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Having waited more than 20 years, coach Tom Penders joins Texas legends in Hall of Honor

Longhorns honor Penders, 23 former players Friday as Hall classes of 2020, 2021 combined into one ceremony

From left, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte, Susie Penders, Tom Penders and Jody Conradt all flash the "Hook 'em" hand signal at the Texas Athletics Hall of Honor reception inside Royal-Memorial Stadium on Friday.

Get him in a room with other Longhorns, and it’s impossible to pigeonhole Tom Penders. 

Even at 76, with six fused vertebrae, diabetes, bone spurs on both heels — “I don’t know how they came about” — and a sore foot, Penders is energetic as ever. 

Still Runnin’ after all these years.

“There were no Penders in the state of Texas when I moved here. Not one, not in Dallas, not in Houston,” Penders said Friday before being formally inducted into the Texas Athletics Hall of Honor. “It’s an Irish name, but it’s kind of a rare name… Hey, there’s Jody!”

Penders bolted from his seat, hugged Jody Conradt and suddenly it was 1990 all over again. Conradt, the legendary UT women’s basketball coach, was inducted into the Hall of Honor in 2000. Penders, who guided the men’s program for 10 seasons from 1989-98, was finally taken off the wait list. Two decades is enough.

“If you think about our successful basketball teams,” Conradt said, “he’s at the top of the list!”

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Former Texas coach Tom Penders, his wife Susie (center) and their family were on hand as Penders was inducted into the Texas Athletics Hall of Honor on Friday.

Penders and 23 former Texas athletes were inducted into the Hall of Honor, and many had to wait a while, too. The ceremony for the 2020 class was delayed a year because of the pandemic. So those honorees were pressed together with the 2021 class.

Penders was 208-110 during his time with the Horns and made eight NCAA Tournament appearances. The slow, plodding style was out after the 1987-88 season. Baggy shorts, an up-tempo offense and the Runnin’ Horns were in the following season with the curly hair, baseball-loving Irish guy from the East Coast. 

Penders’ entry into the Hall of Honor was no doubt delayed by how things ended. The coach resigned 3 1/2 weeks after players went to then-athletic director DeLoss Dodds to complain about the program. School officials looked into how Luke Axtell’s grades ended up at the radio station. Agreements, lawsuits, more accusations, not-guilty verdicts and bad feelings followed. 

It’s too much to unspool here, and frankly, it’s all in the past. That’s how current Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte sees it, anyway.

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“I was a little hesitant when I got a call from Chris Del Conte,” Penders said. “You know, Joey Wright’s not in there.” Indeed, it’s hard to have Penders’ BMW offense honored when only Lance Blanks and Travis Mays have made the cut thus far.

Still, you won’t find a bigger advocate for the future of Texas basketball than Penders. 

Tom and his wife Susie were special guests of honor during Thursday night’s practice in the Erwin Center. Chris Beard was a student manager for Penders back in the mid-1990s. Now he’s the head coach.

Beard had special Runnin’ Horns T-shirts made. Mays spoke to the current Horns. Blanks is hosting a party at his house on Saturday, too. With the recent death of Texas coach Leon Black fresh on everyone’s mind, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating UT history. 

Susie Penders hugs her husband Tom minutes after he announced his resignation as the men's basketball coach at the University of Texas on April 2, 1998.

“Chris had all his players come up and shake Tom’s hand,” Susie Penders said. “We watched the entire practice. Even during practice, Chris gave a shout-out, like ‘That’s a good jump stop. Coach Penders taught that. That’s one of his moves.’ Just really letting his own players know what coach meant to him. It was such an honor.

Susie Penders has been with Tom every step along the way. They were married in 1980, “so however many years that is,” she said. Tom’s induction into the Hall of Honor means just as much to Susie, too.

“It was just such an honor to come back and feel so privileged to have been a part of this,” Susie said. “He didn’t want to leave that gym last night. Chris Beard left before Tom did.”

And frankly, that’s what any Hall of Fame ceremony should be about — honoring those who lifted individuals to prominence. That’s why football inductee Jamaal Charles made sure to take photos with his mother and family. Lots of photos, lots of new memories.

“It’s a big thing for me, but it’s more for the people who helped me out on this journey,” Charles said. Long before he was a Kansas City Chief, the Port Arthur product helped the Horns to a 33-6 record and the 2005 national title. 

Multiple Texas exes expressed genuine gratitude. Every Hall of Honor member is featured in the Texas Athletics Hall of Fame, located in the north end zone of Royal-Memorial Stadium.  

“If you’re here, you were a leader somewhere. And you’re expected to continue that leadership,” baseball inductee J.P. Howell said. “You’re expected to continue that accountability and that work ethic, and the message is always positive at all times. That’s the No. 1 thing. The message has to stay up. If you do that, you can overcome all this stuff.”

Howell, one of UT’s best strikeout pitchers ever, then offered up a message that would’ve made the late Augie Garrido proud.

“And you know what?,” Howell said. “The University of Texas at Omaha wasn’t just given to this university. That was passed on. So you’re not just playing for yourself when you’re playing for the University of Texas. You’re playing for a bunch of people, you’re playing for the love of this community. 

“Honestly, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s internal. You’re playing for something internal.”

David Thomas, a tight end on the 2005 national title team, said he can sense momentum building again under current coach Steve Sarkisian and the entire athletic department.

“What I like about what’s going on campus and the athletic department in general, every sport seems to be going,” Thomas said. “Thinking back to the time I was on campus, there was a lot of championships won when I was in school. I think that fed all of us.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.

Texas Athletics Hall of Honor

Class of 2020

Alexandria Anderson, track (2006-09)

D.J. Augustin, men’s basketball (2006-08)

Glenn Blackwood, football (1976-78)

Rick Bradley, baseball (1973-75)

Jamaal Charles, football (2005-07), track (2006-07)

Brad Elder, men’s golf (1995-98)

Erika Hansen-Stebbins, swimming (1990-92)

Juliann Faucette Johnson, volleyball (2007-10)

Tom Penders, men’s basketball coach (1988-1998)

Kasey Moore Powers, soccer (2005-08)

Jordan Shipley, football (2006-09)

Heather Schreiber-Stark, women’s basketball (2001-05)

David Thomas, football (2002-05)

P.J. Tucker, men’s basketball (2003-06)

Class of 2021

Mike Adams, football (1992-93, 1995-96)

Clay Britt, swimming (1980-83)

Richard Duncan, track (1994-97)

Peter Gardere, football (1989-92)

Jessica Livingston Gibson, diving (2006-07, 2009)

J.P. Howell, baseball (2003-04)

Courtney Okolo, track (2013-16)

Tobie Smith, swimming (1992-95)

Bailey Webster, volleyball (2009, 2011-13)

Nikki Busch Zigler, volleyball (1988-91)