What has been rumored since even before the basketball season began came true today. There was a press conference at the University of Houston in which it was announced that Tom Penders would not be returning as the head coach of the Houston Cougars.
There was a strangeness about the atmosphere of the press conference as various sources had reported yesterday that Penders was definitively on his way out. The only question was how he was leaving, voluntarily or by force. And even those who said he was retiring were saying that he was taking retirement in place of being fired.
But Tom Penders sat at a table next to Athletic Director Mack Rhoades, a red University of Houston banner behind them, and he stated for all to hear that the decision was his, and his alone.
"Despite speculation, the truth is, I have decided to resign as the men's head basketball coach at the University of Houston," Penders said. "And I may decide to pursue other opportunities -- in and out of basketball. I'm not retiring. I hate that, when coaches do that 'I'm retiring to spend more time with my family.' I would definitely not last long if I did that. I came to the University of Houston in 2004 with a goal of getting UH back to the NCAA Tournament. We achieved this goal, and now it's time for me to move on."
In fact, as Penders noted in his statement and when answering questions, he is a man who is known for moving on. His moniker, Turnaround Tom, came about because he gained fame for building programs, then leaving the school for other, more difficult challenges.
"My deal has always been build, win, establish, and move on," he 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."
When asked on when he made the decision to retire, Penders looked at his watch and jokingly responded "about 45 minutes ago." But turning serious, he said the decision was one arrived at yesterday while meeting with Rhoades to discuss the future of the program.
But then, possibly to detract attention from the timing -- coming as it did so soon after the team's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1992 -- Penders stated that this was something he and his wife had been discussing with each other since before this season began.
Penders thanked his staff, his players -- current and former -- and Rhoades and the entire school administration. He noted the depths to which the program had sunk when he came in, and he said he was proud of where the program stands now, as he departs.
"We'll go down in history as a team that brought UH back to national prominence. And I am so proud of my players and staff. I am confident that Mack Rhoades will be able to build on our success, and I wish him and the program all of the best."
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In talking of his accomplishments at the school, along with citing his wins and the conference title, Penders stated that he was most proud of his team's academic record. He returned to the academics several times throughout his statement, and when answering questions from the media -- he repeatedly noted that none of his players were on academic probation, and that he never lost a player due to academics in six years at the university.
"It's been a great, great run," Penders said. "I want to emphasize again that I am not retiring. I'm too young, I've got too much energy, and too much passion, and I can't wait for the next challenge."
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
Athletic Director Mack Rhoades noted that negotiations are ongoing regarding the buyout of Penders' contract, which has two years remaining. Rhoades did state that the eventual settlement would be favorable for Penders....Rhoades also stated that he has not discussed the opening with any current or former head coaches, or with any current or former assistant coaches. He acknowledged a good relationship with former UTEP, Texas A&M, and Kentucky head coach Billy Gillespie, who Rhoades helped to hire while Rhoades was with UTEP. But Rhoades stated that he has not talked to Gillespie about the opening, nor does he yet know if he will be speaking to Gillespie regarding the position....Rhoades dismissed as erroneous reports that a search firm has already been retained to assist in the search for a replacement, though he did affirm that he would be contacting such a firm.