Leaning on a dugout railing Tuesday afternoon before the 934th game of his career, UConn baseball coach Jim Penders let his thoughts roam and his words retrace a university's history. He mentioned the Storrs brothers, Charles and Augustus, who donated land and money toward the formation of Storrs Agricultural College in the early 1880s.
"All to create a college that was about making better farmers," Penders said as his players began to warm up for a game at UMass. "Now our crops are these kids. If you want to be good at UConn, you have to wake up earlier than anybody, and you can't be afraid to get your hands dirty like those farmers. That's really what it is. We're now able to hold on to valedictorians and salutatorians, but it's a place where blue collar work ethic will serve you well. Impressions of this state, people may think of prep schools, the Gold Coast, hedge fund managers, maybe the elite. Yet the university represents something that is the polar opposite. It is about hard work."
Penders is in his 16th season as UConn coach, and he has spent 27 of the past 29 years as part of the Huskies' program, a player and captain before graduating in 1994, then an assistant under Andy Baylock.
When he applied to replace the retiring Baylock in 2003, Penders told then-athletic director Jeff Hathaway that his goal was not to be a college baseball coach. He said it was to be the UConn baseball coach.
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And in the years since, Penders has not simply been a great coach at UConn. He has been a great UConn coach. There is a difference.
For their success, their pride and even their family history, some people become indispensable parts of a university's fabric and community. Penders is one of those at UConn, the kid who thought an elementary school lesson on the Yukon River was about the place his father went to college, the man who is about to surpass his mentor and dear friend, Baylock, as the baseball program's all-time leader in victories.
Will miss playing for Coach Penders more than anything. The best there is https://t.co/oU0xDa3YAO— John Toppa (@johntoppa) April 13, 2019
A 10-7 victory Tuesday pushed Penders' record to 549-380-5. Baylock was 556-492-8 in 1980-2003. Larry Panciera won 297 games in 1962-79. Before him, J.O. Christian won 254 in 1936-61.
"Each guy raised it," Baylock said of the program's profile. "Jimmy has raised it 10 times."
Penders, a political science major, spent two years after his UConn graduation as a political fundraiser but returned to Storrs as a graduate assistant under Baylock in 1997. Baylock recalls whispers in baseball circles, that Penders was a hot coaching prospect, and approaching then-athletic director Lew Perkins about making Penders the program's first full-time assistant.
"You've got to help me," Baylock told Perkins. "We can't afford to lose him."
Lose him? Today, that's funny. Just a few weeks ago, Penders received a phone call from an agent gauging his interest in a high-profile, high-paying college baseball job. His answer: "I just don't have any interest."
Because Penders is the UConn baseball coach, and that's the wonderful way that it is.
He is successful with a modern touch to old-school approaches of discipline and structure. Players arrive clean shaven, Penders won't accept anything less than "a hard 90" down the baseline and he values pregame infield/outfield practice. Each Friday, he meets with players to collect blue academic cards, detailing classes and responsibilities with boxes that must be checked.
"An old system that works," Penders said. "They sign their name. I trust them. I treat them like men. Until or unless their academic counselor calls and says, 'Smith hasn't been in class.'"
The program has a strong graduation rate among players who exhaust their eligibility. Some don't, though. Some, like Nick Ahmed, leave to play professionally and make life-changing money. He might not ever have to graduate, and that's another sign of the program's growth under Penders, the pipeline it has become for the major leagues.
Penders' father, also Jim, and his uncle Tom were members of UConn's 1965 College World Series team. While Tom went on to a nomadic life of college basketball coaching while Jim spent 43 seasons as the baseball coach at East Catholic, raising his family in Vernon.
Penders grew up feeding ducks on Mirror Lake. His first field trip in kindergarten was to Horsebarn Hill. He spent years driving back and forth to UConn's campus, watching baseball games with his dad in the 1970s, '80s and '90s before actually pulling on the jersey.
You couldn't pull it off him now. The only thing Penders hasn't accomplished yet is a trip to Omaha, and he hears about that from his dad and uncle at every holiday gathering. Just 47, Penders is nonetheless on his way to becoming a UConn legend, about to pass an established one, Baylock.
"I'll never be able to break his record for the number of lives he's touched," Penders said. "It's so nice to have a road map, a guy who is a blueprint. If you can do it half as well as Andy Baylock did, and half as well as Larry Panciera did, and half as well as J.O. Christian did, you're going to be doing really well."
Baylock remains one of the more active and passionate men on campus. He attends almost every baseball home game, usually leaning up against a fence along left field. He attended the wedding of Penders' parents in 1969 and eventually passed the coaching baton to the man who once roamed the perimeter of the field as a kid.
Baylock is not only glad Penders is about to break his record. He hopes Penders obliterates it.
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"I didn't want to put 40 years of my life into something and have someone come in and screw it all up," Baylock said. "I love that guy. He's eloquent, smart, respected. He's a UConn guy."
Some people are just made for what becomes of their life's work. There's something profound to be said for staying happy on the job, never wondering if there is another kind of happiness elsewhere.
"UConn is home," Penders said. "It's comfortable. It's not so comfortable that it's not challenging, because it's still damn challenging. I've just tried to not screw it up. I'm a caretaker, that's all."
No, that's not all. Penders is about to become the biggest winner UConn baseball has known.
This article is written by Mike Anthony from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.