Tom Penders gives the hook em horns sign after being annouced as the new University of Texas basketball coach April 6, 1988. Larry Kolvoord/AAS

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ decision to honor Tom Penders’ special 1990 team long overdue

Posted December 13th, 2015

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The balloons should have already been dropped, the champagne bottles uncorked long ago. The confetti should have flown, and it should have been done up right.

Tuesday’s reunion of Tom Penders and the BMW Club at Texas’ home game against Appalachian State is long past due.

The celebration of the second-best team in Longhorns history should have come at least a year ago on the quarter-century anniversary of the 1990 Elite Eight team. T.J. Ford drove Rick Barnes’ 2003 club to the Final Four before bowing to Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team in the national semifinals, but that 1990 team was every bit as sensational and thrilling.

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So what if Texas is a year late in commemorating the scintillating Runnin’ Horns who sank 239 three-pointers and took the 24-9 Longhorns to the brink of a Final Four.

Mark Matson For AA-S (3/23/98) U.T. Mens Basketball coach Tom Penders addressed the media at a press conference outside his Westlake Home. Among those lending their support was Rob Wright. (background)
Mark Matson For AA-S (3/23/98) U.T. Mens Basketball coach Tom Penders addressed the media at a press conference outside his Westlake Home. Among those lending their support was Rob Wright. (background)

The party is overdue.

So is the style of basketball.

The breakneck pace of that 1990 team and the electric atmosphere it brought to a once-packed Erwin Center has been long remembered as the quintessential Longhorns club because the three-headed monstrous guards that were Lance Blanks, Travis Mays and Joey Wright played with such abandon and freedom and put Texas on the national map.

It’s trying to get back on that map now under Shaka Smart.

His team produced that same bedlam on Saturday, when Smart’s 6-3 bunch, led by guards Javan Felix, Isaiah Taylor and Eric Davis Jr., shocked the third-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels — the preseason No. 1 team — 84-82 on Felix’s buzzer-beater. For the 1990 team, it  produced some deja vu.

“I think there are parallels,” said Blanks, who played and general managed in the NBA before becoming a broadcaster. “A lot of credit goes to Shaka wanting to have this 1990 team back. He embraces that history. It kind of got … well, not wiped out, but brushed aside. Both Shaka and Coach Penders are high-energy guys.”

They couldn’t be any more different even though their styles somewhat mirror each other. They both were about putting inordinate amounts of pressure on the opponent whether by pressing full-court or a withering scoring attack. Penders did it to speed up the pace of the game while Smart does it to force turnovers and break down opposing offenses.

That may be the extent of the similarities between Smart’s Havoc and Penders’ Runnin’ Horns, who produced back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in school history.

“Yes, without question I see similarities,” Penders said. “I never yelled at a player during the game. I always wanted the kids to feel I was with them. There seems to be a friendship (between Smart and his players) during the game.”

Each coach had similar patterns. Pay laser attention to his players’ confidence. Take notice of their body language more than their shot selection. Allow them freedom. Penders was riveted to the idea his players’ confidence was ultimately the key.

“He probably told 10 of the guys on the team they were the best guy he’d ever seen,” Blanks said, laughing. “But he’d also say things like, ‘If you’re going to play like that, you’ll have a great career in Paraguay.’ He was not afraid to tell us what we needed to hear.”

Texas basketball coach Tom Penders shows his enthusiasm for his team's late hustle as they fought back to within three points of Arkansas before eventually falling. Asst. Jaime Compaglio looks on. Ralph Barrera/AAS
Texas basketball coach Tom Penders shows his enthusiasm for his team’s late hustle as they fought back to within three points of Arkansas before eventually falling. Asst. Jaime Compaglio looks on. Ralph Barrera/AAS

Long before he scored 44 points against Georgia in the NCAA Tournament to become the school’s and Southwest Conference’s all-time leading scorer, Mays remembers Penders’ instructions the night he passed up an open shot in an early-season tournament game. Penders said Mays “was in a zone and didn’t want to come out.”

“Coach Penders told me, ‘Son, if you’re not going to shoot the basketball, you’re going to sit down next to me and watch a good game,’“ Mays said. “I never saw a shot from that point on that I wasn’t supposed to take. Tom gave us a tremendous amount of confidence. He believed in us.”

Both Penders and Smart are about one thing. Dominating. Imposing your will on your opponents.

“They want to wear out the opponent,” Blanks said. “They want to apply a lot of pressure, and both like to score a lot of points. But their personalities are a little different. Coach Penders was a showman and an entertainer, no question, and our team fed off that.”

While Penders always filled up the room with his presence, Smart moreso takes in everyone and everything in the room and studies it all to become a better coach. They’re at either extremes of the personality chart but identically motivated and highly charged.

And they’re both about pushing their teams to be the best they can be. Penders had no trouble doing that when he arrived from Rhode Island fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and showed up in cowboy boots at a weight room workout of his team.

“I remember how funny he looked,” Blanks said. “He was an East Coast guy, and I’m thinking, ‘My man is already taking up the Texas culture.’“

Penders swept up everything in his path, occasionally leaving carnage behind. While he eventually got fired — like Cliff Gustafson, Abe Lemons, Mack Brown, Fred Akers and nearly every famous Texas coach — Penders deserves immense credit for bringing his flamboyant style to the Erwin Center and making the Longhorns relevant. He should be in the Longhorn Hall of Honor without question.

He inherited from straight-laced, Bobby Knight-wannabe Bob Weltlich an apathetic fan base, but also a trio of scoring threats unlike any others. And he cultivated them both.

“I didn’t know anybody on the roster,” Penders said. “I didn’t even ask during my interview. Then, I thought what in the hell was I inheriting?”

Blanks transferred from Virginia as a spare player who had scored 16 points in two years. Mays struggled under Weltlich’s iron-fisted approach. Joey Wright switched from Drake, where he was being wasted, averaging about a point a game. Together, they put together a remarkable run at Texas. “I wasn’t excited,” Penders said, “but it took about two practices to realize how competitive they were and what leaders they were. I was thrilled.”

Today, Blanks works as a color analyst for Texas basketball games for the Longhorn Network. Mays is one of Karen Aston’s top assistants on an ascending Longhorn women’s basketball staff. Wright has coached two Australian teams to National Basketball League titles and revived the Adelaide 36ers from a last-place team.

In that special season of 1990, they lit up scoreboards and torched defenses and infuriated opposing fans.

They survived “Spitgate” in Lubbock, when Blanks got caught up in fans’ exuberance and spit on a Texas Tech player. Blanks said, “I told people I took my mouthpiece out and spit flung out of my mouth. The video says something different, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. We were always the villains. We won like we were not supposed to, acted like we were not supposed to and said things we weren’t supposed to. But Coach Penders never asked me to reel it back. Not once.”

They overcame a 16-point deficit to Xavier in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

They knocked off Purdue when Panama Myers swatted away a potential game-winning shot by Tony Jones in the final seven seconds.

They came within an eye blink of knocking off Arkansas in Dallas and punching a ticket to the Final Four, but fell, 88-85.

They averaged 94 points a game that year and raised attendance from 4,000 the season before Penders arrived to more than 13,000 a home game.

Other than an occasional Kentucky, Penders’ style hasn’t been copied in recent years. Teams have shifted from the up-tempo offenses of UNLV and Arkansas and Loyola Marymount.

“That’s what Red Auerbach told me many, many times that these guys (coaches) are control freaks,” Penders said. “They want to make it look like they’re coaching to justify the $5 million they’re making.”

“Honestly, I think it’s about control,” Blanks agreed. “Coaches like control of the game. They feel they have to call a play all the time. They sometimes put the talent in a box, but Tom allowed for a lot of freedom. Shaka has a lot of that as well.”

The party may be about to pick up.

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