Tom Penders

Year: 1964 - 1967
Position: Guard
Hometown: Stratford, CT

Tom Penders was a Guard for the UConn Huskies from 1964 – 1967. He’s a member of the UConn Basketball All Century Ballot, is among career assist leaders, and has had great success as a college coach, currently about to begin his first season rebuilding a basketball program at the University of Houston, Texas. I had the pleasure of talking to Tom by telephone from Houston, in May 2004, as he reflected on his college experiences as a player and a coach.

Tom comes from a family with more baseball experience than basketball. His dad was a baseball coach at Stratford High School, his brother Jim is a baseball coach at East Catholic High School, and his brother Bill played baseball in college. Tom knew how to play baseball from the day he could walk, but he developed a love for basketball from hanging around the gym, and the high school players when his dad brought him to baseball practices and games.

Tom and I went back in time when he talked about listening to UConn basketball games with George Eurlik and Hap Richards, the WTIC Radio announcers, as they broadcast every UConn game. “I don’t think I missed a game from the time I was nine unless I was playing a game myself. I always wanted to go to UConn, and I wanted to play basketball. I just imagined myself playing in the Field House some day. My goal was to play basketball at UConn.”

During Tom’s senior year in high school he was being recruited for both basketball and baseball including schools in Florida where they start playing baseball in February. Tom was good enough to sign a baseball contract out of high school if he wanted to, but he wanted to go to UConn. UConn was recruiting him for both sports however, suddenly the UConn Head Basketball Coach Hugh Greer died, and it was unclear who the new basketball coach would be. Tom was only hoping whoever the new coach was, they’d want him. Fred Shabel (former assistant coach at Duke University) became the new coach, and he told Tom he’d let him play both sports, and that’s all Tom needed to hear.

When Tom got to UConn he said it was unbelievable. “We really had an outstanding freshman team, Wes Bialosuknia, Ron Ritter, Bill Holowaty, P.J. Curran, Dick Thompson, and myself.” The freshman team was going to play the varsity team for fun. There was quite a build up with a lot of hype for that game, however the day before they were going to play that game, President Kennedy was assassinated, and the whole nation stopped. It was a day Tom will never forget. The varsity/freshman game never took place, but that freshman team went on to an undefeated season. The following year the varsity team included Toby Kimball. “For a long period of time, we had the best record in UConn history. We had 23 wins and 3 losses. I had three great, great years there and probably played about 35 minutes a game during my career, and it was a lot of fun.”

Some memorable games were beating UMass at UMass in Tom’s senior year to clinch the Yankee Conference Crown, and beating Rhode Island to win the conference. Playing at home was incredible. Tom’s junior year was disappointing. The team suffered injuries, and tied Rhode Island for the Conference Championship. They had a playoff game with the winner moving on to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the loser going to the National Invitational Tournament. UConn lost, but going to the NIT back then was a good thing. It was played at Madison Square Garden, and many teams used to pass up the NCAA offer to go to the NIT, and play at MSG, however, Governor Dempsey, and UConn President Homer Babbidge advised the team that they were turning down the NIT invitation because they felt that too many outlaw schools participated in the NIT, and the team was very upset for a long time. Other than that one negative decision, UConn was a wonderful time for Tom. The last game Tom’s senior class played at home was against Rutgers University, and it seemed like the ovation went on for a half hour. UConn won easily, and it’s a game Tom will never forget. During Tom’s senior year he was captain of both the basketball and baseball teams.

Tom graduated from UConn with a Bachelors Degree in Marketing. After UConn, he was drafted in the 8th round of the National Baseball Association by the Cleveland Indians. He played for a year, made the All Star Team at the A level, and his batting average was .302. During the off season of baseball that year, he coached basketball at Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The team had a great year, winning more games than ever before. Tom planned to go back to baseball, but instead was offered the head coach position and a teaching job at Central High School in Bridgeport, CT. He stopped playing baseball to focus on his coaching career, and that was back in 1969.

Since then Tom has had great success with several programs that were in need of being turned around. He stayed at Central High School for two seasons and had a record of 43 wins and 3 losses. Then he moved to the college level, and was head coach at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts for three seasons. Prior to Tom, Tufts had 20 straight loosing seasons. Toms three years were winning seasons with a record of 54 wins and 18 losses. Next was Columbia University, at age 28 Tom was the youngest Division I coach in the country at the time. He was at Columbia for four years, and began to develop the reputation of turning lousy programs around. “Kind of mission impossible types of assignments, and I’m at another one right now.” After Columbia was Fordham University in New York for eight years with five straight post-season teams—Fordham had never experienced a run like that. Then Tom moved to Rhode Island University which the offer was a surprise because while playing at UConn there was a bitter rival between UConn and Rhode Island. Rhode Island said Tom was the player they disliked the most, he was a thorn in their side. “That was ironic that I ended up coaching at Rhode Island. That would be like a Red Sox Manager going to the Yankees.”

During Tom’s first year at Rhode Island, the team was picked to come in last in the Atlantic 10 Conference. They ended up winning 20 games, and came in 2nd place. The following year they won 28 and went to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Sweet Sixteen. Tom had no desire to leave Rhode Island, but the University of Texas began recruiting him, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. At Texas, prior to Tom, the team hadn’t been to the NCAA in ten years. For the prior six years they were 50 games under 500, the arena was empty, and they hadn’t had a televised game in seven years. Tom’s first season the team won 25 games, and went to the NCAA Elite Eight. The second season the arena was filled with fans, and television coverage took place. Two other seasons while he was there the team went to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

Tom stayed at Texas for ten years then he was ready for a change, and tried television. He covered the NCAA Final Four for ESPN2 in 1995. In the meantime, he was offered a coaching job at George Washington University in Washington DC, but having thought about getting into television and getting out of basketball, Tom’s heart wasn’t into coaching at GW. His first year at GW, the team won the Atlantic 10 regular season championship which had never been done before, but Tom didn’t feel like GW was the right fit for him. After three years he decided to leave, and take a break from coaching basketball. Next, he worked at ESPN and Westwood One Radio for a few years. He realized he missed basketball, had some offers he turned down, but decided if the right opportunity came along he’d coach again, and it did. Tom recently accepted the head basketball coaching position at the University of Houston, the rival of his former University of Texas team. “At the University of Houston, they have some tradition here; it’s just been dormant for the past 20 years.” Last year they won nine games, and the year before they won eight, and they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 20 years. Tom’s goal is to get back to the NCAA, fill up the arena with fans, and get some television coverage. Last year the team had no television games, yet in the 1980’s the University of Houston used to be the most televised team in the country. “I think we can win right away. We’ve got some good athletes so I think just a change in style is needed.”

In May, 2001 Tom was awarded the “Red O’Neil Award” which is the most prestigious award that is given to an alumni former athlete for distinguishing themselves in life after UConn. Tom has many memories as a coach, but said that at each school he has met many different people, has had an impact on many young peoples lives, and all of his players are a part of his extended family. The two years he spent at Rhode Island University were nice because it was so close to where he grew up in Stratford CT, and his mom was born in Rhode Island, and to be able to put Rhode Island on the map was incredible for him.

Tom still follows UConn basketball very closely. He’s very proud of his Alma Mater and thinks that Coach Calhoun has done a marvelous job at taking the program to the top. He believes that being the competitive person Coach Calhoun is, he’ll have a great team again next season. “They should be naming a building at UConn after Coach Calhoun if they haven’t already.” At UConn as a player, Tom said, “They always had a lot of pride in playing. It wasn’t just important to win, it was how you handled yourself, and that tradition has been carried on.” The coaches at UConn were all tremendous role models for Tom. He said he wouldn’t be in coaching if it weren’t for his years at UConn.

Throughout Tom’s years of coaching he’s had a number of kids who made it to the National Basketball Association. One that is still playing is former University of Texas player Chris Mims. One former player that is one of Tom’s favorite success stories is Tom Garrick from Rhode Island University. Tom Garrick’s father was blind, and Tom was the youngest of eight children. Tom Penders had accepted the Rhode Island job in October, and had 13 days before the season began. He talked to each player to get to know them, and when talking to Tom Garrick, Garrick told Penders that the former coach, just days before had suggested that he forget about basketball, and concentrate on football. Penders told Garrick he’d watch him a few days of practice, and evaluate him. “After watching him a few days, I thought he could be one of the best players I ever coached. Tom Garrick was a junior who only had two years to prove himself because the previous two years he averaged two points per game. He was a great athlete, the kind of kid who would just run through walls, a terrific leader who went on to become a great player, captain of my Rhode Island team that went to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen the following year and was the #1 pick of the Los Angeles Clippers, and played in the NBA for four years then went to Europe to play. He needed confidence, and I was able to instill confidence in him.” Garrick is now in the Hall of Fame at Rhode Island University and is probably the best player to have ever played there.

Tom Penders has been married to his wife, Susie, for 25 years. She loves basketball and is a property manager in commercial real estate. Tom has three children, Wendy, 35, who recently married, and lives in New York. Tommy, 32, is a basketball coach at Calhoun High School in Port Lavaca, Texas. Tommy played basketball and baseball at the University of Texas, and was an assistant coach at Rhode Island, but decided he wanted to coach at the high school level. He’s had opportunities to move up to the college level, but he’s in his second year, in the middle of rebuilding a program where he is that had been really down. He wants to leave as a champion when he decides to leave. Karli is age, 20, a sophomore in college transferring this year to the University of Houston. The girls were not basketball players but Karli is very good at figure skating.