Guy V. Lewis last coached the University of Houston men's basketball team in 1986. His last great team lost in the 1984 NCAA title game to the Georgetown Hoyas. He left a legacy of 27 straight winning seasons. Fourteen seasons with 20-plus wins. Fourteen NCAA tournament appearances. Five Final Fours and two championship games.
That's a history that many college problems would die to have.
But since 1986, the Houston Cougars have been living off of that history. And living off history doesn't really much help the present.
Pat Foster succeeded Lewis, and he, at least, kept up his end of the bargain. In his seven seasons, the school went to the NCAA tournament three times and the NIT three times. But by his departure, the program was running on fumes. And after the tenures of Alvin Brooks, Clyde Drexler, and Ray McCallum, the Houston Cougar basketball program was in shreds and about to be deposited in the dustbin of history.
Enter Tom Penders.
Penders came to Houston with a history of turning around college basketball programs, hence the nickname Turnaround Tom. Which came about by leading the likes of Rhode Island to the Sweet Sixteen in just his second season as head coach, and starting at Texas a basketball program which is now usually one of the top ranked in the country.
Penders is entering his sixth season as the head coach of the Cougars. And while the program has yet to return to the heights of the early-1980s, it has risen far from the depths of the early part of this decade.
"We've turned the program around," Penders told Hair Balls. "It's not as far around as I want it to be. My goals are always higher than my university's goals. I'm very proud of how far we've come. We went from the bottom of the league team, consistent bottom -- two, three -- to consistent top three....It's been Memphis, UAB, Houston, then it's a big drop-off in terms of record, conference record, postseason play. I'm very proud of that."
Penders calls the program a diamond in the rough. One that can be as good as it wants to be.
The "University of Houston has the potential to be a consistent top 25 team," he said. But "it's a lot more difficult and complex today than when they had the great teams in the `80s. It's far more difficult."
While becoming a winning team has essentially happened overnight -- Penders is the only coach in school history to have five consecutive 18-plus win seasons -- the return to the top 25 is something that takes a little longer. And it's a process that Penders compares to what he went through with Texas.
"It was a sleeping giant that they had never cared about, but they were tired of seeing the University of Houston and Arkansas on national TV and having a lot of money come in through basketball, and that's what Texas wanted me to bring. Which I did. When I came to the University of Houston, it was please get us respectable. No lofty goals, 'Top this, top that.' Just 'We need to get this program respectable and relevant.'"
Penders has made the program relevant. While the Cougars have yet to reach the NCAA tournament, they've made the NIT twice, and they've twice advanced to the College Basketball Invitational. But with Dr. Renu Khator, the school's new president and chancellor, and Mack Rhoades, the new athletic director, Penders says that things are going to change.
"And now we have a new chancellor...who addressed the importance of having a great athletic program. That was never addressed by our last president. And we had an athletic director [Dave Maggard] who did a very good job of changing the culture from accepting losing to winning."
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But there's only so much that a coach and a changed culture can do. Every coach wants to win. But a coach can't do anything without support. It has to come from the very top, from the president and the regents. Something Penders feels is now happening. "And now with Dr. Khator at the top here, I feel like there's a strong possibility that we can really grow," he says.
But Penders isn't satisfied. Not with more work still do.
"Quite frankly," he said, "if I had already gotten us to where I want us, I probably would either have quit or moved on. That's kind of been my thing my whole career. To take some of the worst programs in the country" and make them consistent winners.
The Houston Cougars are no longer one of the worst programs in the county. But Turnaround Tom still has some turning around to do. And he's confident that he'll get it done.