Tom Penders gets his ninth life: Houston Cougars win their way into NCAATournament
Only a few days ago, Tom Penders was just waiting for a visit from the college sports' version of the George Clooney character in Up in the Air.
It became so bad, so apparent that Penders' end was here, that reports that he'd retire (in no small part to save face) started making the rounds, with some of them reportedly coming from unknown sources within the University of Houston's athletic department. SNY basketball commentator Adam Zagoria tweeted that former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was a leading candidate to replace Penders.
Everyone knew that Penders was going to be fired, terminated, kicked to the curb, "encouraged" to retire. UH basketball fans openly bantered the names of possible successors around on the message boards. Ah ... you might want to find something else to talk about. Like where the Cougars will be playing in the NCAA Tournament.
With its coach staring down a pink slip, Houston completed its out-of-nowhere run into college basketball's big dance with a 81-73 upset of 25th-ranked UTEP in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament this afternoon.
Good luck getting rid of Penders now. (Though, if he still retires now, he could claim he wanted to go out on top.)
Penders' team earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by playing like they hadn't played all season for the four most important days of March. The Cougars (19-15) — who didn't win more than three straight the entire regular season — won four straight conference tournament games, knowing that a loss in any one of them would end their farfetched NCAA dreams. Along the way, Houston beat traditional power Memphis by one point and knocked off UTEP today, with everyone expecting order to be restored.
And the Cougars did it just when everyone thought they were completely dead. They trailed UTEP by eight points with nine minutes to play.
This wasn't a miracle as much as a job save. You think there are no good stories in the recession? Here's one highly-paid coach who struck a blow for all those who yearned to steal back their job when their bosses wanted to fire them.
The only way Penders would have kept his job without this Conference USA run is if university officials decided they couldn't afford to pay off the rest of the money on Penders' contract and pay a new coach. There was little debate over whether Penders deserved to stay. The coach had less people in his corner than an AIG executive.
Penders already broke down crying on Friday night, even before the Cougars won their way in. Now Houston is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years, finally punching the ticket that many envisioned when Penders was first hired in 2004, the ticket that many Houston boosters had long since given up on Penders ever getting.
With Kelvin Lewis pouring in 28 points on 11-for-15 shooting, making up for a poor shooting night from national scoring leader Aubrey Coleman, the largely forgotten goal came true though. Houston will find out who it plays — and it figures to be a major underdog in its first game as a double-digit seed — 5 p.m. Sunday night during the selection show.
Now the question Cougar fans is: Are you completely deliriously happy or are you still a little torn?
Is the all-but guaranteed continued employment of Tom Penders good for Houston basketball? Do you hope he still now retires by choice?
Let us know what you think.