I spoke with one of Donnie Tyndall’s college teammates, Robbie O’Bryan, over the summer to get an inside look at Tyndall as both a person and a basketball coach. O’Bryan not only played with Tyndall at Morehead State, he also spent multiple years as an assistant coach at several college programs. His coaching career saw him make stops at Milligan College, Wabash Valley Community College, Lee University and Winthrop (where he served as an assistant on Gregg Marshall’s staff).
When O’Bryan found out he and his wife Autumn were pregnant with their second child, he left coaching to focus on his family and a pharmaceutical sales career. Two years ago, he started hosting a sports talk show, The Sports Drive, on 101.3 FM in Cleveland, TN. He’s been kind enough to have me on multiple times to talk Vol sports and does a great job with his show. If you’re looking for basketball insight, I highly recommend you give him a listen and follow him on Twitter @RCOII.
Here’s what he had to say about Donnie Tyndall. I hope you enjoy.
Q: What’s your relationship with Donnie? When did you meet?
A: Donnie and I first met back in fall of 1992 when I was a freshman basketball player at Morehead State and Donnie was a rising senior. What a lot of people don’t know about Donnie, I don’t know if he’s shared it a whole lot, he was doing his student teaching the fall semester of his senior year. We were under Dick Fick, who was our coach at the time, and it was his second year.
Donnie had been a part-time starter as a junior. I was part of six freshmen in Fick’s first complete recruiting class. Two point guards were brought in and Donnie was one of the few players who basically was told by Fick that Morehead no longer needed his services. He allowed him to keep his scholarship, but they didn’t need him to play basketball.
One of the things that I admired most about Donnie was his unwillingness to give up and give in. He continued to be around and approached Coach Fick about being part of the team as a senior. He didn’t start the season on the squad but by the end of the first semester, when his student teaching ended, he rejoined the team. He was one of the best point guard options we had on the team that year.
Q: What about Donnie stuck out to you that season?
A: We were playing on the road in the second semester, a conference game, I think we were at Austin Peay, and Coach Fick got tossed early in the game and our associate head coach, Bill Gleason, who many in this area would remember from his days with Mack McCarthy at UTC, immediately put Donnie in the lineup. We ended up winning that game on the road. That might have been the only conference game we won on the road all year and Donnie was a big part of that.
As a young guy to be able to see a senior, who had been a starter at some point, be told he wasn’t wanted, to see his unwillingness to give up and his constant fight for what he wanted, that foreshadowed what was to come when he became a coach. We all knew he was going to be a coach. That’s what he wanted to do. That’s what his passion was.
Q: What’s something that would surprise us about Donnie?
A: I think it’s pretty well noted his love for shoes. His wife, Nikki, talked about that in an article. He’s got around 300 pairs of tennis shoes. Something most people don’t realize is that Donnie became a head coach at the age of 25. I think he’d spent two years max as an assistant, then he became a head coach and immediately took St. Catharine College to the National Tournament in one of the toughest JUCO leagues in the country. He’s basically been a self-made coach. He didn’t come from a basketball family with a big pedigree. Everything he’s accomplished has come from hard work and determination.
Q: What is one of his biggest strengths as a coach?
A: One of his greatest aspects as a coach is his ability to get his players to play as hard as they can. You won’t find many coaches in the country that get their teams to play as hard and with as much toughness as Donnie Tyndall. His teams will be tougher than any team in the country. His teams take on his attitude. They reflect his toughness on the court.
Q: Is there something about Donnie personally that stood out to you during your time together at Morehead State?
A: The workouts he would put me through when he was a senior and I was a freshman. While he was trying to work his way back on the team, I would go outside of practice to the intramural gym to do workouts with Donnie because I wanted to soak up everything I could. Those workouts were legendary. For him. as a senior, to take a freshman under his wing and help me develop as a player, that’s something I’ve always appreciated.
He always remembers things, too. I remember the basketball banquet his senior year. His family didn’t make it in for the banquet so he sat with my family at our table and got to talking with my dad. To this day, every time I talk to Donnie he always asks how my dad is. Donnie always says he loves people. That he likes interacting with people and meeting people. He’s genuine in saying that. He spent one afternoon with my dad and still asks about him.
Q: Is Donnie a good fit at Tennessee?
A: When the job came open, I knew that in terms of being a marketer of the program like Bruce was, Tyndall was the person Tennessee could bring in who had that type of energy and a knack for program promotion. I think people see that now. Any opportunity he gets to go out and be in the public eye to represent Tennessee and promote the program, he’s done that.
Q: What can you tell our readers about Tyndall’s coaching style from a schematic standpoint?
A: He’s evolved over the years with his coaching style. He’s been really successful with extending a matchup zone and making that into a defense that almost appears to be man to man. They still get after it as hard as you would in a man-to-man defense and he’s been really successful using that. He likens his defensive system to Pitino’s at Louisville. He likes to extend his pressure and mix it up full court. He’ll mix man to man and zone pressure in an attempt to speed his opponents up to where they have to make decisions under duress.
From the half-court standpoint, he always seems to be able to get the ball in the hands of his best players. You saw that when they beat Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. He’s always had a lot of different sets where he can get the ball into the hands of the player he wants in the exact spot he wants. He’s not going to be as frantic and up and down as Bruce was his first three years, but if you think back at it, the last three years Bruce didn’t play that way. Donnie isn’t going to play a slow down, deliberate, grind it out style like Cuonzo.
Q: What are your expectations for Donnie Tyndall at Tennessee?
A: He can take Tennessee to the elite of the SEC similar where Coach Pearl had them. He definitely has the ability to do that. It’s not going to happen overnight like it did with Bruce because Bruce inherited better players than Donnie. But anybody who thinks for a minute that Donnie Tyndall is going to concede his first year doesn’t know him very well. When he took over at Southern Miss, he only had four returning players. He went out and signed 8 or 9 guys and set a school record with 27 wins in his first year. Granted, Conference USA is not the league that the SEC is, but I wouldn’t be shocked if you turn around next year and see Tennessee knocking on 18 to 20 wins in year one.
As far as in the future, Donnie had a brilliant recruiting gameplan when he took the job by utilizing the fifth-year transfer rule. Bringing in some JUCO guys that you’re only going to be locked into for two years and bringing in some fifth year guys, you’re still getting experienced players but you’re not going to (have a scholarship) committed to them for an extended period of time. That gives the staff time to go out and get the quality high school guys that it’s going to take to win at the highest level in the SEC. That was a brilliant move for him to get some short term pieces that allow them to win more early on than they would have otherwise, yet still let them look toward the future in their recruiting efforts.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about Donnie?
A: One thing that gets undervalued is the job he did at Morehead State and Southern Miss. Those two jobs are very tough jobs. Morehead State hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 1984 and he took them to two in six years and won two games in the NCAA tournament. Each of his two years at Southern Miss, he set a school record for wins in a season. I think that goes a little bit undervalued. That shows the caliber of coach and program builder he is.
Getting the resources he is now at Tennessee, there’s no reason in my mind to think that he couldn’t turn Tennessee into a top-3 program in the SEC every year. In year’s past, when the SEC really has it rolling, your top four teams are vying for a Final Four. That’s the way it was back in the 1990s. If he can get Tennessee to the top-3 level and be able to consistently stay there, then he’ll be competing for Final Four berths. When you get texts from the guy as late as 3:30 in the morning, that shows that he’s working. That’s no uncommon thing to wake up to a text from him that came through at 3:30. There’s not going to be any staff in the country that outworks them.