KNOXVILLE - When it comes to Morehead State basketball, it would be tough to find a more critical or discerning eye than Wayne Martin, who played for, coached and now serves on the board of regents of the Kentucky university.
So when someone asked Mr. Morehead to comment on another former Eagles coach, Donnie Tyndall, a little less than an hour after Tyndall left his most recent post at Southern Miss to become Tennessee's 19th head coach, Martin was only too happy to oblige.
"It's a perfect fit for both Donnie and the University of Tennessee," said Martin, who became a friend of Tyndall when he was a junior point guard for MSU in 1992. "He galvanizes students and fans. He's not going to just sell UT basketball, but the entire university."
Selling is what former Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl did as well as anyone who's ever coached the game. And Martin, who's well acquainted with Pearl, doesn't hesitate to predict, "Donnie will be as great an ambassador as Pearl was."
But he also has facts to back up his opinions. It seems that when Tyndall was hired by his alma mater in 2006, the school was coming off a four-win season that had dropped season-ticket sales to 1,100.
"As soon as Donnie took care of a couple of priorities such as recruiting, he personally called every single one of those season-ticket holders," Martin said. "He thanked them for their support and asked them to please buy the tickets for at least one more year. That's the kind of coach Tennessee is getting."
Critics could argue that UT already had that coach in Pearl before he ran afoul of NCAA rules, then lied to the NCAA about the charges. Given Tyndall's own NCAA troubles while at Morehead for using a rogue booster to recruit, a booster the NCAA later charged "offered improper recruiting inducements to prospective student-athletes," one might wonder why UT didn't give Pearl a second chance rather turning to the 43-year-old Tyndall.
Yes, Pearl's lying and asking others to lie for him was worse than Tyndall admitting mistakes in judgment. But Tyndall's violations were worse, much worse, involving as many as 20 prospective recruits.
"We looked into that very thoroughly," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said during Tuesday's news conference. "We were absolutely satisfied moving forward."
Tyndall's hiring signals that it's time for everyone to move forward from one of the more uncomfortable seasons in UT basketball history. So this is the first, last and only time you'll read this observation in this column: Though it's tough to argue that the very good man Tyndall replaces, Cuonzo Martin, was ever a very good fit to follow the magnetic Pearl, it should also be noted that one of Hart's most successful coaching hires at Florida State was current basketball coach Leonard Hamilton, who has almost the same reserved personality and defense-dominated style as Martin.
Yet however he reached Rocky Top, Tyndall not only seemed at ease from the moment he arrived on campus but also appeared to have that impact on everybody else. Hart looked more relaxed than he has since watching football coach Butch Jones's Vols shock South Carolina. Having yanked off his UT orange and white necktie as soon as the news conference ended, Tyndall was laughing and slapping the backs of his assistants as he walked from the Pratt Center practice facility to the basketball offices next door at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Then again, what would you expect from a coach who's been caught on tape doing the Harlem Shake in front of Southern Miss fans and players? Or a guy who's so in tune with his student body that when he discovered the Southern Miss student IDs couldn't be used as tickets for an NIT home game, he went out and purchased 1,000 tickets with his own money?
"Donnie just enjoys people," Wayne Martin said. "He'll embrace everything about this university."
If you could point to one irrefutable fact about Hart's choice for football coach, it might be that same trait. Jones talks up UT's academics as much as Neyland Stadium's checkerboard end zones. He loves the softball team as much as the Vol Walk. He gives his all for all of UT every day.
If Tyndall follows suit, it will make the entire Big Orange Nation even more regretful that a different Louisiana Tech coach didn't say no to UT football long before current Bulldogs basketball coach Michael White rejected the Vols two days ago, opening the door for Tyndall. Or make that Tenn-dall.
"Some coaches are pretty good at X's and O's," Wayne Martin said. "Some are pretty good at recruiting, and some are pretty good at marketing. There aren't many who can handle all three. But that's Donnie. He's the total package."
Rarely has Tennessee men's basketball needed that total package more.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.