NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Donnie Tyndall knows he wasn’t the first choice to become Tennessee’s next men’s basketball coach.
Then again, the same can be said for Volunteers’ football coach Butch Jones, whose hiring has been a popular one, although others were sought before him by Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart. Tyndall probably wasn’t even among the top five candidates to first get a glance. Instead, the usual suspects of coaching candidates — like Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, VCU’s Shaka Smart, Dayton’s Archie Miller and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin — made most of the obligatory preliminary potentials lists.
Even during his press conference today in Knoxville to announce his hiring at Tennessee after two seasons at Southern Miss, Tyndall acknowledged that another coach — Louisiana Tech’s Michael White, to put a name to it — had probably been offered and declined. Like most of the accomplishments during his meteoric coaching career, that didn’t faze Tyndall as he takes over for three-year Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin, who bolted to California-Berkley after his team’s NCAA tourney Sweet 16 appearance.
"Now some of you, I’m sure, have heard that rumor that maybe I was the second choice for this job," Tyndall said. "I don’t know. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn’t. Roy Williams was like the 10th choice at Kansas, and it worked out pretty well for him."
Tyndall acknowledged part of his job is unifying a Tennessee fan base polarized by the three-year tenure of Martin, who replaced popular former coach Bruce Pearl. As it appeared Tennessee might not make the NCAA Tournament for a third-straight season after going six times in a row under Pearl, an online petition with more than 30,000 signatures sought Martin’s firing and Pearl’s rehiring. That had to be a factor in Martin moving to Cal after being offered by Hart a two-year contract extension and $500,000 raise that would have put his salary at $1.8 million annually.
Tyndall’s deal is $1.6 million annually for six years, plus incentives.
"It has to start today," Tyndall said of reuniting Vols fans behind the men’s basketball program. "Look, I am a big fan of Coach Pearl. I think he is fantastic. He is obviously a great coach and had great success. He is a dynamic personality. With all that being said, Coach Martin did an outstanding job, and he had his niche. But we have to put that behind us, and it has to start today, and we all have to rally and get on the same bus, if you will."
Hart noted the similarities between Tyndall and Jones, Michigan natives who grew up an hour apart in Grand Rapids and Saugatuck, respectively.
"He reminds me of another coach that is on our staff and coaches on the gridiron," Hart said of Tyndall and Jones. "I saw a lot of similarities. I saw a winner. I saw a person who is a great fit, a person who … pulled himself up from his bootstraps."
Tyndall couldn’t resist poking fun at Jones and their Michigan ancestry.
"If you can relay this message to him," Tyndall said, "I’m from Grand Rapids, he’s from Saugatuck, and all the Grand Rapids guys think those Saugatuck guys are really soft. So, let him know that, would you?"
Long before age 25 in 1997, when former LSU coach John Brady made him the youngest assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference at the time, Tyndall knew he wanted to be a basketball coach.
He grew up thinking that in Grand Rapids, and carried it to Morehead State, where he was a standout player. The coaching itch was then confirmed when he led his first team, St. Catherine College in Springfield, Ky., to a 30-5 record over two seasons. Then-LSU assistant coach Kermit Davis, now the head coach at Middle Tennessee State, talked Brady into hiring Tyndall. His dream of coaching in the Southeastern Conference started there.
"He knew what he wanted to be," Hart said of Tyndall, 43. "He wanted to be a basketball coach. He knew ultimately where he wanted to coach — in the Southeastern Conference. And he knew the tradition and history of the University of Tennessee."
When Davis moved to MTSU in 2002, he hired Tyndall away from Idaho to be his top assistant. Five seasons later, he took over at Morehead State for six seasons, guiding them to four straight winning seasons, including a win over Louisville in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
In two seasons at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles won 56 games, sharing regular season conference titles in the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA, respectively. He boasts a 170-102 record overall.
Tyndall inherits a squad that loses four starters, including the talented inside tandem of senior Jeronne Maymon, who graduated, and junior Jarnell Stokes, who turned professional. Also gone are wing Jordan McRae, the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons, and point guard Antonio Barton. Key returnees for Tennessee include senior guard Josh Richardson, a member of the SEC’s All-Defensive Team, sophomore point guard Darius Thompson and junior guard Amani Moore.
"When you look at the roster," Tyndall said, "we lost 72 percent of our scoring and 69 percent of our rebounding. So, when I meet with these guys individually, I’ll tell them that somebody needs to step up. I could see it in their eyes in my meeting with them that we have a young, eager group."
Tennessee has four incoming recruits — center C.J. Truman, forward Phil Cofer and guards Larry Austin and Jordan Cornish — that were signed by Martin.
Tyndall said he talked to three of the four signees before today’s press conference and will talk to the other later today before revisiting all of them and their families by phone again tonight. The Volunteers have two scholarships available for the incoming class.