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If there is one thing both current and former athletes of the University of Connecticut know better than anyone, it’s the important role hard work plays in winning championships. If a high-school prodigy is planning on riding talent alone when stepping on the court, field or ice at the next level, then the university situated in Storrs, Conn., is probably not the best place to be.

It takes a certain kind of athlete to succeed on the grounds paved by Dee Rowe, John Toner, Andy Baylock, Lew Perkins, Jim Calhoun, Geno Auriemma, Nancy Stephens and now, Jim Penders. Someone who is mentally tough, who is prepared to outwork everyone else, who will put the team first, and who will embrace the culture of accountability that is embedded in the university’s DNA. If that isn’t for you; no problem. There are plenty of other programs out there.

You see, if you’re looking for the epitome of the kind of athlete that is tailor-made to succeed at UConn, look no further than Penders. A standout on the diamond during his high-school career, Penders knew he would have to play hard – and practice harder – if he wanted to reach those same heights as a player under his predecessor Baylock, who, in 2019, he surpassed to become the all-time winningest coach in program history.

“UConn is very unique in that it resides in a state that has probably the highest per capita income of any other state,” said Penders. “When people hear Connecticut, they think of hedge funds, elite prep schools, entitlement and second homes, yet the university that represents that state is the polar opposite of all of that. It's about hard work. It’s about getting up earlier than anybody else and getting your hands dirty and doing whatever it takes to get an inch better each day.”

It’s safe to say that UConn baseball, under Penders’ guidance, has gotten more than a few inches better. Since he took over the reins from Baylock in 2004, he has grown UConn into the preeminent baseball program in the northeast, one that now churns out draft picks like the Ivy League does CEOs. In 2021 alone, Penders’ program produced more draft picks (five) than Ole Miss, Stanford, Oregon, Michigan, Kentucky, LSU, Oregon State, and many other Power Five programs.

But as successful as Penders has been – and he makes it clear that’s for others to decide – it hasn’t been without some disappointments along the way. Just when it seemed like the program was about to break through, something happened that prevented it from reaching that proverbial next step.

Of course, we all remember what happened last year. After earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s South Bend Regional and defeating Michigan in the first game, UConn saw its season end quickly in embarrassing fashion. The Huskies got absolutely manhandled by former Big East foe Notre Dame before Central Michigan delivered the knockout blow.

Then there was that time in 2006 when the team finished second in the Big East and set a school record for wins (39) only to be left out of the NCCA Tournament in favor of Mississippi State, which finished ninth in the SEC that season. There is no doubt UConn was deserving of an NCAA bid, but if there is one thing a northeastern school has no control over, it’s the favoritism that selection committees bestow upon southeastern schools, especially in baseball, where the SEC is viewed as having far superior competition than the Big East.

For Penders, the most disappointing of all, however, was what happened in 2011. That season, the Huskies featured an abundance of major-league talent at almost every position. Led by George Springer, Matt Barnes, Nick Ahmed and Scott Oberg, that team made it to the NCAA Super Regional only to fall to eventual champion South Carolina. That they didn’t go farther is something Penders blames himself for. It’s that culture of accountability in all its glory.

“We’ve had really good teams, but 2011 was probably my most talented team,” said Penders. “And, I wasn’t good enough to get us to Omaha. I think today I'd be in a much better place to handle that kind of talent and be able to help shepherd it and guide it a little bit better, but back then, I wasn't quite seasoned enough, wasn't ready enough, and frankly, was probably wide-eyed.”

Penders has gotten his program to a place where anything short of an NCAA Tournament bid is considered a letdown. That’s impressive considering New England isn’t exactly known for being a recruiting hotbed. While he will never pull in the talent that the southern behemoths do – after all, what high-school hotshot from Texas wants to come to Connecticut? – it’s his ability to get the most out of his players year after year that no other program can compete with.

“At UConn, we don’t worry about what we don’t have, what we can’t recruit, why the northeast isn’t supposed to be good,” said UConn pitching coach Josh MacDonald, who was the pitcher of record for Penders’ first win as a coach. “Coach Penders is the constant reminder of worrying about what we can control and excelling at that. If we do that, we should be on top more times than we’re not.”

Coaching: The Penders' Family Business

While one can say coaching is in the Penders blood – Penders’ grandfather was the head baseball coach at Stratford High School from 1931 to 1968; his father was the head baseball coach at East Catholic High School from 1969 to 2012; his uncle, Tom, served as a highly successful Division I basketball coach, most recently at the University of Houston – believe it or not, he wasn’t necessarily destined to continue in the family business.

After graduating from UConn in 1994, Penders traded the cozy confines of Storrs for the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. As he says, he went there with a great deal of idealism and naivete dead set on changing the world. There’s an old joke that if someone wants to do nothing for a living, then they should move to D.C. But doing nothing just wasn’t something a man as driven as Penders was interested in.

After two years of working as a political fundraiser for U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Penders realized that if he did in fact want to change the world, then it would be much easier to do it from any other place in the country than the nation’s capitol.

“I wouldn't say I retreated, but I kind of ran toward something that I'd seen my grandfather, father, uncle, brother and cousin do,” he said. “I felt like I could make a bigger impact on lives on more of a micro-level than a macro-level as an educator. And that’s really what I am today, an educator first and foremost.”

Penders returned to UConn in 1996, serving as an assistant coach under Baylock, whom he considers his mentor. It took some getting used to at first considering some of the players he was now coaching were former teammates of his, but when you come from a coaching bloodline as deep as Penders, there were plenty of relatives for him to turn to for advice on how to navigate this potentially awkward dynamic.

“My father, my role model, told me that the first few years in coaching would be the hardest of my career,” he says. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, why is that?’ He told me because it was the time in my life where I’d be closest in age to my players and that I would have to learn how to put up an artificial barrier so to speak. It definitely wasn’t natural to be coaching 22-year-olds at 24, so I had to learn how to distance myself. But the guys were fantastic about it and let me transition into that role pretty seamlessly.”

That Penders had the privilege of not only playing for Baylock but coaching under him taught him more life lessons than anything he would have learned in Washington. Not only did Baylock teach him how to build that culture of accountability that is a staple of Penders’ program today – though one can argue not of Washington’s – but Penders learned how to connect with his players on a deeper level.

When a recruit decides to commit to UConn baseball, they aren’t just joining the banner program in the northeast. They are joining a family. While all of the wins and championships and draft picks are important and certainly something to celebrate, Penders says nothing makes him prouder than what happens off the field long after his players leave UConn.

“I can tell you that I feel most successful when I'm present at the players’ weddings,” he says. “Or, when they shoot me a text on Father's Day or they tell me they are going to be a father. Those are the times when I feel most successful. It's difficult to measure, you know, touching lives, but when you have that, what we call the ‘give back,’ that's the most satisfying thing. It's kind of like a drug. You want more of it.”

It’s All About The Grind

While Penders is certainly demanding and one who expects his players to hold themselves accountable both on and off the field, his style isn’t for everyone. It’s fair to say that anyone more interested in landing on the cover of GQ or promoting their own personal brand – be it on social media or in front of scouts – rather than that of the team probably won’t fit in.

It’s no surprise then to find Penders’ teams are predominantly made up of players from all over New England, the Tri-State area and Pennsylvania, far from the bright lights and blue skies of California, Texas, Florida and any other state where baseball can be played outside year-round. Simply put, players from the states Penders recruits tend to be mentally tougher, more equipped to handle adversity.

In Connecticut, when baseball season officially kicks off in January, conditions are better suited for ice fishing than throwing batting practice. To actually compete in these frigid temperatures, well that takes a certain type of fortitude, something not many recruits from warm-weather states possess. It’s not to say Penders wouldn’t take a recruit from that area of the country, it just means the adjustment period from high school to college may be longer and tougher.

“For us, it's toughness over talent all the time,” he says. “That's part of the ethos of the place, too. We want guys who are filthy, the ones who don’t need batting gloves or what we call Chrome – all that EvoShield protective gear and such. We want someone who isn't afraid of conflict, isn't afraid to get in a teammate’s face when he might be cheating his teammates. That's the kind of guy that can play for us.”

It’s hard to argue that the approach Penders takes toward recruiting is flawed in any way. Quite the contrary in fact. Entering his 19th season at the helm of Connecticut’s flagship baseball program, he has amassed 606 games and five regular-season or conference titles, and has appeared in seven NCAA Tournaments. What’s more, under his guidance, 15 Huskies have earned All-America honors, while 58 players have either been drafted or signed professional contracts. This includes first-round draft picks Mike Olt in 2010, Springer and Barnes in 2011 and Anthony Kay in 2016, with current COVID-sophomore Reggie Crawford likely to follow their path in the 2022 MLB Draft.

While the program has experienced heights any other program in New England can only dream of under his watch, Penders is adamant that it hasn’t even come close to peaked. And that’s scary for all of the other Division I baseball programs, especially now that he has the state-of-the-art Elliot Ballpark and Rizza Performance Center at his disposal.

“The second that you think you've got it figured out, you're going to get beat,” Penders notes. “That's what this game does to you. If you don’t stay humble and hungry, you’re in trouble. As a coach, I have to be looking out of the windshield, not the rearview mirror. I was watching Tom Brady’s Man in the Arena documentary recently, and he talked about suppressing success, and I really liked that. Let other people tell you how good you are, but don't ever believe it because once you do, it becomes – like (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban says – rat poison.”

Home Is Where The Heart Is

As Penders ages and, for all intent and purposes, grows wiser, it’s fair to wonder if he might get the itch to go elsewhere. Maybe a school in Gainesville or Miami, where the path to getting into the NCAA Tournament isn’t contingent on winning the conference title like it is in Storrs.

But that’s not Penders. If it’s easy, he’s just not interested. While one certainly has the right to pass judgment on any in-game decisions of his they don’t agree with, one thing they cannot question is his loyalty and love for the University of Connecticut.

In a business as cut-throat as recruiting, it’s rather common for coaching staffs to plant seeds of doubt in a recruit’s mind by speculating that the coach of another program the recruit is considering might leave for another job. That is not a tactic a competing coach can use against Penders, however. He has no interest in leaving UConn. Not even the ocean breeze and warmth of the Sunshine State would be enough of an allure to get him to leave his home.

“Geno Auriemma said it best,” Penders notes. “When he first got to Connecticut, he thought he'd be here four or five years, get the team to a Final Four, and then have to leave for the ACC or the SEC to win a national championship because the perception was there was no way that could be done at UConn. But he, Coach Calhoun, and others proved you can win it all here if just you work harder than everyone else. Don't get me wrong, I mean there are other places where it's going to be easier to win a national championship, but it would never be as satisfying than doing it at my alma mater.”

And the loyalty goes deeper than just the head coach. UConn has one of the longest – if not the longest-tenured staffs in all of Division I. MacDonald and hitting coach Jeff Hourigan both joined the program in 2012, while assistant coach Chris Podeszwa has been by Penders’ side since the day he took over the program.

It’s not just their collective love for baseball keeping them together. It’s their love for each other and family. It’s their passion for UConn and all that the brand represents. It’s the satisfaction they get out of watching each player grow into men of high character. Above all else, it’s that burning desire to continue building the program in the way in which Baylock did before them: through hard work and accountability.

Rest assured, whenever Penders does decide to hang up his cleats, life won’t necessarily come full circle for him since he won’t be returning to D.C. After all, that’s where people go to do nothing – and doing nothing doesn’t really suit someone like Jim Penders.