It’s now been one calendar month, and what a month that has been.
After achieving an incredible level of success with a pair of mid-major programs over the previous eight years, Donnie Tyndall was introduced as Tennessee’s 19th head men’s basketball coach on April 22.
As the sun ascended above the foothills of the Smoky Mountains that day, anointing another East Tennessee morning in its warm and glorious Big Orange glow, the landscape of UT’s basketball program looked much different than it does today.
The roster appeared to include seven scholarship returnees. A four-man signing class featuring a pair guards and two big men hung in the balance. And just around from the corner from Tyndall’s spacious new office in Thompson-Boling Arena, eight offices for assistant coaches and support staff sat vacant.
What can one man - fueled by a relentless, blue-collar work ethic and carrying a fierce competitive chip on his shoulder - accomplish in one month?
Let’s take a look.
Tyndall wasted very little time assembling his full-time staff. But his urgency did not outweigh his instinct to make calculated decisions as it related to staffing.
Adam Howard and Chris Shumate, two bright young protégés who were part of Tyndall’s staff at Southern Miss, were quickly tabbed for assistant coaching positions.
Tyndall then poached Al Pinkins, a recruiting heavyweight who is highly respected by collegiate colleagues from coast-to-coast, from Ole Miss to fill the remaining assistant coaching vacancy. Pinkins and Tyndall were on staff together at Middle Tennessee a decade ago, so that appointment was accompanied by a high level of confidence and trust.
Justin Phelps and Todd Moyer also earned opportunities to follow Tyndall from Hattiesburg, Miss., to Knoxville as UT’s new director of basketball operations and strength and conditioning coach, respectively.
A handful of administrative appointments have yet to be finalized. But the positions most closely tied to recruiting were filled in short order.
The next order of business was roster stabilization.
Priorities No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the list? You guessed it: Roster stabilization.
The timing of Tyndall’s hiring handcuffed him in terms of his ability to build an on-court rapport with Tennessee’s returning players. UT was in what is classified in NCAA terms as a “finals period,” so the staff was prohibited from conducting any workouts.
Tyndall asked the current team members to stop by the basketball offices daily, but there would be no opportunity to interact in a competitive, whistles-blaring, sneakers-squeaking, perform or take-a-seat environment.
Already shook by the uncertainty that accompanies a coaching change, some players found themselves questioning whether or not a future in Big Orange Country was in their best interest.
A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson, both of whom would be sophomores next season, requested and were granted releases from their scholarships. Those defections reduced UT’s number of scholarship returners to five.
The situation with the four-man signing class assembled by previous head coach Cuonzo Martin also appeared quite tenuous. Each of the four had requested their release, and Tyndall obliged.
“I just think these (signees) are really loyal to coach Martin,” Tyndall told reporters on May 6. “Which, to be honest with you, I love. I respect that. I have no problem with that, I respect coach Martin.”
Robert Hubbs III, who arrived at Tennessee as a highly touted, five-star prospect last summer but saw his freshman season cut short by a shoulder injury, also sought assurance that remaining as a Vol was the best decision for him and his family. Martin had personally recruited him to UT. And Hubbs was extremely close with both Davis and Thompson, so the idea of losing two of his closest friends on the team understandingly induced trepidation.
Tyndall helped add clarity to that situation when he brought each of his assistant coaches to the Hubbs household in Newbern, Tenn., May 7.
“I think it meant a lot that coach Tyndall brought everyone with him,” Hubbs’ father, Robert Hubbs Sr., told VolQuest.com. “I think bringing the whole staff was unusual and not only showed us how important Robert was, but also gave us a chance to get a better feel for everything.”
Hubbs III informed Vol Nation of his decision via Twitter the day after that full-house meeting: I started out at Tennessee and I’m staying at the University of Tennessee.
Retaining Hubbs III was a victory, to be certain.
The recovery from the four signees defections officially had begun a few days prior, on May 5, when Tyndall inked the first player of what now stands at an eight-man signing class. Guard Jabari McGhee was the first domino to fall.
That set in motion a 16-day flurry of signings that was capped May 21 with the signing of 6-10 forward Tariq Owens.
During the aforementioned May 6 media session - just 14 days into his Tennessee tenure - Tyndall offered a foreshadowing quote that certainly resonates today.
“I promise you that in about a month, there are going to be people saying, ‘Holy cow, they got that guy? They filled that spot with him?’ We just have to let it unfold. There are a lot of guys out there that still haven’t made their minds up.
There are guys who are certainly interested in our program, and we’re going to get our share over the next month.
“We’re going to surprise some people with who we end up signing over the next few weeks.”
Tyndall’s eight signees include prep standouts McGhee, Owens, Willie Carmichael and Detrick Mostella; junior college players Devon Baulkman and Kevin Punter; and graduate transfers Ian Chiles and Eric McKnight. The group represents seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and North Carolina.
As things stand now, Tennessee’s 13 allotted scholarships are filled. A pair of veteran walk-ons - Knoxville natives Brandon Lopez and Galen Campbell - brings the 2014-15 roster to the institutionally-mandated limit of 15 bodies.
Speaking at a Vol Network function in the East Club of Neyland Stadium the afternoon of May 22, Tyndall told attendees that his desire for this new-look 2014-15 team was for it to be “the most overachieving team in the country.”
After a private jet brought Tyndall home to Knoxville late in the evening following a mid-May event in the Nashville area, a UTAD staffer dropped him off outside the basketball offices at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The courtesy SUV provided to him by the athletic department sat along the curb on Phillip Fulmer Way. Time to put the keys in the ignition, call it a night and head back to the downtown Knoxville hotel that served as “home?”
Hardly. Tyndall instead darted toward the arena lobby breezeway where Shumate stood, speaking on his cell phone (turning over stones in the roster stabilization effort, no doubt).
“10:30 staff meeting,” Tyndall said with a boyish grin, as he scurried toward his office.
Talk about overachieving... Tyndall and his staff’s work on the recruiting trail thus far has set one heck of an example in that department.