Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Houston Chronicle Commentary: Penders leaves mediocre mark at UH
By RICHARD JUSTICE
Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
March 22, 2010, 11:20PM
Perhaps we’ll eventually find out that Tom Penders did an extraordinary job under nearly impossible circumstances at the University of Houston.
Let’s revisit the topic in three years and see if UH basketball is better off without him. At UH, they clearly think they can do better than Tom Penders. Hope springs eternal, etc.
Penders might disagree. By the time he finished running down his accomplishments in Monday‘s exit news conference, he’d made getting the Coogs to one NCAA Tournament game in six years sound like turning water into wine.
"We have set the bar very high," he said. "We have changed the culture here."
Oh, Tommy, you hush up. Don’t you know you’re supposed to let others say the nice things while you sit there with your hands folded saying, "Oh gosh, it was nothing. Would someone pass the Grey Poupon?"
Don’t overstate it
Penders elevated UH hoops from irrelevant to mediocre, and there aren’t many statues that say, "He was mediocre, but we loved him just the same."
On the other hand, one Tournament game in six years might be every bit the astonishing accomplishment Penders sold it as being. This is the kind of tough-love chat UH fans hate.
They sometimes see the program for what it once was — or what they’d like it to be — instead of what it is. Mack Rhoades is the latest in string of athletic directors to attempt to make UH a competitive Division I program.
Did you see Steve Campbell’s nugget the other day that UH had a $400 basketball marketing campaign?
Really? What does $400 buy? Why bother? Whoever inserted $400 into the basketball budget for marketing ought to be charged with coming up with clever wants to spend it?
Besides, Penders doesn’t need a marketing budget. No one sells his program — or himself — better than Turnaround Tommy.
You can say that stuff isn’t important, but when you’ve got acres of empty seats and when coaches are being more secretive and less available than ever, Penders is a refreshing throwback.
Don’t aim too high
As to why he’s leaving UH, Penders said his work was done and that it was time to find another challenge. Where’s that grain of salt when you need it?
He also made it clear he still wants to coach. I just hope he’s not trying to parlay winning the Conference USA Tournament into, say, the Oregon job.
"I feel I can do no more (at UH)," he said, "and I’m proud of what we’ve done."
"This is a hard job," he said. "I know what we don’t have."
Few Division I coaches had less to work with than Penders in terms of facilities, budget and attendance. Penders pushed that part of his story in recent weeks, probably as he felt the walls closing in on him.
He left out the part about him doing a terrible job recruiting local high school talent and not winning enough games, but who wants to spoil a nice going-away party with facts?
Beating UTEP should not qualify as a signature victory at the University of Houston, but who knows anymore?
Guess how long it has been since UH won an NCAA Tournament game. If you answered 26 years, you’d be right.
For a bonus question, guess how many weeks UH has been in the Associated Press Top 25 these last 26 years? Two.
Rhoades will look for a coach willing to buy into a vision that doesn’t exist. It’s a leap of faith, but so is imagining a bracket with Saint Mary’s, Cornell and Baylor in the Sweet 16 instead of Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA.
Stay closer to home
UH’s next coach must do a better job competing for every top Houston high school player. Penders may have relied on transfers and juco players because that’s all he can get, but UH must compete with A&M, Texas and Baylor for local high school talent.
By the time Penders finished telling his heroic tale to that guy from the
New York Times last week,
it appeared as if he’d taken the UH job as an act of mercy.
Memories blur over time, but it seems he took the UH job because he wasn’t exactly a hot coaching candidate after ugly departures from Texas and George Washington.
But let’s not quibble over silly little details.
"I’m just glad I got the chance to go out on my own terms," he said.
Now about that. He apparently walked into a Sunday afternoon meeting with Rhoades and resigned before they got around to discussing whether he was welcome to stay.
We may never know. However, it speaks volumes that Penders and UH will negotiate a buyout of the remaining $500,000 on his contract.
Since UH is losing money by the buckets, it’s hard to imagine Rhoades giving Penders more than a handshake if there wasn’t something else at play.
Now UH will find out if someone else can do the things Penders couldn’t. It’s no sure thing, but it’s a chance worth taking.