Man and Superman


At last night's Crimson basketball win, Fordham's Tom Penders seemed like the typical young college coach--the frisonne hairstyle, mod haberdashery, and courtside histrionics. But beneath that outer tinsel is the real tinsel--the alluring glitter of big-time basketball. Penders, the consummate recruiter, wants to create a national power. While he'll have to bide his time with the lowly Rams, his past performances indicate his goal is not out of reach.

Penders, who played AA ball in the Cleveland Indians organization after he was graduated from Connecticut College, came to Fordham this year after a four-year stint in the Ivy ranks with Columbia. Penders brought the reputation of a miracle worker to Morningside Heights, and he lived up to his billing, turning around a basketball program that had thoroughly petered out after the days of Jim McMillian and Heyward Dotson. His teams improved in a geometric progression, going from 4-22 in 1974-75, to 8-17, to 16-10. Last year Columbia finished 15-11, and 11-3 in the Ivies.

Last year, Penders also declared that this would be the year the Lions would win the Ivy League title. He had Alton Byrd, Ricky Free and Juan Mitchell--a rich lode of talent he had tapped in his second year--all returning. Yet Penders decided to abandon this Xanadu on Broadway for the basketball wasteland of the nearby Bronx. He took the visionary gamble, betting he would be able to recreate the Shangri-La splendor that was Fordham basketball back in the days when Digger Phelps held sway.

Penders believes Columbia would never make the commitment to a first-rate program that Fordham has offered him. "Columbia has great expectations and little to justify them," he said before last night's game. "They expect to be in the top three in the Ivy League every year, and are unwilling to put money into it. I felt if we wanted to keep up with Princeton and Penn we needed more commitment in the budget and other improvements."

"It isn't sour grapes, since when I came to Columbia I knew they wouldn't have that type of commitment--but I thought if I turned it around they would make the commitment." Penders did turn it around, but he still had to do most of the scouting and recruiting himself, with both of his assistant coaches having to teach Phys Ed classes. Only one secretary served the basketball office, along with seven other sports offices. "We'd get a letter out once a week," grins Penders. "I kind of felt we were doing it out of a brown bag."


Despite his recruiting success at Columbia, Penders also believes the admissions office was unsympathetic to the demands of a high-level program. During Penders's four years at Columbia, there were three different admissions directors. "One guy thought basketball was great and another didn't know where the gym was," he notes. "Harvard's not afraid to take a gamble on a kid," Penders adds. "At Columbia, I felt the admissions office was always worrying about what the rest of the league would think. At Harvard they don't give a darn."

So when Fordham offered him the head coaching position, Penders crossed the pearly gates of the 82-acre Rose Hill campus without a backward glance. Most coaches might have felt some trepidation taking the post: Harvard coach Frank McLaughlin, who played for Fordham, coached with Phelps, and was popular with the alumni, considered the prospects at Fordham so bleak that he refused to even apply for the job.

Penders, needless to say, came into a less than idyllic situation. However, he says, "coaches have to look for long-term things." At Fordham, Penders has a $17,000 recruiting budget, two full-time assistants, a full-time secretary, a part-time secretary and a graduate assistant. More important, Fordham provides 15 full basketball scholarships.

Penders believes a lack of athletic scholarships, combined with high tuitions, are conspiring to bar top players from coming to the Ivy League. With no scholarships and a shoestring budget at Columbia, Penders thought this season would be the end of the rainbow for the Lions.

He says, "I felt I left no enemies at Columbia, but realistically it would have been very hard to continue there. In fact, it's going to be very hard to get the same caliber players, even at Princeton and Penn. I can remember five or six years ago, when there used to be ten pro prospects in the Ivy League."

Penders also claims he was more pressured at Columbia--at least in terms of contract negotiations--than he is at Fordham. "Columbia knew for three weeks that Fordham was going to talk to me, but they never offered me a nickel more and never discussed improving the program. There's no animosity, but Columbia's whole attitude is--thank you, you've done a good job, and goodbye," he says.

"I thought I did a good job at Columbia and I wish I could have stayed to see it through--but because of the nature of the profession I wasn't able to," Penders concludes.

The nature of the profession is to follow after the limelight. If you're Tom Penders, a new El Dorado always beckons.

Recommended Articles