Tom Penders has been tasked with returning the Houston Cougar basketball program to relevance. And that's a task at which he feels he's been successful. But he's yet to succeed with the ultimate goal of basketball relevance, and that's getting into the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Now, the Cougars have won basketball games in Penders' five seasons coaching the team. But they haven't won enough. And for the most part, they haven't won the right games because they've been defeating teams in Conference USA.
During the Cougars' last great basketball run, the team was a member of the Southwest Conference. And in those "glory days of the Southwest Conference," Penders tells Hair Balls, "when you had the University of Houston and Arkansas driving the bus, that conference was respected as one of the top four or five conferences in the country. Now we're in a conference that's not considered in the top -- we're around anywhere from 10 to 12 -- so it makes it a little more difficult in that regard."
For most of C-USA's existence, especially since the departure of Louisville after the 2000-2001 season, the conference has been seen by the basketball elite as Memphis and a bunch of nobodies. And for most of their tenure in C-USA, the Cougars have been among the worst of the nobodies.
Now the Cougars are no longer the worst of the worst. But they still have to deal with that whole C-USA reputation thing.
"And then we have a bunch of schools in our league that are trying to reach the same level [as Memphis] but maybe don't have the same vehicle," he says. "It's like competing in the Indy 500 and you've got a 1985 Buick, and it's got power this, and power that. Maybe that's not what you need to compete."
Part of the problem has been that Memphis has been so good that the rest of the conference just couldn't compete in terms of talent, in terms of reputation, and in terms of money spent on the program -- and let's hope the rest of the conference doesn't find a way to compete with Memphis when it comes to NCAA violations.
Conference USA doesn't have a true football power that looms over the rest of the teams like Memphis does in basketball, but if it did, the reputation of the conference would probably be even worse.
"I think some of that is unfair because when you have -- and I've argued this -- I said, sincerely, what if you put Southern Cal in our football conference," Penders said. "How many other teams would be considered top 25 or big time or whatever. That's what we had. The big elephant in the room was Memphis who was spending three and four times what we've been spending on our sport, and it shows. If you spend money, you're going to make money usually, unless it's just poorly invested. And Memphis put a ton of money into facilities and chartered flights and all of that stuff. Staff. All those things."
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But John Calipari has departed Memphis, as have some of its better players, and Penders believes that UH is one of several teams angling to take over the top spot and an NCAA berth. The improved UH chances come, Penders says, because the team's recruiting has been improving since he arrived.
And the primary cause of that improvement comes from the team returning to its winning ways. "The reason for it is we have been a consistent winner for four years," he says. "It's very hard to sell that in your first couple of years after the program's been so down. Kids want to be on winning teams. So our pool of recruiting, the pool of guys we're recruiting and dealing with and our serious about us, are better than maybe three/four years ago because we're winning. We're getting some television exposure. I think we have eight or nine games on this year. That's important to recruits. We're not necessarily selling the beauty and the luxury of our team room or anything like that. It's about coming here and being part of success. That's what we've been selling. Some schools show you the bells and whistles and all that. We're not there yet, but we're building on that. Our new athletic director is addressing all of that. And I think our recruiting is going to get even better when we get to that point."
Basketball season begins in a little over a week, and if there is ever to be a season for the Cougars to make a return to the glory of the NCAA tournament, then this season just might be the one.
After all, Memphis is no longer the automatic king of the conference.