It’s easy to believe Tom Penders when he says he has stumbled into a perfect opportunity.
Easing back in his slick brown leather chair after an early-season practice, he rattles off the reasons he spurned a lucrative television broadcasting offer and became the 23rd coach of the GW men’s basketball team.
“This is a job where I could do something special,” he says. “I’m not coming into a school where if you don’t get to the `Final Four’ you’re a bum, but it’s not a stretch anymore to say that GW could make a serious run. And I’ve never had the opportunity to take over at a school where the program is in good shape. I’m surrounded by good basketball people, from the athletic director on down.”
It hasn’t always been this comfortable for Penders. At his five previous jobs in college coaching – Tufts, Columbia and Fordham universities, and the universities of Rhode Island and Texas – Penders had to rebuild crumbling programs. This time he’s taking over a winning team, a privilege not lost on Penders.
“I’m here to carry on what Coach (Mike) Jarvis established,” he says. “Some of the freshmen that come to GW might not know what Coach Jarvis did here. They don’t know that eight years ago when he came here, you could have shot off a cannon in the Smith Center and not hit anyone.”
Penders understands the challenge of rebuilding a program. He has molded five losing teams into winners, amassing 478 victories in his 27 years in college coaching.
Last season, his 10th at the University of Texas, was a disappointing one, at least by Penders’ standards. The Longhorns finished 14-17 and missed the NCAA Tournament, only the second time in the last 11 years that a Penders-coached team failed to make the NCAAs. The season was followed by a tumultuous three weeks in which several players publicly criticized Penders. Controversy erupted after an assistant coach leaked guard Luke Axtell’s grades to an Austin radio station – breaking federal law and NCAA regulations and leading to Penders’ resignation.
Penders then signed a contract with Host Communications to become a television analyst, before backing out to come to GW.
“Until (GW Director of Athletics) Jack Kvancz called me and recruited me, I really didn’t think I was ever going to coach again,” Penders says. “Not because I was disenchanted, but because I had a great career in television right there. But I know Jack and trust Jack, and I still love coaching.”
Penders, who has known Kvancz since the two were point guards on rival high school teams in Connecticut, said trust is the key component that was missing at Texas. Penders says he felt he had to resign after 10 successful seasons, which included trips to the “Elite Eight” and “Sweet 16.”
“It was a crazy situation and a whole lot of politics,” Penders says. “I have a lot of good friends at Texas, I love the university. It was hard leaving. But I felt I had to resign because I had lost the support of my athletic director. It would have been very difficult to continue.”
Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds has not commented publicly on Penders’ resignation, only saying Penders did a great job at Texas.
“Last year at Texas, you couldn’t see where you were going, everything was so hidden,” says GW assistant Rob Wright, who followed Penders from Texas. “(GW) is a big change from last year, you can see the light in front of you. You can see where you’re going.”
“(Penders) has an AD he can trust and that is the most important part of it,” says GW assistant coach Tommy Penders Jr., who was an assistant at Rhode Island last year. “After a tough year, which last year was, he needed to be around people who he could trust.”
Penders has no regrets about his time at Texas. It was the job that gave him the most national recognition. He partially credits his success at Texas to his many years coaching at out-of-the-way basketball schools such as Tufts, Columbia and Fordham.
“If we had ever gotten to an NCAA Tournament at Fordham, it probably would have brought on an NCAA investigation,” he says. “I toiled for a lot of years in oblivion, so to speak, but I learned how to coach and I learned a lot about myself, and that experience set me up to really enjoy the last 12 years of coaching.”
For Penders, coaching always has been about teaching, imparting little lessons about life through basketball.
“Anybody can win, anybody can handle winning, it’s how you bounce back from disappointment that teaches you the most,” he says.
Penders always has been a teacher, and not just on the basketball court.
After graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1967, Penders was drafted by the Cleveland Indians. In the off-season, when he wasn’t playing third base for Cleveland’s Class-AA affiliate, Penders was a substitute teacher at a local high school. He fell into coaching almost by accident.
When the school’s basketball coach quit, the principal – knowing Penders had been the starting point guard at UConn – asked him to take the job. After a couple of seasons, he gave up baseball to become a full-time basketball coach.
And foreshadowing things to come, Penders turned the program into a title contender.
“At age 23, I took the `Bad News Bears’ and almost won the state championship,” he says.
Thirty years later, Penders says he has found a perfect job.
“I couldn’t have made a blueprint for a better situation for Tom Penders and his family,” he says. “I’m enjoying coaching now more than I ever have before. I feel very lucky. There are so many people out there who don’t enjoy what they’re doing and have no chance to be happy. But I’m very happy here, this is my type of situation.”
He looks comfortable, relaxing behind his wooden desk in a spacious office packed with pictures and mementos. He glances out his window. The Smith Center looms across the street, a heavy October sun is setting in the background.
“You go through life hoping you’ll get a chance to do something very special and I have that chance here,” he says. “I would love to take this program to a national championship. I may not be able to do it. But the enjoyment is in the journey – in the challenge of going after it.”
At a Glance
Years at GW: 0
Years in coaching: 27 (478-319)
Before GW: Coached at Tufts, Columbia, Fordham, Rhode Island and Texas
-Nine NCAA appearances in last 11 years.
-Reached the “Sweet 16” two times
-Reached the “Elite Eight” 1989-’90
-Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year (1987)
-Two Southwest Conference titles