Donnie Tyndall's stubborn nature will serve him well at Tennessee

jtipton@herald-leader.comJuly 1, 2014 

Donnie Tyndall has signed eight players, the largest class in UT history, to fill out a roster hit by defections. "We're certainly going to be the least experienced team in the SEC," he said.

As improbable as it might seem now, Donnie Tyndall aspired to be a professional basketball player. That dream, born as a fourth-grader scoring a basket for the first time and hearing fans cheer, died a painful death as a senior at Morehead State.

The late Dick Fick, then in his second season as the Eagles' coach in 1992-93, did not allow Tyndall to dress for practice. Fick did not like that a student-teaching requirement meant that Tyndall would arrive about 15 minutes late each day.

So Tyndall, one of the few holdover players from the previous coaching regime, had to sit in the bleachers or along the sideline and watch his teammates practice. Day after day.

"His way of trying to get me to quit," Tyndall recalled Tuesday. "But I never quit anything in my life."

Chuck Mraz, who has called Morehead State games on the radio for 25 years, laughed as he recalled Tyndall's stubborn refusal to go away.

"Fick basically wanted to run him off the team," said Mraz (pronounced Mah-roz). "But he wouldn't go. He just wouldn't leave."

Tyndall sort of acknowledged that he considered quitting, although he avoided directly saying so.

"It was so frustrating," he said. "No matter what type of relationship you're in, whether it's as a student-athlete or boyfriend-girlfriend or a marriage, if you don't feel wanted and you don't feel you have any value, it's certainly hard to go in there and keep punching the clock.

"To this day, to this day, I've never really gotten over that," Tyndall added a few minutes later. "Not from the standpoint that I didn't think I'd be a pro player any longer. I didn't.

"Just the fact, in my humble opinion, that's not how you handle young people."

Of course, there's a happy ending. Tyndall, a self-described "very passionate and driven person," re-imagined his dream. If not a pro player, he'd be a basketball coach. He stayed at Morehead State and absorbed what he could. Fick relented and let Tyndall dress for practice and games after the fall semester.

Tyndall returned to Morehead State as head coach in 2006. Inheriting a team that won only four games the previous season, he brought about a renaissance of Morehead State basketball. The Eagles won two Ohio Valley Conference Tournament titles, thus advancing to two NCAA tournaments in his six seasons. Most memorably, his 2011 team upset Louisville.

After two highly successful seasons at Southern Miss (56-17 record, 25-7 in Conference USA), Tyndall was hired by Tennessee this spring.

When asked Monday about how the coaching success at Morehead State might help him at Tennessee, Tyndall said, "The biggest thing is the grit and determination. The willingness to put in long hours and work hard is not going to change."

Anyone thinking Tyndall is over his head at Tennessee might want to consider his history. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tyndall was written off as a Division I prospect. So he went to junior college, then accepted a scholarship offer from Morehead State, the only one he received.

Then few thought he'd ever be a productive college player. Only scoring 66 points in two seasons with the Eagles wasn't much, but he had a game to relish: a team-high five assists in Morehead State's closer-than-the-final-score-suggests 101-84 loss to Kentucky in Freedom Hall on Dec. 12, 1991.

The return to Morehead State in 2006 was more of the same. "Nobody can win there, it can't be done," he said of the prevailing view. "I've always been one of those guys. I wanted to prove to people you can do the impossible."

As coaching transitions go, Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin-to-Tyndall has seen the typical coming and going of players. Two freshmen from last season transferred. The four-player recruiting class signed by Martin also decided to go elsewhere.

"I know some of our fans and maybe some of our administrators were a little bit panicky," Tyndall said. "I just said, let's just stay the course. We'll get some guys. This will shake out."

Tyndall signed eight new players, the largest class in Tennessee history: two fifth-year college seniors, two junior college players and four high school seniors.

"We're certainly going to be the least experienced team in the SEC, maybe the least experienced team in all of college basketball," Tyndall said on a league teleconference Monday.

No doubt, it helped that Tyndall's first team at Southern Miss joined Lipscomb and Mississippi State as having the fewest collective seasons of Division I experience: six seasons.

Southern Miss finished 27-10, which included a program high 12 victories in Conference USA. His second team had a 29-7 record, 13-3 in the league.

Tyndall quickly noted that such immediate success might not happen at Tennessee.

But, he said, "I'm confident in saying we've put some pieces together and I do think we have the chance to be competitive."

All the while, the lingering presence of Bruce Pearl hovers over Tennessee basketball. In Pearl's six seasons as coach, the Vols went to the NCAA Tournament every year, advancing to the Elite Eight in 2010. Better still, Pearl excited fans and made Tennessee basketball fun.

Although NCAA justice forced Pearl and Tennessee to part ways after the 2010-11 season, he remains a presence. Even being hired by Auburn this season failed to kill Pearl's popularity in Big Orange Country.

When asked about Pearl's presence, Tyndall said, "Well, it's certainly still there. I'm not an insecure person. That doesn't bother me. I bragged on Coach Pearl publicly and will continue to do so. And I mean it.

"Coach Pearl is a charismatic guy and has a very dynamic personality. So people were enamored with him, and rightfully so. People talk about him all the time. 'Bruce did this' and 'Bruce said that.'

"They love Coach Pearl. I understand. And maybe someday they'll be saying that about my staff and me."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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