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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

"Somebody asked me, if I could have any car I wanted, what would I drive and I said a Lincoln," he said. "Well, I got one. And then everybody else, they're all driving Oldsmobiles because Texas, you fight your way around that state in a damn Granada, time you get there, hell, you just want to drink. You don't want to recruit. I caused all that.

"They're driving Olds, Buicks, but there ain't no more Granadas," Lemons said. "There's nothing wrong with a Granada, 'less you're going to Lubbock. There ain't nothing but a crow between here and Lubbock. Hitting the damn road, you jar your teeth out. You can't get in the damned thing anyway. It's all right for a golf coach."

Lemons was riding high until DeLoss Dodds became athletic director. A no-nonsense administrator, Dodds was immediately at odds with Lemons' freewheeling style. After Lemons charged into the stands at a game to challenge some heckling fans in Arkansas in 1982, he was gone. Dodds, believing that Lemons had embarrassed the program, fired the coach at the end of the 1982 season.

"The only thing I was ever guilty of was cussin' and smokin' cigars," said Lemons, back again as coach at Oklahoma City University, whence he came. "I caught a lot of flak for a lot of things. I never did take that game that serious."

Dodds brought in Weltlich, a coach with whom he felt a shared philosophy. Weltlich, a disciple of Bobby Knight, had a style just the opposite of Lemons', on the court and off. Where Lemons coached run and gun, Weltlich stressed a controlled game. Where Lemons was open and expansive, Weltlich was guarded. Lemons' practices always were open, but Weltlich's were closed.

There is certainly enough room in college basketball for two divergent styles, but Weltlich's apparently did not appeal to Texas fans. Attendance swooned and so did the Longhorns' fortunes. Weltlich's teams never broke 100 points in 175 games and attendance in the 16,231-seat Erwin Center exceeded 4,500 only once in his last five seasons.

Dodds was forced to fire his own man with two years and an estimated $200,000 left on Weltlich's contract. Weltlich was reassigned within the Texas athletic department as an assistant athletic director in charge of special projects.

Weltlich was reluctant to discuss his firing or to say in detail what he thinks about Penders, who won 25 games with the players Weltlich recruited.

"It's a no-win situation," Weltlich said. "But I do think Tom has done a great job with those kids."

Lemons said it is no surprise to him that Penders transformed the Longhorns into a winning team.

"All he did was take the same players Weltlich had and put them in another gear and have some fun," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt Penders is going to win. He's a nice person and he knows what he's doing and he makes the game fun."

Said Penders: "In Bob's defense, he was following a legend. He may not have been following Darrell Royal in football, but he followed a guy who created a lot of excitement here, who was well liked by the fans."

Car dealer Coffey, who ditched the program during the Weltlich regime, jumped back on board for Penders, with whom he often plays golf at Barton Creek Country Club.

"Hell, he wasn't here but a short time and he's walking around in cowboy boots, going to barbecues, doing anything to fit in," Coffey said. "And his style of basketball, well, it's like his personality. He's a more upbeat guy."

Deathe, who made the boots country singer Paulette Carlson wore for her wedding, said Penders' stay at Texas makes him proud of his long association with the university. In 1942, Deathe was a Texas freshman teammate of a football player named Tom Landry.

"The difference between Tom and Bob Weltlich is as much between daylight and darkness," Deathe said. "Tom is just a real guy, that's all I can say."

Penders, though, understands that winning, not personality, is what the game is really all about.

"If Bob had won here, he would have done fine," Penders said. "But in the end, he was 20 games under .500. His personality was a lot different from Abe's, true, that often happens. A coach gets fired and they go to the other extreme.

"When Bobby Knight leaves Indiana, as successful as Bobby Knight is, there'll be somebody in the (school) administration who will say, 'Let's get somebody totally different. We'll win here anyway.' Maybe they'll find out the hard way, which usually happens."

Penders' journey here was a roundabout one. A basketball and baseball star at the University of Connecticut, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1967 and played third base in the minor leagues. He hit .343 in Class A, but besides having problems hitting double-A pitching, Penders knew that Max Alvis was entrenched at third base with the Indians.

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