He’s Won the Heart of Texas : College Basketball: Penders came from Rhode Island to show Longhorns there is more to life than football.
Can a Connecticut Yankee be king of the basketball court deep in the heart of the Texas hill country?
After all, this is the city of Threadgill’s, where Janis Joplin washed down chicken-fried steak with a few bottles of beer; the town of the dearly departed Armadillo World Headquarters, where Willie Nelson donned a bandanna and reached for his 12-string guitar, the place Jerry Jeff Walker sang about rednecks.
There was a time when Tom Penders would have seemed out of place here and why not? After all, he was truly an East Coast-type of guy what with coaching jobs at Tufts, Columbia, Fordham and Rhode Island. But since he’s transplanted himself, Penders sings a different tune as basketball coach at the University of Texas.
So far, 44-year-old Tom Penders is winning so many games and influencing so many people in the state capital that some are willing to embrace this high school coach’s son from Stratford, Conn., forgive him his roots and call him one of their own.
Earl Deathe, 65, once managed many of President Lyndon Johnson’s business interests during Johnson’s White House years and now owns a custom-made boot store on Cameron Road. Deathe gave Penders a pair of ostrich boots, his initials stitched into the leather uppers between a Longhorn steer and a basketball stitched on either side.
“From the minute he landed here in Austin, he let it be known he would become a Texan,” Deathe said. “I am damned proud to have him wearing my boots.”
Coming off a 25-9 season and an NCAA tournament appearance, Penders begins his second year at the end of the Longhorns’ bench with expectations about as lofty as one of those high notes his good buddy Willie can yank right out of the air.
Even though he is a fledgling Texan, Penders counts eight pairs of boots in his closet, each pair a gift. In his office behind his desk hangs a large oil painting of a longhorn steer standing at attention, given to him by Darrell Royal, the former Texas football coach and athletic director who was a member of the search committee that recommended Penders be hired.
Royal said he has grown close to the new basketball coach and believes that where Penders grew up should have no effect on his coaching. In fact, Royal dislikes making too much of regional differences.
“Here, we say thank and back east they may say think , but what’s the big dee-ul ?” Royal said.
What, indeed? Penders, this kid who used to play croquet on the lawn in Connecticut, is getting invited to cow chip-throwing contests and a whole lot more.
“I judged an Arabian horse show,” Penders said. “They wanted somebody who didn’t know anything about horses, so I guess I filled the bill. I also judged a fajitas cook-off. Ate 32 of them. I haven’t had a beef fajita since and that was in July. I liked them before.
“I was also guest grand marshal of a rodeo and wore a cowboy hat,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of those, too. One time, I went redfishing. In New York, you tell them that and they think you’re looking for Communists.”
Here, though, the locals are looking for a few good seasons. If expectations are up, so is attendance. Last year, the Longhorns had the biggest increase of all Division I schools--5,983 a game. Many who probably came to see Penders’ fast-paced game are convinced there are no longer only two sports at Texas: football and spring football.
The Penders style of play is very much unlike that of his predecessor, Bob Weltlich, who employed a slowed-down, deliberate pace and who was fired after compiling a 77-98 record in six years. In keeping with the surroundings, the new Texas style is often called run and gun, but Penders has come up with his own name for it--chuck and duck.
“My idea is to get people back in our building, to create the old feeling they had here in the late 1970s with Abe Lemons,” Penders said.
Penders’ eventual Texasization probably had its roots during the Lemons regime. Lemons, a crusty, cigar-smoking, wisecracking proponent of the run-and-gun style, coached the Longhorns to the National Invitation Tournament title in 1978.
The Longhorns scored at least 100 points six times that season and were a popular draw at the Erwin Center.
Lemons’ popularity soared as well. Abe become something of a folk hero and alumni flocked to hear him speak. Lemons also used his notoriety to negotiate a better car deal for himself and his coaching staff, persuading local automobile dealer George Coffey to provide classier cars.
“What happened, everybody was driving (Ford) Granadas and, you know, Texas is a big damn state,” Lemons said. “It’s 950 miles from one tip to the other. You get out there on those roads and you need something a little better. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on? I thought Texas people were supposed to be rich or something.’
“Somebody asked me, if I could have any car I wanted, what would I drive and I said a Lincoln,” he said. “Well, I got one. And then everybody else, they’re all driving Oldsmobiles because Texas, you fight your way around that state in a damn Granada, time you get there, hell, you just want to drink. You don’t want to recruit. I caused all that.
“They’re driving Olds, Buicks, but there ain’t no more Granadas,” Lemons said. “There’s nothing wrong with a Granada, ‘less you’re going to Lubbock. There ain’t nothing but a crow between here and Lubbock. Hitting the damn road, you jar your teeth out. You can’t get in the damned thing anyway. It’s all right for a golf coach.”
Lemons was riding high until DeLoss Dodds became athletic director. A no-nonsense administrator, Dodds was immediately at odds with Lemons’ freewheeling style. After Lemons charged into the stands at a game to challenge some heckling fans in Arkansas in 1982, he was gone. Dodds, believing that Lemons had embarrassed the program, fired the coach at the end of the 1982 season.
“The only thing I was ever guilty of was cussin’ and smokin’ cigars,” said Lemons, back again as coach at Oklahoma City University, whence he came. “I caught a lot of flak for a lot of things. I never did take that game that serious.”
Dodds brought in Weltlich, a coach with whom he felt a shared philosophy. Weltlich, a disciple of Bobby Knight, had a style just the opposite of Lemons’, on the court and off. Where Lemons coached run and gun, Weltlich stressed a controlled game. Where Lemons was open and expansive, Weltlich was guarded. Lemons’ practices always were open, but Weltlich’s were closed.
There is certainly enough room in college basketball for two divergent styles, but Weltlich’s apparently did not appeal to Texas fans. Attendance swooned and so did the Longhorns’ fortunes. Weltlich’s teams never broke 100 points in 175 games and attendance in the 16,231-seat Erwin Center exceeded 4,500 only once in his last five seasons.
Dodds was forced to fire his own man with two years and an estimated $200,000 left on Weltlich’s contract. Weltlich was reassigned within the Texas athletic department as an assistant athletic director in charge of special projects.
Weltlich was reluctant to discuss his firing or to say in detail what he thinks about Penders, who won 25 games with the players Weltlich recruited.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Weltlich said. “But I do think Tom has done a great job with those kids.”
Lemons said it is no surprise to him that Penders transformed the Longhorns into a winning team.
“All he did was take the same players Weltlich had and put them in another gear and have some fun,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt Penders is going to win. He’s a nice person and he knows what he’s doing and he makes the game fun.”
Said Penders: “In Bob’s defense, he was following a legend. He may not have been following Darrell Royal in football, but he followed a guy who created a lot of excitement here, who was well liked by the fans.”
Car dealer Coffey, who ditched the program during the Weltlich regime, jumped back on board for Penders, with whom he often plays golf at Barton Creek Country Club.
“Hell, he wasn’t here but a short time and he’s walking around in cowboy boots, going to barbecues, doing anything to fit in,” Coffey said. “And his style of basketball, well, it’s like his personality. He’s a more upbeat guy.”
Deathe, who made the boots country singer Paulette Carlson wore for her wedding, said Penders’ stay at Texas makes him proud of his long association with the university. In 1942, Deathe was a Texas freshman teammate of a football player named Tom Landry.
“The difference between Tom and Bob Weltlich is as much between daylight and darkness,” Deathe said. “Tom is just a real guy, that’s all I can say.”
Penders, though, understands that winning, not personality, is what the game is really all about.
“If Bob had won here, he would have done fine,” Penders said. “But in the end, he was 20 games under .500. His personality was a lot different from Abe’s, true, that often happens. A coach gets fired and they go to the other extreme.
“When Bobby Knight leaves Indiana, as successful as Bobby Knight is, there’ll be somebody in the (school) administration who will say, ‘Let’s get somebody totally different. We’ll win here anyway.’ Maybe they’ll find out the hard way, which usually happens.”
Penders’ journey here was a roundabout one. A basketball and baseball star at the University of Connecticut, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1967 and played third base in the minor leagues. He hit .343 in Class A, but besides having problems hitting double-A pitching, Penders knew that Max Alvis was entrenched at third base with the Indians.
His dad was a coach in his hometown of Stratford and Penders eventually got into the family business. After three years of high school coaching, he moved on to Tufts University in Medford, Mass., near Boston, in 1971. Tufts, which had just one winning season in the previous 20 years, finished 12-8. Penders was 24.
After two more seasons at Tufts, four at Columbia and eight at Fordham, Penders got his big break at Rhode Island.
In his two seasons there, the Rams went 20-10 and 28-7, the second season noteworthy for a spot in the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The team was led by guard Tom Garrick, now with the Clippers.
“I can appreciate now what a great motivator he is,” Garrick said. “He is real good at bringing the best out of you. He made us believe in ourselves. He would scream at you and get under your skin, but he was a friend. You always knew you could go to him with anything.
Texas guard Travis Mays said of Penders: “He just said the way we were going to approach it is we were going to have fun.”
Royal said he knew when he met Penders that the Easterner was the right choice.
“He told me his dad was a high school coach and then he told me the stadium his dad worked in and coached in was named after him,” Royal said. “That told me right there he was of good stock. There was surely nothing wrong with his dad. I’m a great believer in the apple theory. I don’t think they fall too far from the tree.”
Penders is in the second year of a five-year contract that calls for him to get a base salary of $85,000, an annual expense bonus of $6,000 and a radio-television contract worth $40,000. A shoe contract negotiated by the university is thought to bring the total package to about $200,000 a year.
And the good life is getting better for Penders. He and his family are building a 4,000-square-foot home on an acre of land near Lake Austin. Lee Trevino is supposed to become a neighbor, but then, sports figures and celebrities always seem to be gathering around Penders, who went to a concert a few weeks ago and sat with singers Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
The Southwest Conference looks improved, with Arkansas beginning the season ranked in the top 20 and Houston appearing to be a probable tournament team, but Lemons figures Penders will get along just fine both on and off the court.
“The only thing he’ll miss is all the Eastern notoriety those guys get,” Lemons said. “If a guy can just rest his ego a little bit and not worry about the Big East being on TV every day . . . They’re on more than ‘Sanford and Son.’ ”
And in the office of the new basketball coach at the University of Texas, the Connecticut boy looks around, comfortable in his surroundings.
His silver belt buckle gleams as he hitches up his faded blue jeans, revealing his burnt orange cowboy boots.
“I think I’ll stay here for a while,” Penders said.
He sort of has to. He’s got a golf date with Willie next week.