[The following is a chapter from my upcoming book, Tao of the Passing Big Man, and other essays. Due out if ,and when we survive this global pandemic.]
To some (okay, maybe just me), Tom Penders is considered the godfather of UT basketball. Before he got to the program, the team averaged less than 5,000 fans a season in a town that was apathetic to anything beyond the football team. The school hired Tom Penders to be head coach and the team immediately went from 16 to 25 wins in one season. Most importantly, Penders implemented an uptempo offense (dubbed the Runnin’ Horns) that was fun to watch. During his tenure at UT, the team averaged 87 points a game, won three southwest conference titles and had 8 NCAA appearances. The average attendance doubled and the Runnin’ Horns won on an average of 20 games a season. Although his tenure ended in a less than satisfactory manner, Penders set up the program to get locally and nationally ranked players to at least take a look at the University of Texas; making it easier for successor Rick Barnes to take the basketball program to yet another level of success. Penders recruited mostly system players that played well during the regular season, but they usually lost to superior teams at certain points in the NCAA tournament.
Despite not having much post season success, Penders put UT Men’s basketball [before Penders arrived, if someone told you they were going to a UT basketball game, you just assumed they were talking about the nationally ranked women’s team coached by the legendary Jody Conrad.]on the map with their fun and loose style of run and gun basketball; became the second most watchable team in the Southwest Conference next to the Arkansas Razorbacks. Penders ran his own version of Nellie ball starting 3 guards (B J. Tyler, Roderick Anderson, and Terrence Rencher)– starting his 5 best, fastest players instead of setting lineups based upon position.
[The only other school I remember trotting out a 3 guard lineup at that time was FSU with a starting backcourt of Bob Sura, Sam Cassell and Charlie Ward–all three would go on to play in the NBA.]
Penders finished his tenure at UT with a 228-110 record while having only 2 losing seasons (one of them his final season with the team;finishing at 14-17).
Things really took off nationally for the Longhorns when Rick Barnes took over the program (from 1998 to 2015). Barnes recruited two National Players of the Year( T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant) to play for the program (something that was not easy to do in Texas. Most high school basketball players left the state to play college ball), and sent a slew of others to the NBA. Despite making 16 NCAA tournament in his 17 seasons, Barnes was fired after a 20-14 final season and a second round tourney loss. Barnes’ tenure is looked at as an unprecedented success as a UT Men’s basketball coach; going 402-180 in his time in Austin. UT had even made the Final Four–their first since 1947– in 2003, and had a #1 national ranking for the first time in team history.
In 2015, University of Texas fired Rick Barnes and replaced him with former VCU head coach, Shaka Smart. Smart’s tenure has yet to deliver on some of the big expectations fans had for him and the program, but Smart has kept the team competitive and sent players to the professional leagues. The program however, has yet to make a real impact on a national level in quite a while(two NCAA tournament appearances in 5 years–both first round exits.
The good news is that the basketball program is no longer being treated like a stepchild and the team is due to get a new arena in 2021. I hear that it will seat 10,000 fans (which might be the exact number of basketball fans in Austin) As excited as I am, that UT is finally getting a basketball only venue, it disappoints me that its only just now happening. I figured this would’ve been in the works the minute Kevin Durant declared fort he NBA draft. Smart’s coaching record is a respectable 90-78 at UT, but it still feels like UT basketball is at a crossroads. Perhaps they will get a bigger profile new coach to match their new venue.
Players of note from University of Texas
Tom Penders Era (1989-1998)
Travis Mays, Dexter Cambridge, BJ Tyler, Terrence Rencher, Chris Mihm
Rick Barnes Era (1999-2015)
Maurice Evans, Chris Owens, T.J. Ford, Royal Ivey, James Thomas, Lamarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, Cory Joseph, Myles Turner
Shaka Smart Era (2016-2020)
Isaiah Taylor, Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba, Jaxson Hayes
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found in the KDVS studios making on air playlists. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org