ElViento: Can you believe that as recently as two games ago, some idiot was comparing this Houston Cougar basketball team to a hot female? Yikes.
Don’t let yourself get suckered into believing any different; this program will never get off the ground with Tom Penders. I honestly believe that athletics director Mack Rhoades will do everything within his power to remove Penders as coach this off-season, but with the University of Houston athletics department currently saving up for a remodel/rebuilding of Robertson Stadium and/or Hofheinz Pavilion, a buyout might just not be in the budget, which would mean two more years of Penders-coached basketball. Sure, the anti-Penders crowd will have two more years of weeping and teeth-gnashing, but ultimately, those two years will have little effect on Tom’s legacy on Cullen Boulevard. In fact, as the title of this little write-up might suggest, his lasting impression on the Cougar faithful has already been left, and can be readily defined.
Penders is what Art Briles would have been in a few years if he had never left for Baylor. Briles took over a football program that was one year removed from a winless season and guided the Cougars to a bowl game in his first campaign. In his five years at the helm of the program, his teams earned four bowl berths. Up until he left, he was a wildly popular coach among the Houston faithful, largely due to the fact that he was getting us to bowl games on a regular basis. He was achieving the goal most fans had for the program. The Cougar football program had made just two bowl appearances in the fourteen years before Briles, and suddenly bowl games started looking like an every year deal. That’s what we wanted. Now, had he hung around long enough, people would have realized that we would have never gotten to the next level of national prominence under Briles. He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) recruit the big-time kids in the Houston area, opting to go with the hit-or-miss philosophy of recruiting kids from smaller towns and smaller schools. His teams were undisciplined, racking up a mind-boggling number of penalties of the “illegal procedure” and “too many men in the huddle” variety. He placed a frightening lack of emphasis on special teams, which seemed to cost the Cougars a game every year. Eventually, Houston would have thanked Briles for the work he did, shown him the door, and looked for a coach who could take the next step. What actually happened was the best possible scenario. Briles left voluntarily, and in a manner that ensured that nobody would miss him. In stepped a coach in Kevin Sumlin who seems capable of getting Houston back to national prominence. Recruiting is way up, stupid penalties are way down. (And we have more excellent water slides than any other planet we communicate with!…anybody?)
You may remember that back when I was still talking about basketball, I referred to the “anti-Penders crowd” in the third person, disassociating myself from the group, despite the fact that just a few sentences prior, I was calling for Penders to be removed as coach. I honestly do not consider myself part of that group. Allow me to explain why, in characteristically verbose fashion.
Penders is Briles. He took over a program that had just one winning season in the eight prior to his arrival, and just one ten-win season out of the previous five. It was a basketball program in disarray, at least to the extent that the football program was prior to Briles’ arrival. In fact, I would argue that the basketball program was in worse shape. The improvement from Dana Dimel‘s last season to Briles’ first was just a game and a half. Look it up, Dimel’s Coogs went 5-7 in 2002, Briles’ Cougars went 7-6 in ’03. Penders took UH from 9-18 (3-13 in C-USA) to the NIT in year one. Since then, Penders has won 20 games three times, and never failed to win at least 18 – although he probably will not make it this year. Like Briles, Penders has never been able to pull in the big-time Houston-area recruits. And while his teams have been impressive in some areas (like being near the top in the nation in turnover margin year-in and year-out), there always seems to be a fatal flaw that derails the train – poor shot selection more often than not.
Penders also suffers from the much higher standards that come with basketball. When Briles got here, he immediately began achieving the goal of getting to bowl games regularly. However, in hoops, the goal is the NCAA tournament, and nothing less. So while NIT berths were nice, they were just a stepping stone to the real goal. It’s a pretty stark double-standard. Consider that, as of the 2009-10 athletic year, 57% of NCAA division 1-A football teams make a bowl game (68 out of 120), while just 19% of basketball teams make the NCAA tournament (65 out of 347). Not to mention that you don’t have to worry about the New Hampshires of the world stealing bowl bids the way that lesser teams get automatic tournament berths in basketball for winning their conference. If Penders were judged by football standards, each of his first five teams has been a “bowl team”. And while Briles was praised for quickly getting the team consistently bowl-eligible, Penders gets slammed for not making the NCAA tournament.
It would be dishonest to discuss the Cougar basketball program without discussing some of the difficulties that the program faces. Funding for Cougar basketball is non-existent. So is the Cougar fan base. I love the Hof for all of its history, but it is older than the Pyramids. The city of Houston produces its fair share of basketball talent, but only at a fraction of the rate that it churns out football players. In football, the three hotbeds are California, Texas and Florida. Most basketball talent comes out of the northeast.
The reality of the expectations of taking on the Cougar men’s basketball head coaching job remain, however. Penders knew this when he signed up for the job. It’s NCAA tournament or bust. Even with a shoestring budget, even with sparse crowds, Cougar fans know that UH has been a powerhouse basketball program in the past, and don’t think that occasional tournament teams are too much to ask. And Penders flat-out hasn’t lived up to his “Tournament Tom” moniker. That’s why it’s time for a new coach. Maybe we’ll hire a Sumlin, maybe we’ll hire a Ray McCallum, maybe we’ll just hire another Penders. But it’s time to try something new.
It is the constant vitriol from the majority of the anti-Penders camp that keeps me from associating myself with them. He’s always been nice to me, he cares deeply about this university and this basketball program, and he’s done some very impressive things here. This should count for something. Maybe the modern recruiting game has passed him by, we’ll probably never reach the Big Dance with him, and I hope we have a new coach next year. Just don’t tell me he’s a horrible coach, don’t attack his character, and don’t tell me you’re a true fan while simultaneously telling me you won’t attend games until he leaves.
If this has been Penders’ obituary, here is his epitaph:
Tom Penders (2004-?): Exactly the coach that the University of Houston fan base deserved.
(Photo credit – Hofheinz Pavilion: jtdees, ScottAndHolman.com)