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Tom Penders’ last act as Houston Cougars basketball coach was leading the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years.

The Penders era will come to an official end today, when he announces his resignation after six seasons at UH.

A prominent UH insider said Penders’ resignation is the byproduct of a “positive” meeting with athletic director Mack Rhoades on Sunday afternoon. Rhoades would not comment on the matter, saying only, “There will be an announcement regarding the future of the men’s basketball program in the near future.”

Penders, 64, who leaves with a 121-77 record (.611) in his six seasons at UH, was not available for comment. The school is expected to hold a news conference today, three days after a season-ending 89-77 loss to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars finished 19-16, making Penders the first coach in school history to win at least 18 games in six consecutive seasons.

Penders’ contract pays $450,000 annually (plus incentives) and runs through 2012. The base salary is $250,000, making the school’s cost of buying out the two remaining years $500,000.

UH will be replacing a 36-year college coaching veteran who has led four different schools into the NCAAs. Penders is 12th in Division I history in games coached (1,086) and 25th in victories (648). His UH winning percentage is the third-best in school history, trailing Guy V. Lewis (592-279, .680) and Pat Foster (142-73, .660).

In the six seasons before Penders’ arrival, UH went 63-112. Penders won more games during his tenure than the three coaches who preceded him (Alvin Brooks, Clyde Drexler and Ray McCallum) did in 12 seasons (117-196, .373). UH hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since a 49-47 overtime victory over Virginia on March 31, 1984, in the national semifinals.


Inconsistency draws ire

Penders’ detractors point out that UH played erratically during the regular season — defeating the top two teams in Conference USA, UTEP and Memphis, and dropping games against the likes of Tulane and Central Florida. The Cougars were 15-15 before punching their ticket to the NCAAs by winning four games in four days at the Conference USA tournament in Tulsa, Okla.

Another source of contention with some boosters and athletic department members is Penders’ reliance on recruiting junior college players and his inability to consistently land talent from the Houston area. The top four scorers on this year’s team (Aubrey Coleman, Kelvin Lewis, Maurice McNeil and Adam Brown) all started their college careers elsewhere. Three of the scholarship players on the roster are from the Houston area (Aubrey Coleman, Sean Coleman and Kirk Van Slyke.). Aubrey and Sean Coleman (no relation) came to UH via the junior college route.

Sagging attendance is a recurrent UH issue that predates Penders’ arrival. The average home crowd of 3,202 this season is the lowest since the 2,884 of 2003-04 — the final season of Penders’ predecessor, McCallum. UH experienced a surge to 4,245 and 4,858 in Penders’ first two seasons, but the average has fallen below 4,000 the past two seasons.


Gillispie resurfaces

A long-rumored front-runner to be Penders’ successor is former Texas A&M and Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who worked at UTEP when Rhoades was a senior staffer at that school’s athletic department. The previous UH AD, Dave Maggard, drew the ire of many boosters by re-affirming his commitment to Penders last March after Kentucky parted ways with Gillispie. Rhoades has said he has had no conversations with Gillispie since arriving at UH as the AD last August.


Staying close to home

Other coaches who have drawn support from UH boosters as possible candidates are Sam Houston State coach Bob Marlin, whose team went 25-8 this season and lost to Baylor in the first round of the NCAAs; Texas assistant Rodney Terry, an Angleton native; and Villanova assistant Chris Walker, a Houston native and former Milby High star who was instrumental in assembling a third-seeded New Mexico team that lost to Washington in the second