In 2006, after 10 years as an assistant at Idaho, LSU and Middle Tennessee, Donnie Tyndall took over the Morehead State program after a 4-23 season led to a complete housecleaning. Very little introduction was necessary; Tyndall attended MSU, where he played for the Eagles for three seasons and lettered before departing on his personal coaching odyssey. He married his college sweetheart Christi, they had two daughters, then the family returned to town to a hero's welcome after a decade away.Tyndall guided the Eagles to a fourfold increase to 12 wins, then his continued improvement to 15 earned him 2007-08 Ohio Valley Coach of the Year honors. In 2008-09, he reached the 20-win plateau, won the OVC tourney championship out of a No. 4 seed, and took the Play-In Game against Alabama State before losing to Louisville by 20 on the same Dayton floor. We caught back up with the leader of the PIG champions last Sunday on his home turf, after the 2009-10 version of MSU took a tough BracketBuster return loss to Kent State. We discussed the state of the OVC co-favorites and team star Kenneth "Rastabeast" Faried, and the difficulties of trying to build a Gonzaga in your own backyard. We also touched on life on the tough league road, what it's like living in the shadows of Big Blue, and the tastiness of Red Lobster. We also talked about his tough summer divorce, and the tragedy of loving a game that doesn't love us back.TMM: I haven't seen you since Dayton. You returned home a conference champion and the winner of a real actual NCAA Tournament game. How's the town been treating you, Coach?DT:
The town's been tremendous. They've really been so good to me since my first day back, and I think our team and staff has done a fantastic job of trying to become a real important part into the community. People have been so fantastic. There's a buzz and an excitement about our team that hasn't been here since 1984, the last time they went.
But on the flipside of that, Kyle, is that there are expectations now. I don't think that our team has handled those very well to this point. I don't think that we have an "ego" team at all, or a selfish team at all, but I think what we've got right now is a bit of a complacent team. Which is disappointing. I've tried to do everything in my power to not let that rear its ugly head, but it has.TMM: I spent some time growing up in a small town like Morehead, I know how the dynamics work... people who accomplish great things outside the town limits become superstars. When the team came back from the experience in Dayton, did they turn into larger-than-life heroes when they got back here in March?DT:
Absolutely. Right down the line, from Kenneth Faried being the MVP of the league tournament as a sophomore, to Maze Stallworth making big 3's on national television against Louisville, to a freshman like Steve Peterson hitting the game-winning shot to send us to the Big Dance. All these guys have become cult heroes around town. What happened as a result was twofold. Number one, they heard all that... and then what happened next was that some of our newcomers this season walked into a situation where everyone's patting them
on the back and telling them
how great they are before they ever scored a basket or rebounded a ball! That seeps its way into your team, no matter how hard you try to have it not to.TMM: From a conference standpoint, it had been so long since the OVC actually won a game at the NCAA Tournament... not since the late 1980's, when Austin Peay, Murray State and Middle Tennessee ran off a nice little string of low-seed upsets. Back then, there was no Play-In Game. Some might say that the opening round game shouldn't count, some say it's a great opportunity. With a few months' worth of reflection, what's your opinion of that new process? How was that experience?DT:
I thought when we were seeded to play in Dayton, it could have been perceived as a negative. And in some corners, it was. But I never let my staff or team look at it as a negative. We looked at is as a huge positive... we were the only game in town on Tuesday night, we were on national television, you had Brent Musberger calling the game and Erin Andrews on the sideline. It doesn't get any bigger than that. Another huge positive was that it was in Dayton, which is three or four hours from our campus, so anybody who wanted to make the trip to see us play could do so. We had a huge contingent of fans there. In those regards, I thought it was a huge positive.
And then when we win the game, it gave us 20 wins for only the third time in the history of the school. There were just so many positive things. And then we played Louisville... in-state school, No. 1 overall seed. It could not have worked out any better for us.
I was hoping, going into this season, that we could win some of our early games against teams like Kent State. Then, if we went on to win our conference tournament and go back again... I realize that we're not going to be an at-large team, no matter what we do. But if we can get some quality wins in the next few weeks, maybe we can get ourselves in a position where we could be a No. 14 or a No. 15 seed. But right now, we can't realistically talk about anything other than getting better every day. That's just being honest. TMM: Tell me a little about some of your players. I've been able to watch the progress of the program, and you've really picked up some winners. What can you say about 6-8 junior Kenneth Faried, who has become a real focal point for you guys (and not just because of his hair)? Even Kent State head coach Geno Ford was mentioning the leaps and bounds he's taken in his development. Their scouting report from last year's BracketBuster game was completely outdated.DT:
He's made tremendous progress. He came in here as a 17-year-old freshman, he weighed 188 pounds and he bench-pressed 200. He's now a young junior, just turned 20. He bench presses 305, weighs 222, and he's really matured. His skill level isn't where we want it to be and where he needs it to be, but he's improved dramatically over the last two and a half years. His strength and stamina have improved so much, and it's made him more complete and more physical. He can play longer stretches. He can rebound out of his area and makes great energy plays. But everybody's doubling down on him now... the word is out. Even tonight, in their zone, they ran a guy at him. And he had five turnovers. He's such an unselfish player, but he needs to become a better passer and a better decision-maker.TMM: Maze Stallworth isn't a name too many people outside the OVC know, but he's such an offensive threat. He scored his 1,000th point tonight. Tell me a little about what he's meant to the program during the rebuilding.DT:
Before I got the job that spring, three years ago, I had recruited Maze when I was at Middle Tennessee. We didn't need the position there, so he was my very first signee here at Morehead. He had no other Division I scholarship offers. Throughout his career, he's been very streaky -- he might make 10 in a row, then he might miss 10 in a row -- and I need him to keep getting better at keeping consistent, being a 2-for-4 or 3-for-5 guy instead of a 1-for-6 guy. But he's been able to turn himself into a real self-made player, a 1,000-point scorer, and that's phenomenal. He has the chance to be an all-league player this year. TMM: Who among your new guys, the players who are getting the back-pats for just being here, are going to be the ones who work their way into your rotation this season?DT:
We have three guys in particular. We redshirted Les Simmons
last year knowing he wouldn't play a lot, but he's become our starting four now. He'll get better as the season goes along. Ty Proffitt
was a transfer combo guard from Notre Dame who sat out last season. He's going to be out 2-4 weeks with a stress fracture, but he's going to be a solid player for us and make some shots when we get into the league. Ty would have helped us tonight. Then there's Sam Goodman
, number 34. He only played about eight minutes tonight... junior college wing guy who can give us some good perimeter defense and attack the rim.
I'm not the most patient guy in the world, so maybe I should give those new and young guys more of a chance to play through some mistakes and improve. But at our level, there's never a game that you just know
you're going to win. Never. The games we play, the line is always one or two, maybe a pick'em. We're never favored by 15, that just never happens... it's just the nature of the beast. Every single damn possession is so valuable. Every play matters. TMM: Speaking of value and mattering, you have some early OVC games coming up.DT:
Yeah... we've got UT Martin on Thursday. They're playing very, very well. Then we play Murray State. Right now, that's the best team in our league. Hands down, it's not even close. I've seen them on tape three times, and the way they're playing and the personnel they have, the way they're defending... it's December right now, but the Racers are the best team in our conference. TMM: Having been around the "modern OVC" for a few years, the expanded and reconfigured version of the league, what are your impressions having been around the circuit a few times?DT:
This year is going to be the deepest and best the league's been. When I played here, there were some great players like Popeye Jones and Frankie Allen. But the stars were on maybe three or four teams. Now, every team in our league has a guy or two that we have to make plans to stop, and there are some tough environments in our league. All of us work hard nowadays, we all work 16 or 17 hours a day, and everyone has tape on everyone else. It's really balanced. We won 20 games last year, and people don't understand how hard it is to win one
game in Division I. I'm telling you... try busing all the way out to UT Martin on a Thursday night and try to win that
game. It will be an absolute motherfucker. It will. For them to beat us, or us to beat them. It's a bitch.TMM: What's the hardest place to play in the league?DT:
Two places... I'd say Murray State or Austin Peay. Murray is bigger, so there are going to be more people there. They really support the team there, there's a lot of winning tradition, and they have a lot of pride in their basketball program. At Peay, those fans are intense from the opening tip to the buzzer. Here on our home floor, we've been 22-4 in the last two years. So I'd like to think coaches in our league would say "Morehead State" if you asked them the same question. TMM: OK, what's your favorite OVC road town? Maybe not to take a vacation there, but to stop at once a year.DT:
I tell you what, I like Cape Girardeau [Southeast Missouri]. It's a nice little city, and I'm a big Red Lobster guy. We don't run into a lot of those in our travels, and I take the opportunity wherever I can. TMM: I love those biscuits they bring out before the meal.DT:
Oh, they're good.TMM: We've talked about this before, so I know I can bring this up and you won't punch me. When I came into town today and stopped at the local McDonald's to use their WiFi, I noticed that there was a stack of Kentucky schedules. This wasn't just a stack, there were about 100 of them, all with John Calipari smiling at you on the front. Everywhere I look in town, there's someone wearing a UK hat or sweatshirt. You're cult heroes, but there's that team that's an hour and a half away who are the real kings of your town. Has the conference championship, NCAA win and cult status helped you make any inroads against the big boys?DT:
That's disappointing to hear, and all I can say is that I hope there were some Morehead State schedules there alongside them... TMM: There weren't.DT:
We'll have to get on that. But we are making inroads. I walk into restaurants in town, and I see so many more people wearing Morehead hats and shirts. But Kentucky loves the Big Blue. We don't try to spin that into a negative or be anti-UK. We have a good product, we have our program heading in the right direction, and we're only in year four. It's an exciting time. But you're right... I'd love to have Morehead schedules in the McDonald's next to the Kentucky schedules. We're trying to say, "Look, you can be fans of both." TMM: I know that you, like myself, have had a tough summer. Both of us are divorced now. We're both basketball people -- on different sides of the scorer's table fence, though -- and I know that a disruptive event like this can affect or alter one's approach to Our Game, forces one to give a close examination to the scale of priorities. Do you approach basketball differently now?DT:
When you work as many hours and spend the time away from home like I have for 15 years, it requires a huge sacrifice to your personal life. That's just the way it is. I don't care how balanced you try to be, or how hard you work at things, there's not as much giving as there is taking. What I've done, having gone through that, is try to understand that nothing is more important than my two daughters. I'm still a workaholic. All I care about, other than my daughters, is my basketball players, my coaches, and my program. Maybe that's unhealthy, but that's who Donnie Tyndall is. I can't help that.
So I've tried to put it all in perspective. Every free minute I do have, I'm sure that I'm with my girls, spending quality time with them. I've quickly learned that it isn't about quantity as much as it's about quality. But at the end of the day, in our profession, if you're not working, making recruiting calls and writing letters and watching tape, you're not going to make it. You usually only get one chance at this thing. I didn't play at Kentucky or Duke or Carolina, I'm from Morehead State. So if I'm going to be successful, I can never, ever, ever back off. I have to work day at night. That's what I do, and that's who I am... right or wrong. TMM: On the site, I've spent time this season pondering the inherent tragedy of what we do. We put ourselves in this game, and it demands that we give it our entire souls. On the flipside of that, the game doesn't love us back. It will chew us up and spit us out, and forget us altogether when we're too old or unable to do what we do. Others will come and take our places. It's crazy for us to do this. Why do we do this, Coach?DT:
Two summers ago, I went to this conference where I heard Isiah Thomas and Chuck Daly talk. I grew up in Michigan, so Isiah was one of my heroes. He said something that I wrote down, something I keep in my organizer and in my heart. He said, "The game will hurt you." So simple, so direct, but you know how Isiah talks. It was so eloquent. "I've done this, done that, played on Olympic teams, been MVP of the All-Star Game. But you know what... no matter who you are, the game will hurt you."
You're exactly right. I love basketball, and I've loved it since the fourth grade. It's been who I am, what I am, and it's what I'm about. But at the end of the day, especially during nights like tonight, you have to question yourself a little bit. I'm going to go home tonight after we talk, my daughters won't be there, and I'll be carrying around this loss to Kent State. You have to say, 'Man, is all this worth it?"
I just want to do the very best job I can. If I've done well enough in my career, I can send my daughters to Harvard or Yale or wherever they want to go to school. If they want nice cars at 16 years old, I'll be able to get them nice cars. Maybe that's a selfish way to explain what I do and why I've done it, but that's my purpose now. I want to reward them and take care of them. Whenever I lose focus or have self-doubt, I remember that I'm doing this for Taylor and Grace. TMM: I got one last one for you, Coach. From the beginning, back when I visited during the construction phase of your project, I was really stuck at your ambition. I mean, I run into a lot of wide-eyed first-year head coaches who talk about building the next Gonzaga, but you said you were serious after I laughed you off. You were digging a program out from a four-win season, after all. Do you still think like that?DT:
I'll say this. People have said to me things like, "The success you've had is incredible. I can't believe how quickly you've turned the program around." But I'm telling you, Kyle, it's so hard. It's so much harder than I ever thought it would be. I'm just being honest here. I think we're still in the infancy stages of catching a Gonzaga or a Butler. I think we're closer to being at the level of a Kent State or a Southern Illinois. But to get to that elite mid-major level like Gonzaga, where you're mid-major in name only, that's a 12 to 15 year process. I worked at Idaho in the 1990's, and I watched Gonzaga become Gonzaga. They used to have a little old fieldhouse that was like a high school gym. In my heart, I know how possible it is for it to happen here.
The recruiting class we just had is the best since I've been here. Think about this: we signed two guys early in my first three years, total. We signed six in the early-signing period this year. People might not realize what a huge step that is for a program, for a school that nobody knew about a few years ago to get kids to commit in the fall. The payoff from the NCAA Tournament is definitely there. We're going to continue to get a better level of player, but it's going to be a long time before we can get the borderline McDonald's All-Americans like Gonzaga does. But hopefully we're moving towards the type of level where we can start beating BCS teams and raising people's eyebrows. TMM: One of my theories is that what helps makes a Gonzaga is a narrative that people outside the area can latch on to. There's a tantalizing mystery surrounding a team from the middle of nowhere that beats BCS teams on a mid-major budget. That really captures the imaginations of fans and ESPN program directors alike. It's also why Nike can sell Gonzaga shirts at sporting goods stores in New York, Texas and California. So what's the story of Morehead State? What's the narrative you're selling? Who are you?DT:
We'll stick with the theme of the small eastern Kentucky school trying to make their own way. Here we are, this little country town in the mountains, trying to make it on college basketball's biggest stage, just an hour down the road from arguably the most prestigious program in college basketball history. We're just trying to make a name for ourselves in the shadow of the Big Blue. That sounds like a great underdog story, doesn't it? Morehead State opened OVC play with a 74-66 win at Tennessee-Martin, which was a... well, it was a hard-fought victory. The Eagles play Murray State on the road on Saturday. They are 2-3 (1-0) to start their title defense.