July 7, 2014
John Akers wrote the following cover story for the July issue of Basketball Times. Known as "the Real Voice of collegiate basketball" for more than 30 years, Basketball Times is widely read by coaches, administrators and media. The magazine combines award-winning writing with incredible amounts of inside information. To subscribe, visit BasketballTimes.com
Looking back, Donnie Tyndall's three seasons as a player at Morehead State produced nearly as many future coaches as conference victories.
No one realized it at the time - because no one ever does - but this was just the beginning for a roster of basketball junkies who would find much greater success for themselves as head coaches of NAIA national champions (Kelly Wells of Pikeville); Division I assistants (John Brannen of Alabama; Mike Mennenga of Canisius and Johnnie Williams of Grambling); junior-college assistants (Keith Kinzler of Joliet, Ill.); high-school coaches (Troy Lee Thomas, girls coach at Bath County); high-school-coaches-turned-principals (Brett Roberts and Marty Cline); and directors of basketball academies (Mike Gillespie Jr., a former assistant for his father at Florida A&M). Now, in Tyndall, the Morehead State Eagles of 1990-93 also have the head coach at Tennessee.
The same qualities that made "D.T." a popular teammate would deliver him to a Southeastern Conference school's sidelines: Tyndall's passion, personality, work ethic and stubborn determination have served him well along an unlikely coaching path from Iowa Central and St. Catharine junior colleges to become the SEC's youngest assistant, at LSU, in his first three seasons of coaching, and eventually back to Morehead State again in 2006 to begin his own successful run as a head coach that would take him, following a stop at Southern Mississippi, to Tennessee. This is who Donnie Tyndall is. This is where he is from. This is the Donnie Tyndall who friends and former co-workers say has never forgotten that, and probably never will.
"In my mind, I'm a grunt guy, if you will," Tyndall said. "I ground it out and made it happen for myself, which is hard to do in this profession.
"One part of me is not intimidated, totally not in awe of the position. I feel like I could have been at a school like (Tennessee) five years ago. And I don't mean that arrogantly. On the flip side, I have to pinch myself every couple of days, because I'm so humbled to get this chance, because so many people who are better coaches than me never got this chance. It's kind of a Catch-22. Part of me is, `Yup, I'm good. I'm ready. Let's roll.' And part of me is, `Wow. Am I dreaming? Is this really happening?'"
None of Morehead State's Eagles branched out from anything resembling an Iba, Izzo or Pitino coaching tree. Instead, the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Tyndall played sparingly in his final two seasons for Dick Fick, whose sideline antics (lying prostrate on the court or "hanging" himself with his own tie) were Jim Valvano's inspiration for ESPN's "Dick Fick Award" for coaching histrionics. Fick would die about 10 years later, at the age of 50, from bleeding ulcers related to alcoholism.
"He had no use for me," Tyndall recalled. "He ran off a bunch of guys. And he tried to make me quit. I would not quit. I'd never quit anything in my life."
During the Fick era, Mennenga recalled, "there was always some type of melodrama going on." The players bonded, nevertheless, over a shared love of basketball that went beyond the norm even for a Division I program.
"Just as much as I loved playing basketball, during those years I probably enjoyed the basketball conversations," Mennenga said. "In the locker room. In the dorm. In somebody's apartment. It was all hoops all the time with these cats."
Said Roberts, who led the nation in scoring, at 28.1 ppg, during Tyndall's junior season and spent seven years as a pitcher in the minors before returning to South Webster (Ohio) High, his alma mater, as a coach: "We had guys who just genuinely liked basketball. If we weren't playing, we were talking about it. And if we weren't talking about it, we were watching it."
Added Cline: "When you get all those minds together, you almost start thinking alike. It rubs off."
The former teammates remember that Tyndall was never far from anything basketball-related, even if it were late in a disappointing season that didn't offer him many minutes.
"DT had a charisma about him," Mennenga said. "He was everybody's guy in the locker room. His love and passion for the game was fully ablaze even in those days."
Added Cline: "Everyone always liked DT. Everyone knew who he was on campus. You waved at him. He'd know your name. A lot of that stuff takes you far in the business world. That's what coaching is at this level."
Tyndall had originally planned to follow a few of his teammates into the high-school coaching ranks, but as a student teacher began to realize that eight hours of teaching history was eight hours away from basketball.
When he decided to take the collegiate route, his former coach at Iowa Central - Dennis Pilcher, who recently completed his 35th season at the school - gave him a shot. Tyndall was given a dorm room in lieu of pay, but no meal card. Wearing an orange vest, Tyndall drove a security patrol car from 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. for the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, "just to get enough money for Raman noodles and hot dogs."
It was perfect.
"Coach Pilcher let me do it all, from recruiting to coaching at both ends of the court," Tyndall said. "For two years, he let me be his right-hand man."
By the age of 24, Tyndall became his own boss at St. Catharine, Ky., then a junior college of about 450 students and four buildings surrounded by a cow pasture. Billy Donovan, whom Tyndall had befriended while coaching at a camp at Marshall, put in a call on his behalf to Martha Layne Collins, a former Kentucky governor who was St. Catharine's president. Tyndall got the job.
Tyndall was a taskmaster who began the season with 27 players and ended with "nine of the toughest guys you'll ever meet in your life," according to J.T. Burton, a 5-6 holdover and a borderline C student from the previous team who as a sophomore was one of that season's survivors. The St. Catharine lineup also included DeJuan Collins, a point guard who from Tallahassee Community College with abundant talent but little discipline.
"When he left there," Burton recalled, "not only was he talented, he had discipline."
Collins, who averaged 18 points and 14 assists, and Tyndall led St. Catharine - now a four-year NAIA school - to a 30-5 record and the school's only appearance at the NJCAA tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. The Patriots, who led the nation with 106.1 ppg, had to beat the defending national champion, Sullivan College of Louisville, to get there.
"We didn't even have the money in the budget to go," Tyndall recalled. "They'd never been. We win the regional tournament on a Sunday afternoon. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, before practicing, our team's down in the community, doing bucket drops to get enough money to go."
Collins, who continues to play professionally overseas, was getting Division I offers, and so was Tyndall, from Joey Stiebing at New Orleans, Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma and John Brady at LSU. The pair chose LSU.
"Coach (Brady) giving me that opportunity at age 26, that was huge for me," Tyndall said. "Breaking in at age 26 in the SEC was very rare and unheard of. We go from working security at Iowa Central and bucket drops at St. Catharine - and then, boom, being in the SEC at LSU.
"But let's make sure I'm perfectly clear. I think my hire had a lot more to do with DeJuan Collins than Donnie Tyndall. I'm not naïve to that."
Brady isn't so sure.
"There was just something about him I really liked," Brady said. "I remember telling Kermit (Davis) that I think we ought to hire this guy regardless of what the player does."
Davis had arrived at LSU from Idaho, where he was in his second stint as the school's head coach. Fellow assistant Butch Pierre remains one of the nation's top recruiters.
Tyndall became a sponge.
"I win 30 games and go to Hutch and think I've got all the answers," Tyndall recalled. "And I go to work for Coach Brady and within about two hours realized I didn't know crap about anything."
Tyndall found himself working up game preparation for the likes of Tubby Smith at Kentucky and Nolan Richardson at Arkansas. Tyndall followed one of Davis' former players, Leonard Perry, to Idaho for one year, and then Davis to Middle Tennessee for four seasons, with an eye out for a Division I school that would hire him as a head coach. In 2006, the only door open to him was the ultimate fixer-upper that was his alma mater. Morehead State had not even been to an Ohio Valley Conference tournament game in 25 years and had not once sprung a head coach to a better job. The Eagles were returning just four players from a 4-23 team that had lost to Connecticut by 62 and to Murray State by 52.
"I always had my eye on that job," Tyndall said. "To me, it was kind of my second home. When they offered me the job, I knew I was going to take it, but a lot of people I trusted and respected said, `Donnie, are you sure that's the one you want to take?'"
Tyndall was so sure, he promised in his introductory news conference that, in short order, he would deliver from this 4-23 program an NCAA Tournament team. By Year Three, he would deliver. But first, there were both players and fans to recruit.
The Morehead State campus is located in Morehead, Ky., a town of about 9,000 without a single black barbershop. By Thursday, the students' bags are packed and they are headed home. These were just a few of the challenges that lay ahead for Tyndall. The staff helped students move in and shook hands with them in the cafeteria, trying to convince them to attend at least the midweek games and to stick around on those weekends with a home game. They took posters with schedules on them to every business in town, not just to the sponsors. They placed reminders of that night's game on the windows of every car on campus. He spoke to every group and to every person who'd listen. "I spent time with people," Tyndall said. "If I went to Walmart, I wasn't hustling around and avoiding people, getting my stuff and getting out of there. Gracie, my youngest daughter, would say, `Daddy, I hate going to Walmart with you.' "`Why, baby?' "`All you do is talk, talk, talk.'" Tyndall's second class of recruits hardly looked like the ground breaker that it would become. Kenneth Faried was an energetic all-state center from New Jersey, but at 6-6, 182 pounds and too weak to bench press 185 pounds more than once, he projected out as no team's big man. Plus, he did not qualify academically until his final attempt. Demonte Harper, who was even skinnier, was a recruited walk-on out of the Nashville area, where his career at Whites Creek High School was overshadowed by Wil Peters, who went on to play at Tennessee State, and Jamie Graham, who played football and basketball at Vanderbilt. "Four years later, you've got the best guard in the league, who was a recruited walk-on," Tyndall said, "and you've got the best player in the league, who had one scholarship offer. "By the time (Faried) was done, he gained 50 pounds. He was 232 and benched 335. He was a second-team All-American and a first-round (draft) pick."
Faried also became the NCAA's modern-day career rebounding champion, breaking the record set by Tim Duncan in 1997, and finishing his career with 1,673. A year after landing Faried and Harper, Tyndall beat out Division II Valdosta State for Terrance Hill. Woo hoo! Right? But again, there was more to come later.
Right on schedule in 2009, in his third season, Tyndall delivered Morehead's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years with a double-overtime victory over Austin Peay. The Eagles won a First Four game against Alabama State and then lost to Louisville by 20.
Two years later, the Eagles were back, this time opening against Rick Pitino's Cardinals. Sam Goodman, who stood barely 6-foot tall, battled for 26 minutes at power forward. Hill, whom Tyndall stole from Valdosta State, led all scorers with 23. And, based on a premonition he had the night before, Tyndall drew up his final play for Harper, the recruited walk-on, rather than Faried, his All-American, for the winning shot in the 62-61 upset.
"Some (reporters) have asked me if he can coach at (an SEC) level," Brady said. "Just think about this for one moment: He's at Morehead, and they beat Louisville. Come on. Are you kidding?
"In 2013, Louisville spent close to $16 million on basketball. Morehead didn't spend half a million. If he can take that piece and roll it into Vol country, with all the things they have, I believe he has a formula that might work."
Tyndall thought he might attract interest after that victory over Louisville in 2011, but none of the larger schools called. He suspects that schools were scared off by an 18-month investigation that ended when the NCAA placed Morehead on two-year probation in 2010.
"It was an isolated deal with one booster," Tyndall said. "It was an unbelievable learning experience. I shouldered the blame and it will never happen again."
Tyndall began to think his next opportunity might never come. Maybe he would spend the rest of his career at Morehead. Maybe, like his mentor Pilcher at Iowa Central, the court at Ellis Johnson Arena would be named after Tyndall. Though still yearned for more, he concluded that a long career at Morehead that wouldn't be so bad, either.
Tyndall's return to Morehead had reunited him with Thomas, the former teammate who as the Bath County girls' coach was about 20 miles away from the Morehead campus. Thomas said he attended those Morehead practices that did not conflict with his own team's practices. In the summer, Thomas would watch film of even more practices.
"He gave me the keys to the office," Thomas said. "I filled up - and this is no joke - about 10 notebooks on his practices.
"How many Division I coaches would take the time to help out a little old high-school girls' basketball coach? That's who he is. I wanted to take advantage of it, because I knew he was not going to be at Morehead long. I just knew it."
Thomas was right. Southern Mississippi hired Tyndall the year after the Louisville win, in 2011. With just four players - good for a combined 27 points and 12 rebounds per game - returning from a 25-9 season, the Eagles were picked to finish just ninth in Conference USA. They finished second, at 27-10, and won the regular season the following year with a school-record 29 victories. His greatest regret is that, somehow, those 56 victories were never enough to get Southern Miss into the NCAA Tournament. His biggest accomplishment, he believes, was raising attendance to the program's highest level in more than 20 seasons.
Meanwhile, Burton, his former player at St. Catharine, was also achieving big things. He earned a scholarship at Tennessee Wesleyan and went from a 1.9 to a 3.6 student on the Dean's List. He eventually succeeded Tyndall as the St. Catharine head coach, leading the Patriots to the national NAIA tournament in 2011 and 2013.
"At the time (they played for Tyndall), we didn't understand (why practices were so difficult)," Burton said. "But looking back, we call it being Tyndall-ized, which is a good thing. Being Tyndall-ized is a combination of graduating, toughness and a discipline that carries on for the rest of your life. It's where he molds you to be a man."
Like Tyndall, Burton has two young daughters. Tyndall's daughters, Taylor and Grace, who live in Kentucky with their mother, were fixtures on the Morehead State bench during the Eagles' NCAA Tournament runs. Tyndall calls them his best friends and marvels at how, at 15 and 12, they are so at ease with adults. Burton said he learned to become a father by watching Tyndall tell his girls things like looking a person in the eye when talking to them.
"I was never taught that," Burton said. "Now I do that with my girls and with myself."
This spring, Tyndall turned to Burton to become Tennessee's director of player of personnel.
"When he offered me the job here, it was almost like I'd hit the career lottery," Burton said. "I don't have a basketball family. He's the only basketball family I have.
"He changed my life. Without Coach, I'm not sitting in this chair."
Tyndall's former teammates and coaches say there are a lot of Thomases and Burtons out there. Perhaps the Tyndall who has needed help along the way is paying it forward.
"I think he's very attentive to the needs of those around him," Brannen said. "Morehead State is a small, hard-working, loyal town. He put himself out there and was a part of everything, and the community adored him. My assumption is that it was the same at Hattiesburg."
A big personality will be a necessity in even being the second in line to succeed the larger-than-life Bruce Pearl at Tennessee. Much has been made of the fact that Tennessee fans created a petition calling for Pearl's return before Cuonzo Martin led the Vols to the Sweet Sixteen and then left to become the coach at California. Tyndall will be far more outgoing than Martin, though he is unlikely to ever paint his chest orange, a la Pearl, for a Lady Vols game.
"That's not him," Brady said. "(But) he's going to be engaging. He's going to be funny. He's going to be serious and tough when he needs to be.
"You're going to see that because that's the way he is. He's not going to promote himself. He's just going to be himself. Sometimes, I think, there's a difference."
Mennenga called Tyndall a "shark who can swim in all waters," meaning he will be as comfortable speaking to a booster club as he is a recruit's parents or hanging with other coaches at a grassroots event.
"He'll be the nicest guy to every secretary in the building or to the biggest booster at Tennessee," Davis said. "Some of the guys in our business forget that. I don't think Donnie ever will."
Being personable and nice can still get a coach fired if he doesn't have the goods. Offensively, the Vols will run the high-low motion offense that Tyndall learned from Brady and Davis. Defensively, they'll press and play a matchup zone that he picked up from Matt Grady, a former assistant who is now at Manhattan, in order to keep Faried out of foul trouble and near the rim. His teams are consistently among the national leaders in steals and rebounding margin, though they tend to give up turnovers, as well. His teams will work hard, and so will Tyndall. Brannen said his work ethic is "unsurpassed."
"I've told people that if he ever got in a situation where he had unlimited resources, there's not a soul in this profession, and I mean this from top to bottom, who will out-work Donnie Tyndall," Wells said. "I can assure you, there's nobody who's working harder than him."
In his first 40 days on the job, Tyndall estimated that he had already flown on twice as many private charters as he had in eight previous seasons at Morehead State and Southern Miss.
"Let's be honest: There's a bunch of people who work in this profession," Tyndall said. "But I can feel pretty comfortable saying no one's going to outwork us.
"If it's a Saturday morning at 8 or a Sunday morning at 8 and other people are sleeping in or going to breakfast and reading the paper, I don't do that. I just like going to work. If you come by tomorrow morning at 8, 8:30, I'm going to be in my office, writing some notes or something. A lot of the time, truth be told, I don't even need to be in here. But I'm built that way, that I've got to be in here doing something."
When Tyndall was Davis' assistant at Middle Tennessee, he once famously hopped in a rental car and drove for 15 hours from Orlando to New Jersey just to see a player's open gym before the recruiting period ended. Those days might be over, but now he'll be putting those 15 hours to better use.
Tyndall had to scramble for players after taking the Tennessee job, much like he did at Southern Miss and at Morehead. Two Vols transferred and Martin's four-man class of recruits asked for releases, leaving Tyndall with just four players. He recovered by signing a respectable group that included two prep players, two junior-college recruits and two transfers.
"At Tennessee, he'll recruit like the third assistant would," Davis said. "When you get the head coach to do that and be that visible, you'll have a chance to get some guys you're not supposed to get."
Brady noted that Tyndall calls him before the start of every season, to thank him for giving him a Division I opportunity. In turn, Brady pays Tyndall about the biggest compliment one coach can give to another, saying, "He gets it."
"He may not have been the flashiest guy that you could have led out to a press conference - there's other, flashier guys," Brady said. "But I think the thing that's on Donnie's side is time. Time's going to expose him and make him better, where with some guys in this business, time's a killer."
That's why Tyndall negotiated for a six-year contract at Tennessee, rather than the standard four or five years. The Vols haven't had a basketball coach - not even Pearl - who remained there more than six years since Ray Mears, from 1963-77. If Tyndall finishes his career there, as he said he hopes to do, he would become the original Donnie Knoxville, Donnie Tyn-nessee.
But even then, a piece of him would be elsewhere.
"He understands exactly where he came from," Davis said. "He'll never forget that."
It's doubtful that Iowa Central, St. Catharine and Morehead State will forget Donnie Tyndall, either.