Thanks, you're fired: Tom Penders pushed out at Houston despite NCAA berth
Sometimes even March miracles can't keep a man employed.
Less than 48 hours after Tom Penders coached the University of Houston in its first NCAA Tournament game in 18 years, the 64-year-old is out as the Cougars coach. After meeting this weekend with first-year UH athletic director Mack Rhoades — who never wavered in his belief that Penders had to go, according to a source close to Houston's athletic program — Penders quickly came to understand that his days on the Cougars' sideline were done.
Fanhouse first reported that Penders was being pushed out this afternoon. The Houston Chronicle came back with a university-sourced story more than 60 minutes later saying that Penders would in fact step down as head coach.
A news conference is scheduled for Monday at UH to lay out the Penders situation with the university's official spin. Rhoades agreed to pay Penders the full $500,000 remaining on his contract that runs two more years — and Penders will say that this "retirement" was his idea.
The Cougars' sports information office did not return calls from CultureMap seeking comment.
The prospect of Penders being forced or "encouraged" to retire first came out hours before Houston was set to play heavily-favored UTEP in the Conference USA Championship game on March 13. The Cougars — given up for dead going into that conference tournament — had already shockingly won three games in three days to get to that championship game, setting off some worry at the University of Houston that Penders would have to be kept on as coach if his team won its way into the big dance.
Even after the forced retirement distraction was introduced, the Cougars still came back from nine points down with nine minutes left to stun UTEP (and probably Rhoades). Suddenly, improbably, Penders had Houston in the NCAA Tournament with an automatic berth.
Yet, even as Penders and the Cougars prepared for a first-round game against ACC co-champion Maryland, doubts about the coach's ability to push the program to a high level persisted. Former Houston Rockets guard Kenny Smith told CultureMap that UH's program had no connection with a basketball-mad city and wondered why Penders didn't recruit more of Houston's top high school players.
Then, the Cougars went out and lost to Maryland 89-77 on Friday night, getting outscored by 10 points in the second half while missing 12 free throws.
It wasn't long after Penders returned from Spokane, Washington — the site of the Maryland game — that he knew he was done at Houston.
Former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie — who so infuriated the Wildcats' passionate fans that he was fired after two seasons — is considered the leading candidate to replace Penders. Gillispie is a Rhoades' favorite from when the two both worked at UTEP.