Longtime BHS Football, Wrestling Coach Joins State’s Best
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
Bob Penn, who won more than twice as many football games as he lost in 27 years as the Brentwood High School head coach, was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame yesterday in Springfield.
Penn, 71, and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Willie McGee are among the 15 individuals and two high school programs that make up the hall’s 2014 enshrinement class. He is the first BHS coach to be named to the hall of fame. Linda Dollar, a 1966 graduate of BHS who coached women’s volleyball at Missouri State for 23 years, was inducted in 2011.
Penn was a coach and either a teacher or an administrator in the Brentwood School District for 37 years. He was an assistant football coach for six years, the head coach for 27 years from 1974 to 2001, the head wrestling coach from 1967 to 1987 and the assistant principal at BHS for 12 years, until his retirement in 2004, when the football stadium was named after him.
As a head football coach, Penn amassed a record of 168-81-2. Add to it his six years as a football assistant and 20 years heading the wrestling program and his record is 227-97-2. No football season was more memorable than in 1987, when the Eagles lost to Seneca 20-13 in the Class 2A state title game in Columbia.
Despite not having been a wrestler himself, Penn coached two state champions: Rodney Carr in 1973 and Rodney’s brother Greg Carr in 1983.
Sam Davis was the boys basketball coach and athletic director at BHS for many years and a longtime colleague of Penn.
“Bob did a good job with the kids he had,” said Davis. “Sometimes he didn’t have the best talent but his kids played hard and his teams were always in the games. The kids responded to him really well. He was also well liked by both parents and teachers.”
Penn was an assistant under head football coach John Titus before Titus recommended him to lead the program.
“The biggest thing I appreciate about Bob was that, when we didn’t have such good teams, he was able to keep the kids together,” said Titus. “He had a nice rapport with students, parents and fans.”
Titus said he and Penn had starkly different offensive coaching styles.
“I was a very conservative field position coach and Bob didn’t even know about field position,” said Titus. “He was a riverboat gambler. He liked to throw the long ball. I was primarily a short passing, control passing person.”
Earl Brown was a Brentwood teacher or administrator for most of the years Penn was here.
“When he retired from coaching he was the assistant principal for a while and he really worked well with the kids because he knew how to address problems,” said Brown. “It’s a tough job that takes a lot of patience and mediation. You can’t just cut people off. You have to be fair with the student body. He’s a good listener. As a coach he paid attention to the lower grades and to where the talent was. He was good at making kids want to go out to play for him.”
Retirement Lasts One Year
After retiring in 2004, Penn took a year off, got bored and went back to work for six years not far from his home in Lake St. Louis. He worked a year selling home appliances at Sears and five years as a concierge and driver for residents of a retirement community.
He retired for good a couple of years ago and has struggled with health problems but “I’ve been fortunate in that what I’ve had has been treatable.” He and Karen will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary this March.
The Penns were joined at the hall of fame ceremony by 22 family members, by Titus and by Ken Jones, a wrestler he coached who graduated from BHS in 1981.
“He’s very deserving,” said Titus. “I’m glad he’s being inducted and I’m glad I’m able to go down.”
The Brentwood Spirit interviewed Penn on Friday, the day before he and Karen drove to Springfield for the hall of fame induction. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Who have been the most influential people in your career?
“In the educational aspect of it I had Earl Renfroe, the principal at McGrath who hired me. Also Ned Wicks, the high school principal I worked with for many years. In the coaching area I was fortunate to have a person like John Titus who had not only the ability to have good sports programs but was also a great Christian person to influence me. My good friend Jim Taylor – I worked with him and Charlie Kapfer, my assistant coaches, for 25 years. Having longtime coaches knowing the program was a big part of what we accomplished.”
How did you become a football coach?
“I played football for East St. Louis High School and for Central Missouri State University, where I majored in PE. I was student teaching at College High School in Warrensburg and the coach asked me to be the line coach since I’d played at CMSU. The team had 17 kids in all and I had only 10 linemen to work with. But we ended up winning the conference championship and were undefeated. So I was hooked – I wanted to coach football.”
How did you get the job teaching PE at McGrath Elementary?
“At Warrensburg the placement office got me two interviews – at Raymore-Peculiar High School in the Kansas City area and at Brentwood. One of the persons in the placement bureau had come from Brentwood and said, ‘I think you should interview for this position in Brentwood.’ I had coached his son at College High. So one weekend I went to Brentwood. I went back to Warrensburg and told my wife that Brentwood had a starting salary of $5,500, which wasn’t much even then. But the salary at Ray-Pec was $5,300. So I went with the money [laughs]. Besides, my family and my wife’s family are from East St. Louis.”
The school’s trophy case has huge football trophies for conference championships from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s. Why did Brentwood go independent?
“Just to line up and to run the ball against schools like Affton, Clayton and Maplewood, all were larger than us. They brought Ladue into the ring and at that time they were 1,100 kids. So we were going to be the smallest public school in the area playing football against schools much larger than us. I appealed to the school board that we go independent, and that we play schools throughout the state that were more our size. So we started playing schools like Valley Ste. Genevieve, Crystal City, a schedule without league play, and we became independent. I think that helped our program for a while because we were playing size on size. And then in the late 1980s, early 1990s, there was a move in Brentwood to start soccer. Many of the parents pressured the board into the soccer program and they got it. I told them at the time that we don’t have a lot of kids playing football now – we had 40 kids at one point. So soccer started and it went down to 27 kids out for football. We’d always had freshman and JV teams but had to drop the JV team.”
Comparing his style of offensive coaching to yours, John Titus called you a riverboat gambler.
“I would throw the ball on the 20-yard line and he would cringe whenever I did it. I thought that if we’re going to compete against larger schools and bigger kids, we’d better be able to throw the ball. We tried to do the option for a while but I found there wasn’t enough time in practice to work on it. So we developed a few running plays and mostly passing. We’d throw the ball 30 or 40 times a game.”
Earl Brown said that one of your keys to success was to know all the potential football players who were coming up through the elementary schools.
“A fellow in Brentwood started kids playing in the Westco League, West County. He had success with it. When he passed away, I saw an opportunity for some of my former players to take it over, guys like Dean Evans and Mark Surgener. They were running our plays and our defenses. So when I had kids coming up, they already knew what plays we were running and defenses we were in. It’s smart to keep track of kids. Because of the Junior Eagles program I knew what was coming, what was going to happen to us in a couple of years and what wasn’t going to happen.”
Tell me about losing to Seneca by only seven points in the 1987 state title game. It’s the closest Brentwood has ever come to being a state football champion.
“We were a good team because of chemistry and ability. As the players had gotten older they’d come together. We had five kids who got college football scholarships: our quarterback, Mike Butler, was about 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds. He and Paris Saunders, a wide receiver, went to SWMSU in Springfield. My son Rob was a running back and went to SEMSU in Cape Girardeau.”
“I knew Seneca would be tough. This was like their third time in the final and they’d taken second place each time. MSHSAA lined us up with a terrible time schedule: 9 a.m. in Columbia. I had to get kids up at six o’clock to eat and have meetings and get ready. And you know teenage kids − the worst thing in the world is to have to get up early in the morning. And it was raining. At that time in Columbia, Faurot Field was slippery when it rained. So we had a lot of kids with the wrong shoes, slipping and sliding. I don’t want to make excuses for our performance, but I felt like we could have had better conditions. We ended up losing it on fourth and two on their 20. When we didn’t make it, they had to run out only about a minute and a half.”
Why did you go back to work after retiring from education?
“Karen retired from nursing and we moved to Lake St. Louis in 1990, planning on it being our future retirement place. But after moving there I continued to work in Brentwood for 14 years, which shows you how much I liked going to work, because I’d drive 45 minutes one way. Before that we had lived on Moritz Avenue and it took me two minutes to walk to class in the morning. I finally retired in 2004 and for a year and a half I played. I traveled in an RV and then I got bored. I got up one morning and said to my wife, ‘What are we going to do today?’ She said, ‘You’ve been asking me that a lot.’ I said, ‘I feel like I’m inadequate, I need to do something.’ She said, ‘Well, go do something.’”
What did it take to get in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame?
“The help of a lot of different people. I’ve been so fortunate to have good mentors, my principals who taught me how to relate to kids, how to work with others. Good people who were assistant coaches and teachers. Now I take pride in this very special recognition. It’s something I’m fortunate to receive but I wouldn’t have received it had it not been for family and friends and great coaches and players.”
Willie McGee – outfielder, St. Louis Cardinals
Ed Podolak – running back, Kansas City Chiefs
Mike Macfarlane – catcher, Kansas City Royals
Luke Snyder – professional bull rider, Springfield
Gary Link – University of Missouri announcer, Columbia
Patty Viverito – senior associate commissioner, Missouri Valley Conference
Andy Hill – associate head football coach, University of Missouri
Jason Pyrah – two-time USA track and field Olympian, Willard
Bob Kendrick – president, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City
Jack Steck – swimming coach, Drury and Missouri State University, Springfield
Becky Oakes – director of sports, National Federation of State High School Associations, Indianapolis
Dr. Mark Adams – University of Missouri team physician, Columbia
Tom Smith – basketball coach, Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph
Warren Turner – baseball coach, Missouri Southern University, Joplin
Robert Penn – football coach, Lake St. Louis
Hillcrest High School and American Legion baseball programs, Springfield
Parkway West High School swimming program, Ballwin
Empire Bank/Central Trust & Investment Co., Springfield – John Q. Hammons Founder’s Award
Charles E. Brown, Lebanon – President’s Award