If Tennessee basketball fans think Donnie Tyndall works fast at recruiting, they haven’t seen anything yet. If things go as planned, the Vols will announce their 2014-15 schedule sometime in the next 10 days.
As college hoops schedules go, that’s the equivalent of being first in line at an all-you-can eat pizza buffet. Many schools go through the summer without wrapping up their schedules, and some don’t have them completed until September, just a couple of weeks before the start of fall practice.
Tyndall had some help from an astute decision by Tennessee associate athletic Jon Gilbert, who worked out a home-and-home series with Butler before Tyndall was hired. The series begins in 2014 in Knoxville. But as a general rule, Tyndall and his assistant in charge of scheduling, director of basketball operations Justin Phelps, don’t play around when it comes to that all-important task.
“As busy as this job becomes, and I know it’ll be busy, there are two things that will never get out of my control,” Tyndall said. “One of them is recruiting. And the other is scheduling. I’ll always be 100 percent involved with both of those.”
Phelps can attest to that.
“We talk every single day about the schedule,” Phelps said. “There’s not a single day during the season that we don’t talk about the schedule. And during the offseason, we might talk about what’s in front of us, or talk about something we’d really like to do two or three years down the road.
“As far as scheduling goes, there’s always an open dialogue or an ongoing conversation.”
Phelps considers the schedule “a piece of art,” and in this case, beauty is the eye of the beholder. There’s only one goal where the schedule is concerned, and sometimes, the way to achieve that goal isn’t all that pretty to the naked eye.
“Our goal every year,” Phelps said. “Is to get to the NCAA tournament.”
That wasn’t so easy at a place like Southern Miss, where Tyndall and his staff worked the last two years. Schools with good RPI ratings weren’t thrilled about going to Hattiesburg and getting their butts kicked by a program that, first under Larry Eustachy and then Tyndall, averaged nearly 26 victories the last four seasons.
And then there was this: “Hattiesburg wasn’t the easiest place in the world to get to,” Tyndall said with a chuckle.
That meant—and here’s where that whole beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing comes in—getting creative. Phelps remembers the day at Southern Miss when he approached Tyndall with the idea of playing a game at North Dakota State, a team that would go on to play in the NCAA tournament, where it beat Oklahoma before losing to San Diego State last March.
“I said coach, ‘what do you think about going on the road to a place where no one from a Conference USA-type league ever goes?’” Phelps said. “I don’t think they’d had an opponent like us in 15 or 16 years. They had like five or six seniors and Saul Phillips is a phenomenal coach. But we were willing to take on that challenge because we thought it would make our team much, much better in the future.”
Southern Miss survived with a 70-69 win and went on to a 29-7 record. “We also played at South Alabama, at Rhode Island and at Western Kentucky,” Phelps said. “We were willing to take on the challenges because we thought it would make our team better in the future.”
The strategy paid off in one respect. In Tyndall’s two seasons in Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles finished with RPIs of 27 and 29.
But the best efforts of Tyndall and Phelps, couldn’t schedule the Golden Eagles into the NCAAs either year, despite the fact they won a combined 56 games. That was a testament to C-USA having devolved into a one-bid league. That won’t be the case in the Southeastern Conference, which even at its lowest points the last few years has managed to place at least three teams into the NCAA field.
“At Tennessee, the complexion changes,” Tyndall said. “We’ll have the same philosophy to try and schedule wins and get home games for season ticket holders. But we want to have that balance, to schedule games where, if you are successful, you can get yourself into the [NCAA] tournament. And here, it should be much easier to do.”
That’s why Tyndall was thrilled to learn Gilbert had already scheduled Butler, a team Southern Miss had tried to get on its schedule.
“One of their assistants reached out to me and we started the process,” Gilbert said. “We needed a good name opponent at home to balance the schedule. This was prior to us knowing we would have a home game in the Big 12 challenge.”
That home game happens to be against Kansas State. The Vols are also in the Orlando Classic, where the field is loaded and includes Kansas, Michigan State, Georgia Tech and Marquette.
Tennessee is also negotiating with a Top 25 opponent to be part of a four-team event at a neutral site. Tyndall loves neutral site games.
“Getting quality opponents on a neutral floor gives you an excellent chance to win as opposed to going on the road,” Tyndall said.
With that in mind, he would love to revive the Memphis series, dropped last season, and play in Nashville. His aspirations for the series go beyond battling for recruiting supremacy in talent-rich Memphis.
“I’m a proponent of the game first and foremost,” Tyndall said. “But what I hope to do in my time at Tennessee is grow basketball across the state. I hope obviously it’s Tennessee basketball, but also basketball interest in general, the way Dale Brown did at LSU.”
Does that mean Tyndall will travel the state with a stepladder and a box of orange and white nets and hang them on every outdoor court he comes across, the way Brown did purple and gold nets in Louisiana?
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Tyndall said. “Time to do that is tough to come by, but that’s a perfect example of doing something to market your program. Coach Brown did it, and it wasn’t just about growing LSU’s program. It was about growing the sport of basketball in what is obviously a huge football state. And you know what? He did a great job of that.”
Tyndall will play in-state schools—look for Tennessee Tech in 2014-15—and will continue to pursue the Memphis series. He is a close friend of East Tennessee State coach Murry Bartow, who helped him get his first head-coaching job at Morehead State, and Chattanooga coach Will Wade. And he worked as an assistant for Kermit Davis at Middle Tennessee.
Tyndall also has an important connection that might rekindle the Memphis series sooner rather than later.
“Coach and [Memphis coach] Josh Pastner are friends,” Phelps said. “Their relationship goes back a long ways. We’d love to play Memphis every year, even if we had to go to Nashville or Chattanooga or wherever. It’s great for both programs, and it’s great for the game of basketball in Tennessee.”