NEW YORK — On Oct. 2, 1986, Tom Penders, the basketball coach at Fordham University, called his players together. He had stunning news: After seven years at Fordham, he was resigning to become the coach at Rhode Island.
His name had been linked with other coaching jobs in the past. It was common knowledge that he was job-hunting. He had openly sought the University of Miami job in 1984 and his name had been mentioned in connection with other schools.
The players had heard this and they knew that Penders and Fordham Athletic Director Frank McLaughlin were not on the best of terms. Yet, when Penders told them he was leaving, they were shocked. The start of practice was only 13 days away. Even Bob Quinn, Penders' top assistant and close friend, was stunned.
"I knew Tom was going to Rhode Island to talk about the job," he said. "But I never expected him to come back and say, 'I'm going.' It caught everyone by surprise. . . . The young kids were confused. The seniors felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them. I figured I was out of a job. It was messy."
What Quinn and the players did not know was that Penders' resignation was merely the opening act in a season-long melodrama. It is a story that involves resignations and firings, rumors, innuendo and confusion. It involves one game in which Fordham almost blew an eight-point lead in the final second and another suspended because of a death in the stands. There is one miracle victory that defies belief and five straight overtime losses that mystify everyone.
"It's been wild, right from the day Penders left," said Andre McClendon, a freshman guard. "One day it's one thing; the next day it's something else. Just when you think nothing crazier can happen, something does. You get to the point where you don't even think about things anymore because, if you do, you'll be crazy, too."
Fordham is a Catholic school in the Bronx with about 8,400 undergraduates. It has a long basketball tradition, although its most famous alumnus was football player Vince Lombardi. Its campus, hard by the Pelham and Mosholu parkways, is a pretty pocket of land in an otherwise dreary area.
Fordham's basketball teams have been to the NCAA tournament three times, in 1953-54 and 1971. That last time, the coach was Richard (Digger) Phelps, a 29-year-old upstart who took a talented group of players recruited by his predecessor, Ed Conlin, and got them to believe in themselves. The Rams went 26-3, upset Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden and took then top-ranked Marquette into overtime before losing. That team sold out the Garden twice and breathed life into New York City basketball. Phelps became a folk hero.
"We didn't even understand what we were doing," said McLaughlin, who was paid $8,000 that year as the school's first full-time assistant coach.
Fordham finally lost in the NCAA round of 16 to Villanova. But the future was bright, until Phelps walked out on a long-term contract to move to Notre Dame. He went from hero to traitor overnight. To this day, mention of his name on the Fordham campus is likely to draw a glare.
With Phelps gone, the program slipped and, by the time Penders came on the scene for the 1978-79 season, the Rams were not even a shadow of what they once had been. Penders, who had pulled a tattered program together at Columbia, did the same at Fordham. The Rams made the National Invitation Tournament five straight seasons, but they couldn't quite make it back to the NCAAs.
In the fall of 1985, McLaughlin returned. A 1969 Fordham graduate who had grown up only a couple of miles from campus, he had gone with Phelps to Notre Dame and then become the head coach at Harvard.
But Fordham called him. Would he be interested in returning to his alma mater as athletic director? "I told them no," he said. Fordham persisted. The money was good and it was home. He dislikes recruiting, even relatively low-key Ivy League recruiting. "I'm not a workaholic," he said.
He took the job in October, 1985. Penders, who had wanted the job himself, was not thrilled. The two didn't have any major fights that year, but they didn't go out for a beer together very often, either. That season, for the first time in six years, Fordham didn't make the NIT, finishing 13-17. McLaughlin wrote Penders during the summer, saying he saw no reason why Fordham should not win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title occasionally and "take the next step."
Penders had called his first five years the greatest in Fordham history. Yet, McLaughlin's message was clear: do more. "When I saw that letter," Quinn said, "I was amazed. Tommy had one bad year and he was out of favor."