Coach's Corner

by Andy "Coach" Cotton

There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.- Stephen Stills

In this ode to pharmaceutical-induced, Sixties hippie paranoia, Stephen Stills asks us, how paranoid are we? Can you relate to Stills, who sees a narc lurking behind his Kennedy Brothers tapestry? Do you fret about who's reading your e-mail? Do you see The X- Files as a decent way to spend an hour, or do you believe in the reality of the Cigarette Man? Do you think Tom Penders, the suddenly embattled Longhorn basketball coach, is the victim of a bizarre, rapid succession of catastrophic, unlikely events? Or do you conclude that an unknown, evil force has been waiting for a trigger to set events into motion to behead Penders (this is what he believes), and in the process set the Texas basketball program back a decade? Can you accept, in short, that the basketball coach has been set up?

The twisted beauty of this nasty tale is, you can believe whatever you want. Wild speculation has been rampant since the day the story broke. The media is usually blamed for this guesswork, but what else - with the flow of "facts" being doled out parsimoniously and piecemeal over a period of weeks - can be expected? So it's no surprise that a lot of people think Penders is about to become the victim of a modern-day prince, a guy described 400 years ago by Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote of a prince concerned with the achievement and maintenance of power; a fellow not overly concerned with feel-good things. And if that's who you're looking for, DeLoss Dodds is your man.

Indeed, Dodds - who, come to think of it, has the dark, imperial demeanor of the Cigarette Man - is a good candidate to hang conspiracy theories around. He's made many enemies in his long tenure as A.D. Abe Lemons, not a member of any Dodds fan club, calls UT "the graveyard of coaches." Many coaches, some quite popular, have been forced out under unpleasant circumstances in the last 20 years. Dodds has made some terrible decisions, for which he has not been held accountable.

He appears at the start of this story, doing some odd things. Four young players, all starters, go to Dodds to complain about something. We've never been told what, exactly, the players were complaining about; but Dodds, without talking to or even informing Penders, gives freshman fan favorite Luke Axtell permission to transfer. And then, with his basketball program tottering on the brink of collapse, Dodds waits five days before notifying his basketball coach of this meeting. Much later, during University spin control, Dodds comes up with an utterly pathetic, let's-treat-the-public-like-morons explanation. He wants the kids to go to the coach themselves. A swell sentiment for a little league parent, not too likely at the top level of Division I athletics. Before the door closed behind those boys, any boss in the world would have been on the phone. "Tom," says me, "we got big problems!" What, we wonder, was going on up there during those five days? Why would Dodds not have contacted his coach? Why did a politically savvy Dodds allow the media to be the sole conduit of information flowing to Penders? I doubt we'll ever know. This action, or more precisely inaction, defies common sense. The University dragging its feet in this "investigation," the fax incident, a press conference at the coach's home instead of at Belmont Hall, a surreal players' press conference in East Austin - each on its own a most peculiar incident - only fueled the fires of public speculation. In the absence of any fathomable explanations, this all appears darkly suspicious.

Why didn't Dodds talk to Penders right away? Penders was quoted on Saturday as saying someone was out to get him. Statewide, columns have been written stating that Axtell is only a decoy in some big plot to get Penders. Still, the coach-as-a-patsy theory founders. Why would Dodds give Penders a new, expensive contract a few months ago, reeling Tom back to UT from Rutgers? If Dodds wanted him gone, Penders would be in New Jersey now. And even if you can find a way around this, ask yourself what kind of an idiot would, for all intents and purposes, sacrifice his hard-earned basketball program just for the sake of a murky vendetta? Thepowerful-booster-wanting-Penders-gone theory founders here too. Dodds withstood two years of intense, scalding pressure from boosters before he finally canned Mackovic. In terms of pressure, 10 years of unfocused anti-Penders sentiment don't equal one Mackovic loss to Baylor.

No, what seems more logical in the A.D.'s office is simple mismanagement. Here, we have a long history.

In the end, it seems to me, the black Byzantine conspiracy theories just don't work. A good coach, whose world collapses inward with disastrous professional consequences, makes more sense. Penders loses a long-trusted key assistant (Vic Trilli), who was responsible for many of the day-to-day coaching problems, to a head coaching job. Just before the season starts, Penders suffers a serious, life-threatening heart problem. Miraculously, he's back on the sidelines without missing a beat... or is he?

What's so shocking about this story is how it came out of nowhere, and seemed so totally out of character. Penders has been around here for a decade. He's always conducted himself as a classy - though a little thin-skinned - pro. Verbal abuse? This is a guy who won't criticize his team in public no matter how bad they played. The coach is a liar? Where did that come from? What does it mean? Still, four very key members of the team (and all of its future) go to the A.D. with these complaints.

So maybe Penders cracked a little this year; the loss of Trilli, the heart problem, a bad year on the court. Maybe Penders acted out of character, did and said things he never would have in the past. Why did he pointlessly suspend Axtell the day of spring break? Why the humiliating, illegal, and probably misleading leaking of his grades? Why this silly and destructive spat with Chris Mihm? None of this seems like the Penders I've seen for 10 years. If he's doing this, it's not so hard to believe he acted erratically during the season as well.

Penders, a coach of whom I've been highly critical many times, deserved better. He's a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it's going to cost him his job. I don't think it's fair. In a more civilized time, the guy's longtime record would have given him some cushion to fall. And it's unfortunate for UT fans and players the terrible damage this will do to the program. It didn't have to be this way. It's so easy to look back at this entire episode and see how simple it could have been to avoid the whole thing. How did Penders, who prides himself as a communicator, so totally lose touch with this team? Why didn't Dodds get everyone together to talk? Why did Penders have to issue that suspension? Why did Axtell have to react so publicly? What new coach can repair this damage? So many questions, so few facts.

Of course, most of this is idle speculation. Just guesswork. At press time, there's no telling where this story will wind up. One thing for sure, though - with all the principals lying, stonewalling, and telling semi-truths, this one will stink for a long time.

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