Interview with Dave Pentkowski

How did you come to choose Middlebury?

I’m from Vermont originally, so I was familiar with Middlebury and Tom Lawson, the basketball coach, had been a high school coach of mine, so that was the original connection. But I left Vermont to go to Philips Exeter and graduated from there and then returned. One of the main reasons, at least from an athletics standpoint, that I picked Middlebury was to play two sports — I played soccer and basketball.

When I spoke to Tom Lawson he said he was surprised you chose Middlebury. Can you elaborate on that?

I had a scholarship to the University of North Carolina and I was trying to be practical. My chances of participating very much were pretty slim, although it was attractive — the thought of playing for that program.

I also liked the idea of being in a smaller environment. I grew up in a small town. I like Vermont.

And then specifically about the College itself, what attracted you to Middlebury?

I had been up and watched some of the basketball, which wasn’t great quality. It was definitely a school that was geared more towards hockey. And I had a friend, Dave Davidson who was also looking at Middlebury, and ended up being the center on our team, so that was another attraction, to be able to play with him. During the summer leading up to our freshmen year we probably played five nights a week together.

I don’t regret it, I tell you. I had such good friendships because of the basketball program.

Who are some of the people who stand out in your mind when you think back?

Kevin Cummings was the year behind me, and we’ve stayed very close. If we go a long period of time without talking and we pick up the phone, it’s like back on the first day at Middlebury.

There were guys I would have done anything for — it was a very close, very loyal group.

What are some of your more outstanding memories with those guys on campus?

In any sport you’re going to have highs and lows. And it’s a long season, too; you start before Christmas and you end in March. I remember being on campus during winter break and there’s no one else there, and there’s an echo in the dormitory.

I recall one time when Davidson was sick and we were going to play St. Michael’s, who was at that time one of the better teams, and we hung in and lost because I missed a free throw at the end of the game. You would think after 40 years you might forget that stuff, but you don’t. You still want to shoot it again.

Your freshman year the team goes 15-8, which is the winningest season the team has had in its history. You follow that up your senior year with a 17-8 season that went unmatched until very recently. What did Tom Lawson do as a coach that allowed you guys to be so successful?

We had talent, but I think we were undisciplined without him. We played more mature and I think that was a big part of it. By senior year we had talented juniors and we finally bought into the idea that we couldn’t all play the way we did in high school.

Tom was very regimented on offense. He was impatient if we were impatient offensively … there was no shot clock back then.

What was his style like from an Xs and Os standpoint?

I think that’s where we bucked him a little bit over the years. We wanted to play more of an up-tempo game. We spent a lot of time running Xs and Os, but it wasn’t the run-and-gun style we thought we were good at. But who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have succeeded at all if we had played that way. When Bobby Knight started at army he had games against Navy that were 22-20. They were very, very slow, hold the ball. We didn’t play like that, but there was some of that attitude that you should never take a bad shot.  I teased Tom a few years back at his retirement that he made us hold the ball so much that we would hold it, get a layup and lose by four.

What games or moments stand out in your mind?

We beat UVM a couple of times in my sophomore season. Those were big wins — to beat UVM was a huge thing. The Williams games were always good. Those went both ways … we got whipped pretty good and we beat them a couple of times. I remember getting in a fight at the end of the Wesleyan game at Wesleyan and ending up at the bottom of the pile.

What created that?

Me. [Laughs] I was getting some cheap shots throughout the game from one of their guys, who was a pretty good player. He was smacking me around and it got under my skin and after three overtimes and finally winning the game, I should have just walked away, but I was immature and went over to their bench and confronted him and of course the rest of his team wasn’t pleased they had just lost in triple overtime and I was causing a fuss. So before I knew it, I was at the bottom of the pile. I think that was probably the most disappointed Tom Lawson ever was with me.

How did your relationship with him as a coach develop from playing for him in high school and then again in college?

I go back to him where I was maybe in the third or fourth grade and he invited me to work out with the junior high. So I go way, way back with him. But we had a break from each other because he went to Middlebury when I was a junior in high school. So I had a different coach then and then I went to Philips Exeter for a year, so I had a different experience. I kind of started over with him in college. But we had such a history. I would get upset with him from time to time, but I would have his back then as I do now. I would do anything for the guy. He’s loyal, he’s a wonderful guy. He was like that with everybody. He was just a caring, caring guy very concerned about all his players.

There was some racial tensions at times. There were some black players who weren’t very good and [Tom] had to make them realize he was calling them as he saw it. One time when we had a couple of guys who were cut and they thought it was because coach was being prejudice. One of the deans came and watched as he ran a second tryout for them and the dean said, “I know why they cut those guys, they weren’t any good!

What’s the biggest difference between basketball of the 70s and basketball of today?

I’ve been back to Middlebury a couple of times — mostly to watch basketball!

How do you think playing basketball prepared you for life after Middlebury?

In my field the competition was part of what attracts me to do what I do now. I think that learning to deal with the calls you get, by referees, by coaches. Things that are out of your control, it’s the same as dealing with judges a lot of times. Judges make a ruling you don’t think is fair, but once he makes the call you just move on, you can sit around and stomp your feet.




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