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He's Won the Heart of Texas : College Basketball: Penders came from Rhode Island to show Longhorns there is more to life than football.

November 24, 1989|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Tex. — Can a Connecticut Yankee be king of the basketball court deep in the heart of the Texas hill country?

After all, this is the city of Threadgill's, where Janis Joplin washed down chicken-fried steak with a few bottles of beer; the town of the dearly departed Armadillo World Headquarters, where Willie Nelson donned a bandanna and reached for his 12-string guitar, the place Jerry Jeff Walker sang about rednecks.

There was a time when Tom Penders would have seemed out of place here and why not? After all, he was truly an East Coast-type of guy what with coaching jobs at Tufts, Columbia, Fordham and Rhode Island. But since he's transplanted himself, Penders sings a different tune as basketball coach at the University of Texas.

So far, 44-year-old Tom Penders is winning so many games and influencing so many people in the state capital that some are willing to embrace this high school coach's son from Stratford, Conn., forgive him his roots and call him one of their own.

Earl Deathe, 65, once managed many of President Lyndon Johnson's business interests during Johnson's White House years and now owns a custom-made boot store on Cameron Road. Deathe gave Penders a pair of ostrich boots, his initials stitched into the leather uppers between a Longhorn steer and a basketball stitched on either side.

"From the minute he landed here in Austin, he let it be known he would become a Texan," Deathe said. "I am damned proud to have him wearing my boots."

Coming off a 25-9 season and an NCAA tournament appearance, Penders begins his second year at the end of the Longhorns' bench with expectations about as lofty as one of those high notes his good buddy Willie can yank right out of the air.

Even though he is a fledgling Texan, Penders counts eight pairs of boots in his closet, each pair a gift. In his office behind his desk hangs a large oil painting of a longhorn steer standing at attention, given to him by Darrell Royal, the former Texas football coach and athletic director who was a member of the search committee that recommended Penders be hired.

Royal said he has grown close to the new basketball coach and believes that where Penders grew up should have no effect on his coaching. In fact, Royal dislikes making too much of regional differences.

"Here, we say thank and back east they may say think , but what's the big dee-ul ?" Royal said.

What, indeed? Penders, this kid who used to play croquet on the lawn in Connecticut, is getting invited to cow chip-throwing contests and a whole lot more.

"I judged an Arabian horse show," Penders said. "They wanted somebody who didn't know anything about horses, so I guess I filled the bill. I also judged a fajitas cook-off. Ate 32 of them. I haven't had a beef fajita since and that was in July. I liked them before.

"I was also guest grand marshal of a rodeo and wore a cowboy hat," he said. "I've got a bunch of those, too. One time, I went redfishing. In New York, you tell them that and they think you're looking for Communists."

Here, though, the locals are looking for a few good seasons. If expectations are up, so is attendance. Last year, the Longhorns had the biggest increase of all Division I schools--5,983 a game. Many who probably came to see Penders' fast-paced game are convinced there are no longer only two sports at Texas: football and spring football.

The Penders style of play is very much unlike that of his predecessor, Bob Weltlich, who employed a slowed-down, deliberate pace and who was fired after compiling a 77-98 record in six years. In keeping with the surroundings, the new Texas style is often called run and gun, but Penders has come up with his own name for it--chuck and duck.

"My idea is to get people back in our building, to create the old feeling they had here in the late 1970s with Abe Lemons," Penders said.

Penders' eventual Texasization probably had its roots during the Lemons regime. Lemons, a crusty, cigar-smoking, wisecracking proponent of the run-and-gun style, coached the Longhorns to the National Invitation Tournament title in 1978.

The Longhorns scored at least 100 points six times that season and were a popular draw at the Erwin Center.

Lemons' popularity soared as well. Abe become something of a folk hero and alumni flocked to hear him speak. Lemons also used his notoriety to negotiate a better car deal for himself and his coaching staff, persuading local automobile dealer George Coffey to provide classier cars.

"What happened, everybody was driving (Ford) Granadas and, you know, Texas is a big damn state," Lemons said. "It's 950 miles from one tip to the other. You get out there on those roads and you need something a little better. I thought, 'What the hell is going on? I thought Texas people were supposed to be rich or something.'

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