Throughout their coaching careers Tom Penders and Al Skinner have each heard the trumpets flourish and the wolves at the gates.
Each knows all too well what it feels like to be heralded as a program’s savior and to have fans calling for their jobs.
So it was only fitting that the two were back in Kingston last week for the University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team’s season finale against UMass at the Ryan Center.
During a media timeout in the first half URI recognized the 25th anniversary of the 1987-88 men’s basketball team that made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, of which Penders and Skinner served as head and assistant coaches, respectively.
As this season of transition from the Jim Baron regime to the Danny Hurley era came to a close both Penders and Skinner had similar thoughts on what Hurley needs to do to turn things around at URI.
“The most important thing is getting familiar with your program and your university and trying to establish with your staff,” Skinner says, “basically what I’m saying is building a foundation for what your future is going to be.
“You’ve got to come in with a little bit of a game plan and once you do that you’re going to give yourself a chance to be successful.”
“The most important thing is to change the culture and the attitude of the players,” says Penders. “[Hurley] followed a program that was failing basically. The kids that were in that program were not winning.
“You have to first change that culture into thinking that they can win every night.”
The need for change has not been lost on Hurley, as countless times throughout the season he has spoken of a need to change the culture in Kingston.
Now with year one in the books it would appear that Hurley has done that, even if it didn’t show in the Rams’ 8-21 (3-13 Atlantic 10) record as on the court progress was evident.
“You want to see some progress. It doesn’t always have to come out in W’s and L’s but in the way the guys play,” Skinner says.
“Are you establishing a style of play that you want to have and if you are and you’re executing that then it’s just a matter of time before you start to win games. The most important thing is that you continue to see progress.”
Rhody did just that this season as aside from lopsided losses at UMass and St. Joseph’s the Rams were in the mix in just about every conference game.
It’s the kind of progress that Penders – based on his personal experience – knows to be a step in the right direction.
“It’s not necessarily important that you win,” Penders says, “because I turned around seven programs in my career and not every one of them was an immediate turn around.
“…It’s got to be changing their attitude toward the game, getting them to play together and hold each other accountable. I believe Danny has done that, I believe Danny’s team had become a real, true team and they are getting the max out of the abilities of this ball club.”
“It’s not going to happen overnight, just like your culture is not going to get changed overnight,” Hurley says, “but we’ve made some huge, huge strides there.”
Penders – who lives in Narragansett – has helped out Hurley when he can this season serving as an unofficial liaison to the coach.
“He bounces a lot of things off me and I suggest certain things and then he makes decisions on what he feels,” Penders says. “I saw myself in Dan Hurley [and] that was me when I was young.”
“I’d call him my psychologist this year or my counselor,” Hurley says of Penders. “He’s been great for me. This has been a tough year, you know it’s been hard.
“…We all need people that we respect that we can talk to during the course of the season that keep us focused on the big picture and coach [Penders] does a great job of that for me. Obviously his personality is something that he keeps you loose and I don’t know if you notice this I’m an intense guy.”
While Hurley appears to have put his own mark on the program his job is by no means over yet as now the process of recruiting his kind of players to come to Kingston will be equally critical to URI’s success going forward.
“There are no shortcuts, it’s going to take time,” Skinner says. “The hardest thing is obviously there aren’t a lot of players in the area so you have to go into other people’s back yards.
“It’s going to take time to establish an identity, it’s going to take time for the University to kind of get back on the map with all these changes going on its hard.”
Penders notes though that there are certainly plenty of positives that will help Hurley attract recruits to come play for the Rams.
“We didn’t have this building,” Penders says. “This Ryan Center, the location of the University of Rhode Island, the fact that it’s in a great league.”
“I’d like to see the [A-10] promote themselves a little bit more. It’s so much better than people’s perspective of it, it’s outstanding.”
Whether or not Hurley can turn things around in Kingston is still unknown but so far he seems to be headed in the right direction.