It’s difficult to find a pond with murkier water than college basketball these days. Years ago, when the young, elite players in the sport realized that making the transition to the NBA was easier—or at least more plausible—than they had been led to believe, the game began to change for the worse. In terms of both the quality of players and the ethical gray area a coach needed to live inside to succeed in building a program. Now, in large part because of those changes, Tennessee finds itself looking for its fourth coach in five years. Gone are the days of X’s and O’s coaches studying under more proven winners before they eventually take over their own program. We now live in a more desolate landscape, where young coaches rise up the circuit faster because of their recruiting prowess.
Recruiting, of course, leads to a program being rebuilt within three years which is mandatory among fan bases today. Donnie Tyndall is a product of his environment, and I don’t mean the environment cultivated at the University of Tennessee. His crimes are hardly unique to his profession, and his punishment is an anomaly considering the wrist slaps that have been distributed to major programs and coaches in recent years. I feel sad for Donnie this morning, but he knew the risks when started his career path—Bruce Pearl knew them, too. The way the game is played these days, the risks have never been bigger for a coach who feels the pressure to get his program back to where its fans and administration feel it should be.
Dave Hart is not blameless here. I’ve been an outspoken supporter of Hart: Tennessee made a great hire in him, and he made a fantastic football hire in Butch Jones (plus, his first choice of Charlie Strong was at least logical). Donnie Tyndall wasn’t a flashy hire, but from the body of work he produced in his first and only year at Tennessee he clearly had the intangibles to lead the Vols back to the NCAA tournament and beyond. The problem comes into focus however, when a closer look is taken at the way Hart vetted Tyndall before he hired him.
This problem is magnified when you take into account the trouble Bruce Pearl and Mike Hamilton got the program in just a few years prior. Dave Hart made an impulsive decision to hire a man who charmed him in a brief (too brief) interview process. One year later when a trigger needed to be pulled, Hart calmly pulled it and refused to stand by his guy, fueling the flames of his reputation as a mercenary for hire. Hopefully Dave Hart has learned to take the long way home on this search, and he will certainly feel the heat for this in a way he hasn’t experienced in his tenure at Tennessee.
Ultimately, Donnie Tyndall did everything right on the court and he didn’t necessarily do everything according to the rules off the court. But the rules hardly matter in college basketball anymore; all that matters is whether or not you get caught. Tennessee fans grew to love Donnie because he is charming, and his team played hard for him. He had everything that Cuonzo Martin refused to pretend to have, and it was almost heartwarming to see the way the fan base rallied around a team they knew full well didn’t have the juice to make a tournament run. Donnie did what he was hired to do, and he actually did it really well, unfortunately he wasn’t the right hire for Tennessee at the time.
I hope that Tennessee realizes all of the reasons that Donnie was a perfect fit for Knoxville, and takes into account the one glaring reason that he wasn’t. Leadership is invaluable in college athletics, and, this morning, Tennessee lost a good one in its basketball program. I sincerely wish the best for Donnie Tyndall, and I will miss seeing his fire on the sidelines. But Dave Hart, the king of a very fragile castle, has lost the trust of his constituency once again.
Tennessee now must return to a well-worn chalkboard, and, once again, try to make us believe that this is a job their handsomely paid leadership is capable of doing.