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Dime Q&A: Tom Penders Surviving And Thriving In College Hoops

There are few coaches in college hoops that have seen success in the Northeast and the Southwest and have lived to tell about it. One of them is recently retired Connecticut native, Tom Penders. Penders took four schools (Rhode Island, George Washington, Houston and Texas) to the NCAA Tournament – Fordham actually won the MAAC title and didn’t get a bid because the conference was not yet eligible – and retired trailing only three active coaches (Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Calhoun in games coached.

Throughout his career Penders was one of the most quotable and friendly voices to the media, and earned a reputation as a player’s coach with a style that emphasized defense and moving the ball. His style also earned him a reputation as someone who could bring a program back and do it the right way. He experienced success at every level, all the while keeping a very dangerous heart condition private.

All this is discussed in Dead Coach Walking, his recently released biography. In addition to discussing the differences he battled at each stop, Penders speaks out against the NCAA and AAU, and provides his opinion on what can be done to fix the issues in college sports today. We caught up with Coach for a very candid Q&A:

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Dime: What’s the simplest thing that the NCAA can do to help correct the wrongs in college basketball?
Tom Penders: Require extensive background checks administered by a legitimate governing body consisting of NCAA and AAU affiliates for management and coaching positions. Summer evaluation periods should also be eliminated. Why not ban all contact between players and AAU coaches, sponsors and other affiliates?

High school organizations in each state should follow a similar background check rule so pre-college adolescents are protected from obvious dangers of exploitation and other possible acts of a criminal nature. This measure should also be accompanied by a rule that prohibits college basketball coaches from attending any AAU-sponsored event for a five-year period to determine effects on recruiting; give the power back to high school coaches who generally have the absolute best interest of the kids at heart, rather than trying to make a profit off of them. It’s gotten out of hand, and extreme action must be taken by the NCAA as soon as possible rather than ignoring the situation as it now exists.

In 2010, the Conference Commissioners Association voted unanimously, with the right intentions in mind, to ban summer evaluation periods. The rule has been tabled because of outspoken, high-profile coaches who are perfectly content with the situation as-is.

Dime: Where would you rather coach, Northeast or Southwest?
TP: Without hesitation, Northeast. College basketball officials in the Southwest seemed to be roughly 20 years behind the officials in the Northeast; had no clue about simple basic things like the jump stop and consistency in the block-charge calls. On a regular basis, games would break into free-throw shooting contests in the last 15 minutes.

Dime: Who was your favorite player most players would not know and why?
TP: Tony Censullo. He was a walk-on for two years at Fordham and earned a scholarship with his hard work and dedication after his father passed away at a very young age. He was invaluable as a practice player and leader on and off the basketball court. He’s now gone on to a successful career on Wall Street and remains extremely close to me.

Dime: What player had the most talent but underachieved?
TP: Albert Burditt while I was at Texas. I loved him dearly and still am very close, but he was often distracted and only practiced the game when organized practice was started. He stood at 6-8 and had phenomenal talent and athleticism with a 42-inch vertical jump. One of the most delightful people I’ve ever coached.

Dime: Of all your NCAA trips, which was most satisfying?
TP: Unquestionably, taking the Houston Cougars to the NCAA Tournament in 2010. During the preseason and regular season, so-called experts had not picked us to do much of anything. We won four games in four days to prove everyone wrong and led the Cougars to their first-ever Conference USA championship. A close second would be URI, my first trip ever and we landed in the Sweet 16.

Dime: Were you ever in the running for the New York Knicks job?
TP: I took myself out of the running; was never offered the job. Had been a finalist along with Pat Riley in 1991.

Dime: Who was the greatest player you ever coached against?
TP: Michael Jordan. Fordham vs. UNC. Greatest player that ever lived, in my opinion. I could easily see what he was about to become and NBA scouts felt the same.

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