Donnie Tyndall touches down in Knoxville April 22.
May 22, 2014
It's now been one calendar month, and what a month that has been.
After achieving an incredible level of success with a pair of mid-major programs over the previous eight years, Donnie Tyndall was introduced as Tennessee's 19th head men's basketball coach on April 22.
As the sun ascended above the foothills of the Smoky Mountains that day, anointing another East Tennessee morning in its warm and glorious Big Orange glow, the landscape of UT's basketball program looked much different than it does today.
The roster appeared to include seven scholarship returnees. A four-man signing class featuring a pair guards and two big men hung in the balance. And just around from the corner from Tyndall's spacious new office in Thompson-Boling Arena, eight offices for assistant coaches and support staff sat vacant.
What can one man - fueled by a relentless, blue-collar work ethic and carrying a fierce competitive chip on his shoulder - accomplish in one month?
Let's take a look.
Tyndall wasted very little time assembling his full-time staff. But his urgency did not outweigh his instinct to make calculated decisions as it related to staffing.
Tyndall then poached Al Pinkins, a recruiting heavyweight who is highly respected by collegiate colleagues from coast-to-coast, from Ole Miss to fill the remaining assistant coaching vacancy. Pinkins and Tyndall were on staff together at Middle Tennessee a decade ago, so that appointment was accompanied by a high level of confidence and trust.
Justin Phelps and Todd Moyer also earned opportunities to follow Tyndall from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Knoxville as UT's new director of basketball operations and strength and conditioning coach, respectively.
A handful of administrative appointments have yet to be finalized. But the positions most closely tied to recruiting were filled in short order.
The next order of business was roster stabilization.
Priorities No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the list? You guessed it: Roster stabilization.
The timing of Tyndall's hiring handcuffed him in terms of his ability to build an on-court rapport with Tennessee's returning players. UT was in what is classified in NCAA terms as a "finals period," so the staff was prohibited from conducting any workouts.
Tyndall asked the current team members to stop by the basketball offices daily, but there would be no opportunity to interact in a competitive, whistles-blaring, sneakers-squeaking, perform or take-a-seat environment.
Already shook by the uncertainty that accompanies a coaching change, some players found themselves questioning whether or not a future in Big Orange Country was in their best interest.
A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson, both of whom would be sophomores next season, requested and were granted releases from their scholarships. Those defections reduced UT's number of scholarship returners to five.
The situation with the four-man signing class assembled by previous head coach Cuonzo Martin also appeared quite tenuous. Each of the four had requested their release, and Tyndall obliged.
"I just think these (signees) are really loyal to coach Martin," Tyndall told reporters on May 6. "Which, to be honest with you, I love. I respect that. I have no problem with that, I respect coach Martin."
Robert Hubbs III, who arrived at Tennessee as a highly touted, five-star prospect last summer but saw his freshman season cut short by a shoulder injury, also sought assurance that remaining as a Vol was the best decision for him and his family. Martin had personally recruited him to UT. And Hubbs was extremely close with both Davis and Thompson, so the idea of losing two of his closest friends on the team understandingly induced trepidation.
Tyndall helped add clarity to that situation when he brought each of his assistant coaches to the Hubbs household in Newbern, Tenn., May 7.
"I think it meant a lot that coach Tyndall brought everyone with him," Hubbs' father, Robert Hubbs Sr., told VolQuest.com. "I think bringing the whole staff was unusual and not only showed us how important Robert was, but also gave us a chance to get a better feel for everything."
Hubbs III informed Vol Nation of his decision via Twitter the day after that full-house meeting: I started out at Tennessee and I'm staying at the University of Tennessee.
Retaining Hubbs III was a victory, to be certain.
The recovery from the four signees defections officially had begun a few days prior, on May 5, when Tyndall inked the first player of what now stands at an eight-man signing class. Guard Jabari McGhee was the first domino to fall.
That set in motion a 16-day flurry of signings that was capped May 21 with the signing of 6-10 forward Tariq Owens.
During the aforementioned May 6 media session - just 14 days into his Tennessee tenure - Tyndall offered a foreshadowing quote that certainly resonates today.
"I promise you that in about a month, there are going to be people saying, 'Holy cow, they got that guy? They filled that spot with him?' We just have to let it unfold. There are a lot of guys out there that still haven't made their minds up. There are guys who are certainly interested in our program, and we're going to get our share over the next month.
"We're going to surprise some people with who we end up signing over the next few weeks."
Tyndall's eight signees include prep standouts McGhee, Owens, Willie Carmichael and Detrick Mostella; junior college players Devon Baulkman and Kevin Punter; and graduate transfers Ian Chiles and Eric McKnight. The group represents seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and North Carolina.
As things stand now, Tennessee's 13 allotted scholarships are filled. A pair of veteran walk-ons - Knoxville natives Brandon Lopez and Galen Campbell - brings the 2014-15 roster to the institutionally-mandated limit of 15 bodies.
Speaking at a Vol Network function in the East Club of Neyland Stadium the afternoon of May 22, Tyndall told attendees that his desire for this new-look 2014-15 team was for it to be "the most overachieving team in the country."
After a private jet brought Tyndall home to Knoxville late in the evening following a mid-May event in the Nashville area, a UTAD staffer dropped him off outside the basketball offices at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The courtesy SUV provided to him by the athletic department sat along the curb on Phillip Fulmer Way. Time to put the keys in the ignition, call it a night and head back to the downtown Knoxville hotel that served as "home?"
Hardly. Tyndall instead darted toward the arena lobby breezeway where Shumate stood, speaking on his cell phone (turning over stones in the roster stabilization effort, no doubt).
"10:30 staff meeting," Tyndall said with a boyish grin, as he scurried toward his office.
Talk about overachieving... Tyndall and his staff's work on the recruiting trail thus far has set one heck of an example in that department.
CRAZY IN A GOOD WAY
The line for autographs stretched clear across the cavernous room.
Tyndall, head down and wielding a black Sharpie marker, was carefully crafting a personal message on an 8x10 poster card bearing his name, likeness and Twitter handle (@UTCoachTyndall).
He penned the exclamation point after the words "Go Vols," and before he could even raise his eyes to catch his bearings, a wide-eyed baby boy outfitted in an orange onesie with white block letters spelling "Tennessee" across the chest was thrust into his arms.
It was family picture time. And Uncle Donnie drew the honor of posing with the newest member of this five-member clan, proudly decked out in UT gear and each instinctively grinning from ear-to-ear.
"I haven't been to a place where the fans are as passionate as they are here at UT," Tyndall said. "But that's exciting. I think it's fun that our fans are a little bit crazy in a good way. That excites me. And certainly I'm proud to be a part of it."
Tyndall shared greetings, smiles, stories and handshakes with every family, couple or solitary Vol fan who passed his signing station that evening at The Factory in Franklin, Tenn. A sold-out crowd of more than 400 fanatics had converged there for the Midstate stop on this year's five-city Big Orange Caravan tour.
Franklin was just the second stop on the caravan, which also visited Atlanta, Memphis, Chattanooga and Johnson City in Upper East Tennessee.
Though the days already lacked enough hours for him to dedicate the time he felt necessary to adequately address his program's personnel and recruiting needs, Tyndall was insistent upon finding a way to appear at all five tour stops.
Perhaps most impressive to those observing his interactions with fans was the fact that he seemed to do so with a genuine sense of joy.
He's certainly not afraid to poke fun at himself.
During his introductory press conference at Pratt Pavilion, his northern accent led his pronunciation of Vols to sound more like "Vals," causing an immediate social media stir. During several radio interviews in the days that followed - his total count for interviews conducted during his first 30 days on the job is approaching 50, reaching nearly every major market throughout the state as well as the Southeast - hosts playfully coached him on the proper pronunciation. He welcomed the ribbing and was quick to master the important aspects of the articulation of all things Vol.
"I'm a people person by nature," Tyndall said. "I like to get to know people and build relationships."
One relationship in particular was formed quickly and easily.
Tyndall and Tennessee football coach Butch Jones - both Michigan natives who, refreshingly, lack the off-putting egos so often displayed by big-time college coaches - sat side-by-side while traveling to and from each Big Orange Caravan event.
By the time the tour rolled into Johnson City for its fifth and final event on May 20, Jones joked that Tyndall had been eating too much Tennessee barbeque - Tyndall and his staff have already developed a fondness for the fare at Knoxville fixtures Calhoun's and Dead End BBQ - while Tyndall in return added a bit of pressure to Jones' upcoming fall by publicly predicting a gridiron victory over Florida.
"Coach Jones has been fantastic," Tyndall said. "He's spent a lot of time with me, probably too much with as busy as he is. He's a guy that has really gone out of his way to make me feel comfortable and to give me pointers and ideas.
"We went out to dinner the other night until about 1:00 in the morning, just talking. He's been unbelievably helpful and a great friend thus far. I wish I could help him as much as he helps me."
Jones has been a valuable asset for Tyndall, helping the new hoops coach learn the lay of the land on Rocky Top. But the pair also has enjoyed talking shop as it relates to their profession as mentors.
They've shared with one another their philosophies on recruiting, mentoring and motivating student-athletes. They've discussed Southeastern Conference politics.
They've simply become fast friends.
"I asked him today if he was still working off of momentum, energy and the adrenaline," Jones said. "And it's all of the above. I know what he's going through. There will be nights that I'll call him at 11:00, 11:30 at night and they're still in the office grinding it out. When you talk about similarities, we're both very appreciative of the opportunity to be here at the University of Tennessee. It's a very special place."
GOOD TO MEET YOU
Meeting new people. It's a crucial part of the process for anyone, in any profession, who embarks on a new job.
Now, imagine if your job was performed in front of more than 20,000 screaming fans. Forty intense minutes of many work days - 40 minutes that somehow span two-plus hours - are televised nationally.
Newspapers dedicate barrels of ink annually to analyzing you performance. Round-the-clock radio programming provides the forum for armchair "supervisors" to critique your every move and decision.
For jobs like this, the "meeting new people" part is like a full-time job all by itself.
If you live or work in the state of Tennessee, there's a decent chance you'll meet Tyndall this summer, too. Phelps is wearing the letters of his computer keyboard typing up all of Tyndall's impending speaking engagements for the coming weeks.
In his first 30 days on the job, Tyndall has met a veritable who's who of UT and SEC sporting royalty.
Pat Summitt. Gus Manning. Mike Slive. Johnny Majors.
Heck, Tyndall even ran into basketball Hall of Famer, NBA All-Star and "Dream Team" legend Charles Barkley at a Birmingham, Ala., airstrip.
The photo of Barkley sharing a handshake with Tyndall surely must have made fans of Barkley's alma mater, Auburn University, cringe. But even Sir Charles was not immune to the disarming charm that emanates from Tyndall.
A host of Tennessee basketball lettermen have stopped by Tyndall's office to meet their program's new caretaker. UT's all-time winningest player, Wayne Chism (2007-10), and upcoming NBA Draft hopeful Jordan McRae (2011-14) both popped in to say hello recently.
"He seemed real cool. Just a normal, down-to-earth guy," McRae said. "Everything I've heard so far has been really positive. He told me I was welcome back here to use the facilities and train anytime. He said to just give him a call if I ever needed anything. It was great to hear that from him."
Tyndall also has met several Vol lettermen at Big Orange Caravan events and other functions - Lang Wiseman and Rob Murphy just to name a few.
"If (Tyndall's) obvious energy and gusto for the job shows up in wins and losses, then there's plenty to be excited about," said Wiseman, a former UT guard and Academic All-American who now resides in Memphis.
Having heard tale after tale regaling the hardwood exploits of legendary Tennessee head coach Ray Mears since even before he took the job, Tyndall was thrilled to meet Mears' sons, Steve and Matt, during the Johnson City caravan stop May 20.
During the function's official program, emceed by UT Director of Broadcasting Bob Kesling, Kesling introduced the brothers and handed over the mic. They then proceeded to bestow an honor upon Tyndall that only true Tennessee fans can properly appreciate.
They presented Tyndall with his very own orange blazer, the gameday attire made famous by their late father. Recent Vol basketball coaches have worn the "orange armor," as Mears once called it, for games against traditional rivals such as Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
On stage, in front of yet another sold out crowd, Tyndall tried on his new colorful coat - it fit. He immediately agreed to carry on the sartorial tradition.
The ovation he and the Mears brothers received at that moment brought goose bumps to the skin of those in the room. But it will pale in comparison to the triple-digit decibel downpour that surely will accompany the jacket's Thompson-Boling Arena debut this winter.
After throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the Tennessee-Florida baseball game May 15 and then spending an inning on the air with the Vol Network radio broadcast crew, Tyndall and members of his staff exited Lindsey Nelson Stadium through the front gates.
They were on their way to enjoy dinner along the bank of the Tennessee River at - where else - Calhoun's near campus with a recruit, Owens, who wound up signing with the Vols six days later.
As Tyndall left the ballpark, he was stopped by Benny Woods, an usher supervisor who works events at several UT athletic venues and is a familiar face to fans.
As the two spoke privately, Tyndall's eyes grew wide and his face lit up. He nodded, smiled, laughed and nodded some more. Finally with a hearty slap on Woods' shoulder, the two parted ways and Tyndall regrouped with members of his staff for the walk back to Thompson-Boling Arena.
"You know, it really is a small world," Tyndall said with a sense of marvel.
Apparently Woods knew some of Tyndall's old AAU teammates and high school opponents from back in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Walking away from the stadium, the pregame playlist tunes bellowing from the ballpark speakers grew fainter. Tyndall looked down as he walked. He grinned and shook his head, seemingly reliving those boyhood playing days, when he was walking in the shoes of the young men he now recruits to Tennessee.
A career's worth of hustle and grind earned him this opportunity. His hardwood playing days are long behind him now, occupying a shelf in his memory bank accessed only for small periods of time during moments such as this.
In the blink of an eye, he snapped back into the now. His eyes rose, his pace accelerated and he ignited a high-energy discussion with Owens and his father.
Plenty of work left to do. For Tyndall, the "work" likely will never be done. He's built for the grind.
But one month as a Vol is now in the books. And what a month it has been.