It was rather surreal inside the Carl Lewis Auditorium at the University of Houston Athletics/Alumni Center yesterday afternoon. Let's start with members of the Houston media actually showing up for something that didn't involve a free buffet -- there hasn't been that large a contingent of media on hand sense the football team played Texas Tech.
There was the fact that we were gathered for a press conference in which Tom Penders was supposedly resigning as head coach of the Houston Cougar men's basketball team, yet all discussion with Mack Rhoades, his boss and who he would be sitting next to, about the future of the program had to wait until Penders had departed, out of respect.
The most surreal thing was perhaps the timing. Penders had been stating for over a week that he wasn't resigning, and that he would return to coach the team next season. But the stories started coming out last week -- well, they started before the season -- that Penders was history. Yet he got the team to the Big Dance, so it was thought that his job was safe for another year.
But here was Penders, his wife sitting in the audience, and he seated to the right of Rhoades emphatically stating that all of the rumors were wrong. He was not being forced to resign. This was all his decision.
"My deal has always been build, win, establish, and move on," Penders said. "I don't know how to handle a job any other way. I have no experience in taking on a program that's been successful, and quite frankly, I don't like to hear how great the last coach was, or this is the way he did it. The University of Houston has allowed me to put my stamp on everything that I could. And I appreciate that, because you can't do it if your hands or tied."
But when Penders was gone, the talk was about what needed to be done to make the UH an elite program, and about the leap of faith a new coach is going to have to make in taking over the Cougars.
"Quite frankly," Rhoades said. "I as the director of athletics, know what we don't have. I'm very aware of that. And I'm very confident that over time we will work to get some of those resources. So we're going to hire somebody that understands that. Somebody that's going to come in and work together with me and the rest of our talented administration. And we're going to work together to build that program."
Penders spoke of the players he recruited and graduated. He spoke of the pride that he had in them. And he spoke of the high bar for excellence that he had established. Rhoades spoke of a deteriorating program in need of a major overhaul. One that had to make use of local resources and tap the local talent -- one of the biggest criticisms of Penders has been his reliance on juco players not from the Houston area.
Penders stressed that he was moving on because it was time to move on, stating multiple times that he was not retiring, but moving on to new challenges because he's a man who needs challenges. He joked of having reached his decisions minutes before the press conference, then admitted that he made the decision while meeting with Rhoades on Sunday to discuss the team's future. Rhoades admitted that they had a great meeting (Penders stressed the same thing), but his focus was on the future. The future of the team. The future for Penders. How Penders having only two years remaining on his contract would affect recruiting.
"He certainly initiated, certainly initiated, the opportunity to resign," Rhoades said when discussing the meeting with Penders. "In terms of compensation, and all of those things, candidly, right now it would be premature for me to even talk about them. I will tell you that we will work with Tom to negotiate a fair exit. Absolutely. It's what he deserves."
That answer leads to a bigger, unasked question. If Penders resigned, why a contract buyout? What is there to negotiate? So maybe, just maybe, Penders really did make the decision himself, but he had a little help in coming to the decision. (In fairness, when I interviewed Penders before the season, he stated that he would have probably left the school already had the team reached the NCAA Tournament.)
But with Penders gone, from his job, and from the room, the questions turned to the future. Rhoades reiterated that he had yet to talk to any potential coaching candidates, especially that he had not yet talked to Billy Gillespie, the former coach of UTEP, Texas A&M, and Kentucky. Rhoades, while at UTEP, was part of the group that helped to make Gillespie the head coach.
Rhoades stated multiple times that he was open to hiring just about anybody for the job: former and current NCAA head coaches; former and current NCAA college assistants; high school coaches. Anybody with whom he could work, and with whom would share his vision for the future.
"This is a hard job," Rhoades said about the coaching position. "This is a hard job because you have a lot of things that maybe other schools have that you don't, so [Penders] did a terrific job of moving that needle forward. Now it's certainly my job, our job, with the next head coach, to move that even further. And I think we can do that. We'll do our due diligence and look at every candidate possible. I think that so much of hiring a head coach, too, is fit. I think there are a lot of people out there that can X-and-O and do a great job coaching the game. But I think you look beyond that, and you look to see what's a good fit for your institution. Look at your strength. Look at your weaknesses, and look at who can address that."
And while Rhoades said that he wasn't even sure if he would call Gillespie, lots of things that Rhoades mentioned as a criteria for the job seemed to fit Gillespie.
"I think when you hire a head coach, it's a partnership. And I really believe that. I really do. What you do is you hire the right person. And then you sit down and you really develop that plan together on how we're going to get there. For me to hire somebody and say, look I expect you to win 30 games and go the NCAA Tournament, etc., and do that in two years. That's not fair. What you do is you hire the right person, then you look, and you work together and you say okay, here's the things that we need to accomplish so that we can get our program to a point where we're experiencing post season play on a regular basis. That we're competing for a conference championship, that we're going to the NCAA Tournament. That is what we'll put in place, and that is how we will address it."
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Rhoades has done this in the past with Gillespie. They did it it at UTEP. Gillespie went to a floundering A&M program and put it in such a position that it's bypassing football as the primary sport at that school. He wasn't successful at Kentucky, and he had several personal issues at Kentucky and after leaving Kentucky which help make an interest in the UH job -- at about the same salary Penders was getting -- attractive for the University and Gillespie.
Houston would be a good spot for Gillespie to rehabilitate an image destroyed while he was at Kentucky. He would be under the radar in a minor conference. It would makes him the underdog again, something which he seemed to relish while at UTEP and Texas A&M. He's a coach who knows the state, and the local area. Such a move would allow the UH to make a big splash, while at the same time hiring a good Xs-and-Os coach who has shown that he can work with the athletic director, and because of his image problems, they might be able to get him a good price, something like what they were paying Penders.
But that's all the big unknown. That's just a probably poor attempt to read between the lines. The certainty is that Tom Penders, only days after having coached a Cougar team playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992, is out as coach.
Technically, he resigned. That's what he said. That's what he said, and that's what he reiterated. So that's the official record.