantime, in the East, Penders’ Rhode Island team was pushing the ball up-court and beating Missouri and Syracuse on the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. Dodds noticed, and he sought Penders out for an interview at the Final Four in Kansas City. Dodds says he needed only “about 15 minutes of one interview” to know he had his man. Penders had been talking to Rutgers about the coaching vacancy there, but when he heard what the Texas job paid -- a total package of $200,000 a year -- he jumped on it. (Only four seasons ago Penders was earning about $40,000 a year and paying for his parking space at Fordham.)
Texas had an antidote for Weltlich, and, after 17 years of toiling in musty, bandbox gyms, Penders had found basketball heaven, a school with first-class facilities and deep pockets. “Everything is there,” he said. “It’s the first situation -- well, I’ve been in such lousy situations. My total recruiting budget at Fordham was about one-tenth the size of what we have here.”
Penders certainly walked into a nice situation. He inherited a full complement of players, four of them returning starters, good people -- “Nobody’s come up to my office and asked for his monthly payment” -- as well as good athletes.
But he must create a recruiting presence for the Longhorns, who, in Danks’ words, “haven’t out-recruited anybody for anybody in the last 10 years.”
To Texas’ facilities and resources, Penders has added his run-and-fun style and the ultimate weapon, national television exposure. Cashing in a chip from his Rhode Island success, he hustled up a network TV game (CBS) for Texas at Vanderbilt Saturday. The Longhorns’ non-conference schedule next season will be tougher -- including games with LSU, Oklahoma, Florida and Cal-Santa Barbara -- bringing more TV opportunities and, Penders hopes, opening more recruiting doors.
Penders wants to tie up the high school talent in Texas, much of which now leaves the SWC, while bagging a big-time national recruit or two. Texas thought it might get one last fall in Jamal Faulkner, the 6-7 forward from Christ the King High School in New York. Faulkner visited Texas but ended up signing with Pitt. Said Penders: “I think if we had a year under our belt here, we would have had him.”
In the Burnt Orange Room these days, they would not disagree.