Catching Up With Coach Penders: An Interview With One of College Basketball's Winningest Coaches

Tom Penders talks to BON about coaching at Texas, his favorite moment as a Longhorn, avoiding a Ponzi scheme, and the Mike Rice scandal, as well as his take on the current state of the Texas basketball program.

Tom Penders retired in 2011 after 36 years of coaching college basketball, and soon after published Dead Coach Walking: Tom Penders Surviving and Thriving College Hoops, which details his personal relationships with athletic directors, conference commissioners, AAU coaches, and NCAA officials. If you've ever heard Tom Penders speak, you know that he's got something interesting to say no matter who you are, but the ears of Texas fans will always perk up when they hear the familiar voice of Tournament Tom...

Penders' most notable stop during his coaching career was with the Texas Longhorns, where in his ten years as head coach he kick started a program that had long been dormant and turned it into a consistent winning machine. Over his always interesting but often tumultuous career, Penders amassed a 648-438 career record, and at the time of his retirement he was one of the top four active coaches in number of games coached and had become one of the winningest coaches in Division I history.

And it was during his time in Austin that he earned the nickname “Tournament Tom,” owing to his penchant for taking teams that hadn’t earned a strong seed on deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. In Penders’ final season at Rhode Island before coming to Texas, the Rams were just a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but upset No. 6 Missouri and No. 3 Syracuse to advance to the Sweet 16, before falling 73-72 to No. 2 Duke. In his first season at Texas the following year, he again earned a No. 11 seed, and again upset the No. 6 seed, before falling in the second round to No. 3 Missouri.

The next season, after another decent-not-great regular season that earned Texas a No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, Penders went on his best run, knocking off No. 7 Georgia and No. 2 Purdue to advance to the Sweet 16, and then ran No. 6 Xavier out of the gym to earn a trip to the Regional Finals against No. 1 Arkansas, who were coming off a 23-point thrashing of North Carolina. Texas battled the Razorbacks all the way to the end before falling just short, 88-85.

In the eight seasons that followed to close out his tenure at Texas, Penders took the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament six more times, where he advanced to the Second Round five times, with one more trip to the Sweet 16, in 1997. He took teams to the NCAA Tournament 10 times during his head coaching career, finishing with a 12-10 record despite being a No. 10 or No. 11 seed in seven of those 10 trips to the Dance, and a No. 5, No. 8, and No. 6 seed in the other three.

Last Tuesday, I had the privilege of speaking with Coach Penders about his take on college basketball, his favorite memories on the 40 Acres, his opinion on the Mike Rice situation at Rutgers, how he avoided one of the biggest NCAA scandals in history, his messy divorce with DeLoss Dodds, and the current state of the Longhorn program. In our interview, it was very apparent that Penders had developed an authentic love for the University, and his desire to see the Longhorns perform well has not diminished in the fifteen years he has been away.

* * * * *

To fully understand Tom Penders’ success, you need to familiarize yourself with his past. Penders grew up in Stratford, Connecticut in a family that excelled athletically. His father was a legendary high school baseball coach at Stratford High School from 1931-1968, winning four state championships in his storied tenure. Penders was a two-sport athlete in high school and college. When he enrolled at the University of Connecticut in 1964, he intended to play both baseball and football. Before long, Penders was both the Huskies' starting point guard and starting center fielder. At UConn he accomplished one the most unique achievements in NCAA history by playing in both the college basketball NCAA tournament and the College World Series.

“Well at the time I didn’t think much of it,” Penders told me. “I was a sophomore; we couldn’t play as freshman except on the freshman team. I was the starting center fielder and batted second when we were invited to the College World Series. It was one of the most special things that ever happened in my sporting life. My older brother Jim’s son, Jim Jr., is the head baseball coach at UConn now and they were in the NCAA tournament this year; making it all the way to the super-regionals. He has brought UConn baseball back to where it was when I was there. It’s kind of fun to watch that. My wife and I made it over to the Big East tournament in Clearwater, Florida and we had a lot of pride in our UConn connection.”

“Anyways, at the time I actually didn’t think much of it. We actually had better baseball teams my junior and senior years. My junior year we tied for first place and instead of having a playoff, it was like the Big Ten football rule with the Rose Bowl, the other team got to go instead of us, UMass it was, and if I am not mistaken we beat them two out of three that season anyway. My senior year we had a good record but lost in the conference tournament. It’s like the pros say, ‘It doesn’t happen often and when it’s close you gotta embrace it.’ I always used to say that to my players in basketball. Take nothing for granted.”

Penders left UConn in 1967 and just four years later, at the age of 25, accepted his first head coaching position at the college level. The school was Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts and the competition was weak. Tufts competed in the “college division”, the 1971 equivalent to present-day Division III. He posted a 54-18 record in three years before climbing up to Ivy League basketball at Columbia. His success continued and he continued to work his way through the gauntlet. He posted winning records at every stop.

In his eight years at Fordham (1978-1986) Penders won 125 games. He finally worked his way into a head coaching job at a flagship state school, it just happened to be the smallest state in the nation. His two years at Rhode Island were as successful as any stop before. In his second year, he guided his Rhode Island team to the Sweet Sixteen. Bigger schools were taking notice, and at the 1988 Final Four, Penders was contacted by the University of Texas. Penders accepted the job, but quickly learned that recruiting and winning at Texas would be a whole new ballgame.

“You can’t recruit to Austin,” Penders insists. “You can’t recruit. I coached in the Bronx [laughs] you know? When I was at Fordham and I was able to recruit in Harlem. It’s different. But I thought I was in heaven the first time I saw Austin. When they recruited me, and that’s what it was, I didn’t even know the job was open. It was at the 1988 Final Four when Texas first contacted me. I was called and asked if I would interview, and when I got permission from Rhode Island [Dodds] flew me into Austin.”

“When they showed me the Erwin Center, my gosh. That was and still is one of the most intimidating buildings because of it’s structure, because of the beauty of it, the orange just explodes when you walk in there. I think it is just a great arena.”

“Let’s be realistic, there aren’t a lot of kids picking schools strictly for academics. When I was at Columbia it was a different story. But at Texas, you know it’s a great school. I mean you can major in almost anything and get a great degree. Although it seems like every player I recruited after 1985 [were less concerned with the degree because they] thought they were going to be an NBA player. It’s just the way it was in that era and still is unfortunately today. When I go back to New York today, and it’s funny because that is where my career started, I’ll get cab drivers or people on the street giving me the hook’em or showing me their Runnin’ Horns hat. It’s funny, its great, too. It was a special time and a great opportunity for me. We brought Texas to television. There had never been a nationally televised basketball game until my second year. From then on we were playing like twenty of them a year. We became a hot television item. It was fun to see.”

“When I got to Texas, nobody gave me a blueprint; nobody said ‘Here is the way we want you to do this.’ It was more like, ‘Uh we haven’t done this before; we are hoping you can make us respectable.’ They were a football school and I understood that. I loved the fact that I could be on the sidelines for a football game. I was on the sidelines for almost every football game when David McWilliams was the coach. I loved that. I didn’t quite have the same relationship with John Mackovic, who was more of a corporate guy. I used to fly to football games and then get back for my game the next day. I always embraced that and I loved that. But it was cool to be able to say that we were also a basketball school for the first and only time up until then.”

“I don’t care how many people try to revise history and try to say that I didn’t do anything but the record books don’t lie. When there are shifts of power at the top levels of institutions people can start feeling left out. It happened to me at UConn. I really didn’t get any recognition as an athlete until twenty years in when Jim Calhoun came in and turned UConn into a national power. That’s when I got my lifetime achievement award at UConn. It wouldn’t have happened had we had there not been a change in the administration.”

In fact, it was three guys that Penders inherited, not recruited, who helped redefine Texas basketball. Lance Blanks, Travis Mays, and Joey Wright introduced the 40 Acres to a whole new style of college basketball -- the BMW years highlighted an era of fast-pace, up tempo-basketball that resulted in high scoring games and, more importantly, wins. By Penders' second year in Austin, his Runnin’ Horns team was advancing in the NCAA tournament farther than anyone had expected. An Elite Eight appearance, where Texas was three points away from going to the Final Four, was Penders' proudest moment as a Longhorn.

“You know, if they hadn’t put Arkansas and us in the same region…they were the only team I thought could beat us and they did. They were an excellent team they played the same style. It was a one possession game; Travis Mays had a dead on jumper from around an NBA three but that was his range. It rimmed out and then we had to foul. The final score was 88-85.”

“We brought a fast pace style to the game, you know, we had 101 against Georgia, only 73 against Purdue because they held on the ball very conservatively. It was in the Hoosier Dome and was a significant victory because it was Texas’ first time into the Sweet Sixteen. Some Texas fans will say the first time was in 1947, but they only picked eight teams then. In the modern day of basketball with television and bright lights, we were the first Texas team to make it to the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight.”

“The year before that we shocked everybody just by making the tournament. We knocked off a great Georgia Tech team. Remember, this was an era where nobody came out early. Georgia Tech had three starters that started on NBA teams and were outstanding NBA players. Well, we beat them in the opening round and then lost to Missouri. But we scored 101 in the tournament the following year. Nobody does that today. What was the name of that school, Palm Beach? [Editor's note: Florida Gulf Coast] Everybody was talking about how up tempo they were as though it was something new.”

“Hell, look at our records from 1989-1990. We averaged 93 points per game and we led the country steals and we played an aggressive, blitzing defensive style. Nobody ran like we did. It was fun, that second year -- everybody associated with the program and the school was shocked. Including me. I sure as hell didn’t expect that in year two. But it happened and I think it was great. All of those kids are still very close to me. That’s something very special to coaches. Some players even become very good friends. As a coach it eventually becomes more than a coaching relationship, it becomes a friendship.”

Penders’ up-tempo coaching style resulted in unprecedented basketball popularity. In two years, the average attendance at home basketball games was up nearly 150%. It continued to rise, in part because of Penders' tireless promotion of the program at fundraising events across the state. While this increase was substantial, it did not rival the top basketball programs in popularity. That’s why Penders was surprised to hear about the study completed by Emory Sports and Marketing Analytics that ranked the Texas’ fanbase as the sixth best in the nation.

“That’s crazy [laughs]. You know just by comparison UConn’s fan base is much bigger. They would get about fifteen newspapers just to come to watch practice. The whole state would shut down for a Friday night basketball game. They played high school football Saturday mornings, much like Indiana, much like Kentucky. UConn has won more national championships in the last thirteen years than anybody. So I come from a basketball school with an incredible fan base. People would fight over trying to get season tickets and it would be like ‘Okay well you gotta wait for your Uncle Charlie to die.’ You couldn’t get them.”

“I just don’t get the fan base thing. This year, when Texas played in Houston against UCLA I was thinking of going because I was free and I decided against it. Well I turned it on TV and I thought there was a bomb scare. Nobody was there. I don’t know who paid for that but, gosh, that was embarrassing. We played in Houston my second year. It was LSU vs. Texas. They had Shaquille O’ Neal , Chris Jackson, and Stanley Roberts. We had the BMW -- Blanks, Mays, and Wright. I think we lost 119-114. Lance fouled out when it was a dead tie with thirty seconds left and we had to foul them and they made free throws. It was an incredible game, and it was packed. The average price of the ticket was 45 dollars that night. It was in the Summit which is now that Joel Osteen church. It was our home game and after we played it [LSU coach] Dale Brown came up to me and said ‘I have never felt so out of control of a game in my life.’ I laughed and told him ‘Dale, there were 18,000 people here, I don’t think any of them paid to see us coach.’ Now they are playing this big intersectional game against a big opponent like UCLA and there is nobody there.”

“That’s very sad to me and all of us who went through our period. We don’t like to see that. I think we had a great fan base. We went from 2,000 people per game when I got there to 11,000 after my first year and then it just gradually grew...12...14...etc. But the prices also went from six dollars in the lower level and four dollars in the upper level to like, ‘You have to give 1,000 dollars to have the right to buy this seat.’ It was tougher for people to buy. You need to have a fan base to be a big time player in the game today. Television doesn’t want to televise games that nobody is attending.”

“I watched us beat Oklahoma this year, one of the best comebacks I’ve seen. How many people were there? At Texas it’s not just winning that’s important -- it’s the style in which they win. In football, they don’t care. Whether it’s 10-9, 7-6, or 50-40 they don’t give a damn as long as we win. The great [former Texas head coach] Abe Lemons told me that. He said ‘It’s not just if you win it is how you play.’ You had to play with style if you wanted people to come out. But that was already my style; I didn’t have to change anything. That’s what I was hired to do. A lot of coaches will come in and say, ‘Oh yeah we’re gonna play up tempo and this and that’ and then it’s just the same old thing he did at the last school. Scoring in the 50’s and 60’s and there is no change. Coaches don’t change.”

In 2011, David Salinas, a prominent AAU coach and financial investor, committed suicide in Houston. It was uncovered that Salinas was the architect of one of the biggest financial investment frauds in NCAA history. Salinas’ tactic of befriending college basketball coaches and then scamming them out of their money cost thirteen coaches nearly $8 million. In 2004, right after Penders was hired to be the head basketball coach at the University of Houston, Salinas approached him about making similar investments.

“When I met him I was in Houston. I had been out of coaching for three years and was doing some work for ESPN and some radio work. I also had to have some surgeries, that’s all in my book. I was kind of living in a tunnel for about three years, so I didn’t know he was. He told me he was a booster at Houston and that he wanted to have lunch with me. I said, ‘Well I am not really a lunch guy. I work through the lunch hour.’ He asked if he could drop by and I agreed to meet him.”

“I asked the athletic director about him and he said that he was familiar with Salinas’ and that he had given money in the past. He came into the office and after we talked for a few minutes he said, ‘You know I’d like to get you involved in some great investments.’ I said, ‘Well, you know my wife handles all of our money.’ He was better at the selling than I was at the rejection. I couldn’t tell him to get the hell out of my office or anything but I didn’t like talking business in my basketball office. That’s what my wife does. I explained that to him but he still went on with his pitch. He wanted to get a group of 10 coaches together, $100,000 a person. It was a million-dollar investment that he would put into whatever it was he had at the time. I finally told him ‘No way. I’m 58 years old and my wife is not going to go for this, but you’re welcome to contact her if you want.’ He went on and explained to me that he ran one of the biggest AAU programs in Houston. I said, ‘Whoa, if you’re involved with AAU programs I can’t possibly be investing with you. That’s a violation, I’m 95% sure.’ He said, ‘Well you know we’ve got this guy and that guy’ he threw some coaches names out there. Some were names that I knew. And I told David, I said, ‘Well they better check with their compliance people because this doesn’t sound right.’ I was very polite to him and at the end of our meeting he asked if he could speak to my wife and I reluctantly agreed.”

“He called her the next day and they spoke on the phone. [Within the next few weeks] he had sent over a red leather jacket to the office with a note that said it was ‘For Mrs. Penders.’ My wife still has the jacket [laughs]. It was a nice gift! I didn’t have anything bad to say about the guy, I didn’t know. Coaches are probably the biggest suckers in the world when it comes to investments, much like the athletes. I have a very smart wife who was an accounting major for the first few years of college. Everything she has done, even during times when the market was really down, we at least came out okay because she invested really well.”

“I don’t think coaches are that stupid. In this situation, I really believe that some of those guys were trying to get an edge [in recruiting] though. Salinas even mentioned that he had sent players to Houston before, although none of them were in any of my programs. And as I said to him, ‘I don’t mean to be a wise guy but I spent most of my adult life in New York City, I can smell a con game.’ That situation just didn’t look right to me."

"A lot of these coaches were looking for an edge. You know, they had this rule that you couldn’t say hello to a recruit during the summertime at an event. Well [at one event in Las Vegas] I see all these coaches running to the bathroom, literally sprinting and pushing each other to get into the bathroom because three or four kids that had played were in there. Well, they didn’t think they had a problem because only two compliance officers were at the event and they were both women. They couldn’t monitor the men’s room. So who the hell knows what goes on in the bathroom? A lot of coaches will do that. That was not my thing. I never felt like that’s the way to recruit kids. I always felt that being myself and being honest was the way to do it. My players were going to sell my program. At Texas, as soon as people saw our style of play, we started getting letters and phone calls from high school coaches of kids who had left the state and wanted to come back. BJ Tyler, Rich McIver, and Tremaine Wingfield, these guys were great players but they had left for DePaul, Michigan, and Louisville. But the way those other guys recruited, that just wasn’t my style.”

In Penders long coaching tenure, there have been a lot of changes in college basketball. One of the most notable is the shift in basketball recruiting from high school basketball to AAU. Penders believes that the most important part of recruiting is about showing recruits the style of basketball and getting his players to sell his program for him.

“Well there are always X amount of players, and if you indeed have a top-10 fan base, you are way ahead of the game. If you have a great fan base the kids see it. But I think most importantly, prospects look at your style of play and how that can advance them to the NBA. That’s what the key issues are and recruiting is always the most important thing. If I had a happy team, if my players were happy, they would recruit for me.”

“When I started at a new school, the first thing I would do was embrace the upperclassmen. If I had ignored those guys or pushed them aside, I never would have one at places like Texas or Rhode Island. I didn’t recruit Lance [Blanks] Joey [Wright] or Travis [Mays]; they were there when I got there. They helped us get BJ Tyler and, in my opinion, the greatest player to ever play at Texas, Terrence Rencher. Rencher was the all-time scoring leader in Austin, and scoring wasn’t even his thing. That was my style of recruiting. When a kid came on campus, I wanted my players to recruit for me. There was always one turd in the wood pile, there is always going to be one or two guys that don’t think you like them or make excuse for not playing. I had great kids at Texas, they sold my program. They are still great Texas alums, they call or text me whenever they see the Horns on TV.”

In early April, Rutgers University fired head coach Mike Rice after a video surfaced of him physically and emotionally abusing his players. The outrage that lead to his firing eventually lead to the dismissal of the Athletic Director. Just about everyone has shared their opinion about the situation except for one segment that has remained relatively quiet, basketball coaches. Penders doesn’t like that his profession has not stood behind one of their own.

“That is a tremendous thing on your part to bring up. I was on Outside the Lines a couple weeks ago and I mentioned that some of our legendary coaches, coaches that everybody looks up to, are guilty of the same kind of behavior and I am disappointed that they haven’t stepped up to defend Mike Rice. I didn’t point a finger at any one or two but some are very obvious choices. Look, Mike Rice is somebody’s son, and you know, I think people deserve second chances. He is a Fordham graduate, though he didn’t play for me. I called him about one of my former players at Fordham, Jerry Hobbie, who is now Director of Basketball Operations at SMU, about possibly joining his staff at Rutgers. I said ‘Mike, you’re a young guy and I think it’s good to have an older guy on the staff just to be able to lean on at times.’”

“Unfortunately, this entire situation blew up. Hopefully he will get another opportunity at some point but there are a lot of coaches out there who are guilty of the same thing. I was a young guy when I took my first job at Tufts, I mean I thought I could still beat my guys one on one. Well, when we would get together for basketball reunions they’d watch practice and say “Coach! You would never let us get away with any of that!” [laughs] Look, the good side of this, they talk all they want about the welfare of the “student-athlete,” but not one student-athlete spoke out about his behavior. I had a college coach who was a great man and a guy in my life that I have always idolized. He is 78 years old and he is the executive CEO at Comcast. He said at a reunion a couple of years ago that he would be in jail today for the stuff he used to with us [laughs] and I would agree with him! I told him I’ve got two bad elbows and two bad knees from all of those diving drills. So, anyways, I hope Mike gets another opportunity. I really do. “

Penders’ final year at Texas was anything but serene. Accusations of leaking Luke Axtell’s grades to a radio station, his possible exit for a different program, a relatively mediocre season, and a souring relationship with Dodds all contributed to his exit. Penders’ wholeheartedly denies that he was involved in any scandals and says that being forced out was a personal decision. In his book, he talks about reconnecting with Dodds and “burying the hatchet.” He explained to me a little about how he was able to do that.

“A couple of times, I happened to be in the same room with DeLoss. When Lance Blanks was inducted into the hall of honor I saw him and pulled him aside and we talked. We really did have a great relationship for almost ten years; just the last few months were kind of rocky. I talk about this in detail in my book but it basically came down to two guys who were friends, and somewhere the trust was lost. I’ll take my share of the blame, it takes two people to have a disagreement.”

“You know, so we spoke verbally that night and then later on I sent him a note after I couldn’t attend Travis May’s induction that basically said 'I’m glad to see some of my guys get in the hall of honor. They love their school. They represent it in the right way. Let’s bury the hatchet, I’d rather remember the good days we had.' And a little bit later he sent me a note back that’s in the book. He essentially said no problem and that he had seen my wife and something about how time flies. If I was back in Austin during basketball season I wouldn’t think anything of calling him up and saying hello to him. You can’t be free if you have an issue with someone. Ten years is a long time -- it’s like a marriage. We knew each other very well. We travelled, DeLoss, Mary Ann, Susie and I spent time up in Colorado with alumni, and up in Dallas and down in San Antonio. He brought me on these bowl things. I was on the sideline for the Cotton Bowl, the Oklahoma game, all of that. You can’t hold a grudge. That was a personal issue and nothing more when I got pushed out. I was paid to leave. That happens in the business. It was a personal thing; it wasn’t any kind of a scandal. I was a smokescreen -- anybody who knows me or has followed my career understands that I have never really had player issues.”

Though it has been fifteen years since Penders was coaching the Longhorns, he is still very cognizant of the program. He follows Texas basketball very closely and tries not to miss a game. As probably the only person who can closely relate to Rick Barnes’ situation, he weighed in on his opinion about the current state of the Texas basketball program and the temperature of Rick Barnes’ seat.

If this situation happened at a basketball school, I think any coach would feel the heat. It’s one thing to have a down year, it can happen, hell, it should happen at a legitimate school where kids have to go to class and others graduate. Even Duke had a terrible year in the 90’s and North Carolina just the other year was 18-18. It happens. But when everybody is transferring out, that’s not good. Unless they were bad kids, you know, but I don’t believe they were. You know all of my former players, they know these guys. They are like big brothers to any Texas basketball player and they said, ‘Hey coach, these guys are great kids.’”

“I think Sheldon McClellan could have very easily been as good as Lance Blanks. I told Lance [fomer Phoenix Suns GM] that this season and he called me back a few weeks later and said ‘Coach you’re right. He’s stronger, got great range, and he plays defense.’ It’s sad to me, because when I came in to Texas in 1988, that was the program -- kids transferring out and a mediocre record, and I hate to see it go back there. It’s not a thing with Rick Barnes or DeLoss Dodds, I just don’t want to see my program fall apart again. I really don’t.”

Tom Penders’ book, “Dead Coach Walking; Surviving and Thriving in College Hoops” can be found online here. He is very active and approachable on Twitter, his handle is @TomPenders.

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