Houston's Penders can get 600th victory against No. 1 Memphis Print
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Tuesday, 29 January 2008 13:04
NCAAB Headline News


 HOUSTON (AP) - Tom Penders was living the good life in Miami, healthy again and far from the stressful demands of coaching college basketball.
Something about the profession, or maybe the game itself, kept nagging him to give it one more try. When Houston athletic director Dave Maggard asked him to take over the Cougars in April 2004, Penders agreed.
In four seasons, Penders has returned Houston (15-3, 3-0 Conference USA) to respectability, another successful reclamation project in a career full of them.
Penders, 62, can get career victory No. 600 against top-ranked Memphis (19-0, 5-0) on Wednesday night, a win that would be the biggest for the Cougars since the Final Four days of Phi Slama Jama in the early 1980s.
``If it all ended tomorrow, I've had an incredible run,'' Penders said Monday. ``I would be very thankful for everything that's happened.''
Now in his 34th season as a head coach, Penders attributes much of his longevity to simple good fortune. Perseverance seems to have much more to do with it.
He grew up in Stratford, Conn., and topped out at 5-foot-11 in high school. Few figured he was big enough to play at Connecticut, but by his senior season, he was the starting point guard and team captain.
``I always look at myself as a survivor,'' he said. ``I was always the underdog. I told people I was going to play big-time college basketball and people said, 'Yeah, are you kidding me?'
``It was always an improbable dream, but I got to live out my dream.''
He was a better baseball player growing up and he kicked around the minor leagues after college. A local high school offered him a job coaching the basketball team and Penders found his passion.
``To me, it felt just like it did when I was playing,'' Penders said. ``Just as fun.''
After three successful high school seasons, he was hired in 1971 by Tufts, a private school in Massachusetts, and went 54-18 in three seasons.
He revamped moribund programs at Columbia, Fordham and Rhode Island and found that he was more interested in rebuilding teams than sustaining them.
``There is nothing more satisfying than taking losers and making them winners,'' he said. ``That's not just the players, but it's the people around the program. It's really rewarding. You're allowed to inject your own ideas and ways of doing things. I much prefer that.''
It wasn't exactly the smoothest path to 600 victories, though.
He turned Texas into a winner after a decade of mediocrity, but an irregular heart condition caught up with him before the 1997 season.
He had a defibrillator implanted in his chest and came back, but the confidence that carried him to that point in his career was shaken.
``My last year at Texas, I was living in fear of dying,'' Penders said. ``That's something I couldn't get out of my mind, that this could happen at any time.''
The season crumbled amid players' complaints about Penders' methods and accusations that he released a player's grades to a local radio station. A lawsuit over the matter was settled.
Frustrated and sick, Penders resigned.
``I never thought I'd coach again after that spring,'' said Penders, who was later sued for defamation by an assistant he accused of releasing the player's grades. A jury sided with Penders.
Jack Kvancz, the athletic director at George Washington, flew to Austin and persuaded Penders to keep coaching.
The Colonials won 20 games in Penders' first season, but things quickly soured. George Washington had losing records the next two seasons, a player was arrested on a rape charge and others were caught billing long-distance calls to the university account of Penders' son, an assistant.
Penders also developed heart problems again, so he left the job and retreated to Miami to recuperate. He worked as a TV and radio analyst as he regained his strength and never lost touch with the game or his coaching friends.
Visits with Texas Tech's Bob Knight and Michigan State's Tom Izzo in 2004 helped him realize how much he missed the life.
``I went to practices and meetings and I started to feel the fire again,'' Penders said. ``I started saying to myself, 'Man, this is fun. Maybe I could do this again.'''
When Maggard called, Penders saw an ideal fit. The Cougars had fallen on hard times - Penders' specialty - and his heart doctors were already in Houston, perhaps making it easier to return to a state that he left under the cloud of a scandal.
Penders coached his 1,000th game Jan. 19 and he has the ball mounted on his desk. He hasn't kept count of the victories, comparing it superstitiously to a baseball player keeping track of a hitting streak.
When No. 600 comes, he's just happy he'll be around to see it.
``I look around for the guys who were coaching when I started in the 1970s and there aren't too many left,'' he said. ``I'm proud that I've now been coaching more than 30 years, that I've survived. I'm also kind of proud that I'm still doing it for the same reasons.
``I mean, whenever I have a tough loss, I ask, 'Why put myself through this?' But the next day, it's like, 'What else would you rather do with your life?'''
 

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