When Tom Penders got the news last January, he had to keep it to himself. Thanks to the pandemic, he had to keep the secret far longer than intended, for nearly a year, and from a whole lot of people.
But now the world can know: The former UConn guard who coached at seven schools is going into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
"I took a rather circuitous route," says Penders, who at 75 still enjoys a good laugh, a bit of irony and as many basketball games as he can watch, record, fit into his day. "Normally, these honors are for guys like Jim (Calhoun), who can take a school to heights it had never been before and stay there."
Penders will join Calhoun, who was among this Hall's founding class in 2006, and he will be the first UConn grad to go in. The classes of 2020, including Penders, and 2021 were announced Sunday and will be inducted in Kansas City next November.
"I didn't have one family," Penders says. "I had seven families. Plus two high school teams. The first thing that goes through your mind, at least through mine, is the very start of your career at age 23, being named the coach at Bullard Havens in Bridgeport. One of my tri-captains, Charlie Bentley, became one of the greatest coaches in Connecticut high school basketball, at Harding High, and so I had to tell him."
At one stop after another, entertaining, winning basketball arrived with Tom Penders. Though he had his battles and sometimes departed amid controversy, there would always be another school that wanted him. In Broadway terms, he was Professor Harold Hill, except he really could lead a band.
Bullard Havens Tech in 1968 is the time and place where Penders first pulled off his signature trick: the quick turnaround. With 16 of 20 games on the road, Bullard Havens was 14-6. The next season, at Bridgeport Central, Penders was 23-2. At his first college job, Tufts in 1971-72, he finished 12-8, and 54-18 in three seasons.
It took Penders three years to turn Columbia and Fordham, which he led to five NITs, into winning programs, but when he got to Rhode Island, taking over on the eve of the 1986-87 season, Penders went 20-10 in Year 1. After leading the Rams to the Sweet 16 in 1988, he moved on to Texas, taking his up-tempo style and love of the 3-pointer with him.
"I was making $50,000 at Rhode Island," Penders says, "and then Texas put another zero on my contract."
First year at Texas? 25-9. At George Washington in 1998? 20-9. His last coaching job at Houston? 18-14. In his first seasons, Penders won 56.8% of his games with players he inherited.