Coaching in Jim Penders' blood
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Jim Penders' first baseball memory was jumping over the fence to help his father's high school team celebrate a Connecticut state championship.
It was 1975. Penders was 3 years old.
This weekend, Penders will attempt to lead the Connecticut Huskies back to the College World Series for the first time since 1979. The Huskies, who won their first Big East title this season, play at defending national champion South Carolina in a super regional starting Saturday. The winner advances to the CWS in Omaha, Neb.
Jim Penders Sr., 68, played in the CWS as a player in 1965. In 2000, he watched his son, Rob, coach in the CWS as an assistant at Texas. He hopes to watch Jim Penders Jr. reach Omaha as a head coach.
"It would be a tremendous thrill if my wife and I are flying to Omaha next week," Penders Sr. said. "It would be my dream to see my son coach in Omaha."
Penders Sr. won't make it to Columbia this weekend.
More than three decades after his then-3-year-old son jumped a fence to celebrate with him, Penders Sr. will try to win his fifth state championship Saturday when Manchester-East Catholic High plays East Hampton in the Class S state finals at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Conn.
A few hours later, the Huskies will open their best-of-three super regional against the No. 4 national seed Gamecocks.
Rob Penders, who is now head coach at Division II St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, is flying home to watch his father's team play. Then he's driving more than 800 miles to Columbia, S.C., to watch the Huskies play. His father, unfortunately, has other baseball commitments.
"That's what kind of gets me thinking about getting my tail out of coaching so I can follow my boys," said Jim Penders Sr., who has won more than 600 games in 42 seasons. "But I don't want to be a parent and bug them."
The Penders clan might be considered the first family of Connecticut baseball. Both of Jim Penders Jr.'s grandfathers were legendary baseball coaches in the state. His maternal grandfather led a Stratford team to the Little League World Series in 1963. His paternal grandfather was one of the most successful high school coaches in the state.
Jim Penders Sr. and his brother, Tom, both played baseball at UConn. Tom later became a college basketball coach at schools like Texas, George Washington and Houston and worked as an ESPN analyst.
Jim Penders Sr. was co-captain of the '65 team that played in Omaha, after recovering from a beaning against Maryland in 1963. He became the first college player to wear a double-ear flapped helmet after suffering a subdural hematoma and fractured skull when he was struck by a pitch at the left temple. When Penders Sr. was taken to a hospital after the game, doctors gave him a 1-in-1,000 chance of surviving.
Pro baseball teams wouldn't touch Penders Sr. because of the injury, so his career ended in Omaha after the Huskies' 3-2 loss to Washington State in 1965.
"I really had aspirations of playing pro ball, but there's not a better place for a player to end his career than Omaha," Penders Sr. said.
Jim Penders Sr. coached each of his three sons at East Catholic High, where he has coached since 1969. Rob, who is younger than Jim, played at Wake Forest and became a coach.
"I knew I was going to be a coach when I was 5," Rob Penders said. "It took Jim a little longer to figure it out."
Jim Penders Jr. has spent 19 of the last 21 years around the UConn program, as a player, assistant coach and head coach the last eight seasons. He was co-captain of the 1994 team that reached the NCAA tournament, hitting .354 with seven homers and 46 RBIs.
In the two years Penders was away from the Huskies, he worked as a fundraiser for U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) from 1994 to '96. He had aspirations of becoming a speech writer, but instead returned to UConn as an assistant coach.
"It's a family disease, and there are a lot worse afflictions," Penders joked.
After replacing Andy Blalock as UConn's coach in 2004, it didn't take Penders long to transform the Huskies into one of the better baseball programs in the Big East. Last season, the Huskies won a program-best 48 games and earned a national ranking for the first time since 1979.
Penders has done it all without having top-notch facilities and while coaching in a much colder climate.
"To look at where UConn is at with the basketball program and the football program now is amazing," Rob Penders said. "What he's done with the lack of facilities is amazing. We basically have about the same as far as facilities. But I'm at a Division II school, and he's coaching at a major Division I program."
More than anything else, Penders has persuaded the state's best players to stay at home. Pitcher Matt Barnes and center fielder George Springer, who were both first-round selections in Monday night's amateur baseball draft, are both homegrown products.
"You don't have to leave our borders to get a great college education and great college baseball experience," Penders said.
And you don't have to look far up the Penders family tree to find a successful coach.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.