Out there in Odessa, tucked away in the unrelenting Texas plains, there are only two rules that governed a basketball coach’s life.
Rule No. 1: “You never let a recruit see the gym.”
And Rule No. 2, “You never, I mean never, let a kid leave campus without f— signing.”
Those were AJ Maxwell’s rules when he was cutting his teeth as an assistant basketball coach at UT Permian Basin, a Division II school with an athletic budget that tops out at $4 million. Everything else was pretty much fair game — or more accurately, everything else was in the job description.
In the confines of BYU’s basketball facility, next door to the 19,000-seat Marriott Center, new Cougars basketball assistant Kahil Fennell can now comfortably recount his own blue-collar past and the lessons he learned at the tiny Texas school.
“You kind of have to be everything to everyone there,” Fennell said.
Need 50 hand warmers 30 minutes before a game because the heat is out in the gym? Coach, go get it. Need an extra meal because the athletic department can’t pay for food? Coach, can you spot me.
And need some life advice on how you somehow ended up here, where the summers spike to 100 degrees and the winters plummet to zero, where basketball talent can go to die, and where assistant coaches don’t even get paid? Well, Coach has that, too ... but only if you sign.
From 2015-17, Fennell called Permian Basin, a school that has five full scholarships and no facilities to speak of, home. He took one of the worst jobs in college basketball and produced a team that won a school-record 26 games. And he brought in the best recruiting class in the school history without showing a single kid the campus.
“If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere,” said Maxwell, a former assistant at UTPB and current coach at Detroit Mercy. “I’m not kidding with you, the equipment room at BYU is probably bigger than the locker room at UTPB. Give him BYU, and imagine what he’ll do.”
The stories out of UTPB are stuff of legend. It is a desolate place in a desolate part of the country. Why would anyone go there? And for a long time, nobody did.
It was the least funded school in the Lone Star Conference — the most competitive Division-II league that has its way of beating down the laggards. The job was often seen as a dead-end, a place to be fodder to the Midwestern States and Tarltons of the world. Both of those schools routinely beat Division I programs every year.
But Fennell came in clear-eyed and ready to break into the college ranks. He had bounced around in the junior college and Division-III as a player, and coached high school in California for a bit. For years before that, he was a medical device salesman. He saw UTPB as his opportunity.
“Oh yeah, when we got there it was a bottom 5% job in the country,” said Andy Newman, the former head coach of UTPB and now the coach at Cal State San Bernardino. “I don’t know if he knew what he was getting into. But damn did he hit the ground running.”
He learned quickly a recruiting strategy at a place like this is more of a therapy session. You find guys who are broken, who everyone has counted out, then convince them you want them.
And in that process, you better not bring them to the gym or on-campus at all. On-campus visits cost the program $400, something that could be better spent paying for heated gyms in the winter.
“And besides, you didn’t really want the kid to see the gym anyway,” Fennell added. “If they did, they wouldn’t come. Wires were sticking out the walls. Bleachers on just one side. So we did all of our work on the phone.”
If a kid did visit campus on his own, the coaches had to steer guys away from the hallways outside the gym, too. The pipes in the place were so old that towels were permanently placed in the hallways to avoid the constant dripping water from getting onto the floor.
UTPB is one of the only schools that doesn’t even take its annual team photo in the gym. They take it outside — one less chance to see the facilities.
“And the locker rooms were also a red-line no,” Maxwell said. “Even if they asked. Those lockers were so small that you couldn’t sit down without touching another person’s feet.”
But somehow, Fennell managed to pull in recruits that had no business coming to Odessa. Fennell found guys like DeShaun Francis who became an All-American. Josh Morris was hiding out in a school in Missouri and became the best big man in the country. Sammy Allen was a Division I talent, but failed a class so Fennell got him. He became one of the better rebounders in the nation.
Slowly, UTPB put together a roster that won 26 games. In a place with no basketball tradition, students started to show up for games.
But it didn’t come without greasing the wheels a bit. Fennell paid out of his own pocket for a DJ to perform at the games and to feed pizza to the few students who showed up.
Outside of game day, Fennell would routinely run to the bookstore to take pictures of pages needed for homework. The school never paid for books. On his off day, Fennell made nameplates out of card stock for lockers to make it look like a program befitting of a Lone Star Championships.
“It’s funny, the day we won the Lone Star we are so happy,” Fennell said. “And I realize, shoot I still got to pay the DJ. So I pull out $75 of my own money and give it to him. It’s just the place it was. But it was really special.”
That year, the team won the Lone Star Conference regular season and tournament. It was the best team in school history. In a conference that normally doesn’t reward the bottom-dwellers, UTPB did the impossible.
Fennell eventually left for Portland State. Maxwell left for Detroit Mercy. Newman left for Cal State San Bernardino.
Since then, Fennell has been to Louisville and now BYU. And likely, it was his experience in the ACC that ended up getting him the job at BYU.
But according to those at UTPB, it is his time on the Texas plains that will actually make him successful in Provo. Where together, a group of coaches in the remote abyss, made a miracle happen.
“If Kahil could sell a kid on Andy Newman and UTPB, imagine what he can do with Mark Pope and BYU, Newman said. “That guy is going to be a head coach one day.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.