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Donnie Tyndall takes over as Tennessee's new head coach

New Tennessee basketball coach Donnie Tyndall must prove his commitment to the program Donnie Tyndall inherits a Tennessee program that reached the Sweet 16 this March amid discord within the fan base. (Danny Johnston/AP)

While attending the Final Four, Donnie Tyndall took a call from Tulsa and the people running its search for a head coach. He got dressed, left his two daughters and his fiancee and went downstairs to do the interview. When he returned, his kids asked for his thoughts. The then-Southern Miss coach said he didn't think that was the right spot for Daddy. Something down the road, Tyndall told them, might be a better fit.

He said the Tennessee job, after all, might be coming open.

It didn't, at least not immediately. Cuonzo Martin didn't wind up at Marquette, as rumored at the time. But not too much later Martin headed even farther west, to take over at Cal, at which point Tyndall's 11-year-old daughter, Gracie, sent her father a text message, in all capital letters. THE TENNESSEE JOB IS OPEN, it read.

"Certainly, this is a job that was on my radar," Tyndall said Tuesday, as he was being introduced as the 19th coach in program history. "And Gracie's, too."

It's now up to the 43-year-old Tyndall to back up the sentiment behind that anecdote by offering Tennessee the stability and unifying force it so desperately needs. If he wanted to be in Knoxville so badly, he can prove it by staying, as far as he has any choice in the matter. His predecessor's brief run was undone by a fractured fan base that still celebrated exiled coach Bruce Pearl and put its names behind the feelings: Thousands signed a petition last winter to bring Pearl back, just before Martin brought the Volunteers to the Sweet 16. Rumors percolated that boosters withheld resources from Martin because they sympathized with those petition-signers. Martin's departure to Cal -- after indeed getting face-to-face with the decision-makers at Marquette before the job went to Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski -- was unpredictable but perhaps not surprising.

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Martin found another employer. Pearl did, too, landing at Auburn. Tennessee now belongs solely to Tyndall, though the gig is as much about stitching together wounds and building trust as it is about installing his full-court pressure defense and retaining recruits. "We've gotta put that behind us, and it's gotta start today," Tyndall said, addressing a question about the unrest head-on. "We all have to rally and get on the same bus. Were all Tennessee Vols fans. We all bleed orange. Let's start today. Let's pull this thing together and put all that stuff behind us and go to work."

In every sense, a forthright approach should help Tyndall, who is 200-106 as a head coach. He immediately invoked recruiting in the city of Memphis and declared Tennessee to be "the best program in the state." He talked about driving six hours to recruit at Morehead State and sleeping for three hours at a gas station before returning for an early morning workout. "You have to be hungry, you have to be driven," he said. If Tennessee fans extrapolate that desire to how Tyndall feels about the job itself, he'll have taken the first step toward proving his fealty.

Tyndall will bring his staff with him from Southern Miss and said he has an already-in-place network of recruiting contacts in the southeast. He said athletic director Dave Hart was "one of those guys that makes you feel very, very comfortable." He hit all the right notes to portray this as a seamless fit, a change that somehow offered continuity. Tyndall duly noted his new roster will be without 72 percent of its scoring and 69 percent of its rebounding from this past season, but the uncertainty that creates was out of his control anyway. The players that were gone were gone. Tyndall focused on depicting a calm in all other areas.

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That starts with full commitment to a program that some consider to be just a notch below Kentucky and Florida in the SEC, but one that also spent less on men's basketball in 2012-13 than DePaul, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. No matter the melodrama or speed bumps Tyndall encounters along the way, he must back up his stated desire to be at Tennessee by battling through to stay at Tennessee. The program needs stability as much as it needs wins (Tyndall took Morehead State to two NCAA tournaments and Southern Miss to two NITs) and the invigorating end-to-end style of play Tyndall promised. If there's too much failure and Tennessee lets him go, so be it. It has to be the school's choice, not his.

Asked Tuesday what questions he had for Hart before taking the job, Tyndall offered another calculated quip.

"When do I start?" he replied.

 

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