Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.
Cuonzo Martin didn’t really leave Tennessee in the middle of the night like the classic tales go. The news broke while I was in a 12:40 PM English class on a Tuesday; it was something you texted your friends about the rest of the day, and by the time Martin did leave, it was sort of an understandable surprise. A long-term Martin and Tennessee marriage seemed destined to fail. Athletic director Dave Hart clearly wasn’t that interested in spending over his hypothetical budget to keep Martin, and while fans had managed to get behind Martin in March, they had wanted him fired in January and February.
All of this goes to say three things, none of which deserve their own paragraph:
- Tennessee was deemed a toxic position to take by national media members;
- As such, a coaching search was likely behind the 8-ball before it even started;
- I remember driving to my part-time job at a local Catholic school and hearing a caller on local sports radio station 99.1 FM asking if Tennessee could hire Billy Donovan from Florida.
In only its fifth day of the search, Tennessee had seemed to zero in on a candidate they really liked: Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White. At the time, White’s resume was pretty impressive. After an extensive run as an assistant at Mississippi, White took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech prior to the 2011-12 season. All he did was give a moribund program their longest run of success since Karl Malone was on campus. White’s teams went 18-16, 27-7, then 29-8; all he was missing was an NCAA Tournament bid.
For about 12 hours, Mike White was going to be Tennessee’s next head coach. Then Hart, again, got in the way. He and White seemed to have a disagreement on Tennessee basketball’s budget for White’s assistants. White wanted more money; Hart wouldn’t budge. (White has also said he wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to leave Louisiana Tech yet, to be fair to Hart.) White backed out of the job. Tennessee’s only super-serious candidate to that point was out.
Next up on the list was everyone’s agreed-upon “break in case of emergency” pick: Southern Mississippi head coach Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall also had his own impressive Conference USA run while holding a pair of NCAA Tournament runs from his time at Morehead State, including a fairly infamous win over Louisville. Tyndall had only been with USM for two years, but those two years were quite special: records of 27-10 and 29-7. Tyndall had a reputation for quick, deep turnarounds at programs who were on the cusp of success but couldn’t get over the hump. In theory, you could see where Tennessee was coming from.
Tyndall, with his ultra-thick Michigan accent (memories of “Vals” still ring in my ears), was hired on April 22, 2014. Most everyone was willing to give him a Year Zero: a year where no one cares all that much about wins and losses as long as you fight hard and show progress. Tennessee returned just 27.4% of its minutes from the previous season, one of the lowest rates in all of basketball. Making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t likely; a good season would probably be an NIT bid. The clock had been reset.
Unfortunately for Tyndall, he was resetting his own clock in a different way all during this time. Tennessee seemed to have no idea of this until it was far too late.
NEXT PAGE: Lost dogs and mixed blessings