At home, Donnie Tyndall happy to be back on sidelines as Grand Rapids Drive head coach

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Donnie Tyndall was fired after one season as the Tennessee men's basketball coach, following an NCAA violations that surfaced from his time at Southern Miss. He's now the head coach of the Grand Rapids Drive.

If you were playing basketball on a recent summer Sunday evening in Grand Rapids, you may have matched up with him.

He was the older guy, pushing 50, and he’s all right with the fact that he couldn’t get on the court unless he called “game” and got a team together. No one was picking him up.

But that’s OK with Donnie Tyndall. He’s just happy to be home again on the basketball court.

“I tried to hoop for about an hour, I go back there and reminisce,” Tyndall said of his evening with high school and college kids at Martin Luther King Jr. Park near downtown. “That’s about the only place I’ve been where it was definitely still the same as when I was a high school guy. Everything else is dramatically different.”

Once living his dream at the top of the college basketball world at Tennessee, Tyndall has recovered from what he calls “some very, very dark days” after the NCAA’s scarlet letter left him reeling, eventually focusing on a new dream, this time with the NBA.

His plight caught the eye of his Bluegrass coaching trail brethren, as now-Pistons coach Dwane Casey brought Tyndall into his orbit, knowing himself the long journey of reputation rehab.

“Because I’ve been there before; I understand,” Casey said. “You’re down and everybody kind of looks at you cross-eyed, that type of thing.

“He has a way about him, relating with the players, working with the players, he’s genuine. It kind of organically came about, the closeness. He’s a good basketball man, and it kind of evolved over time.”

This offseason, Tyndall’s winding road back to a head chair was complete when he was named head coach of the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons G League affiliate.

Tyndall grew up in Ravenna, east of Muskegon, and attended Grand Rapids Northview High School. There, he starred at point guard before playing a year of junior college basketball at Iowa Central. Then, he was off to Kentucky and Morehead State, where he played for three seasons, a state that would become a “second home,” he said.

His coaching career has been a series of homecomings, starting at Iowa Central as an assistant. Back in Kentucky for his first head coaching job at St. Catharine College, Tyndall at 26 became the youngest coach to lead a team to the JUCO national tournament.

His rise in coaching included stops as an assistant at LSU, Idaho and Middle Tennessee State before his alma mater made him a Division I head coach at 35.

The stop included two trips to the NCAA Tournament, including a 2011 first-round upset of fourth-seeded Louisville, tying the school record with 25 wins, a mark set by his coaching mentor Wayne Martin.

Tyndall, who groomed Kenneth Faried with the Eagles, only viewed the upset as the first of many Big Dance wins to come.

“I was always so driven and so consumed to be successful in college that I never enjoyed the journey,” Tyndall said. “I was at my alma mater for six years and had incredible success, and I don’t know if I ever enjoyed a day of it. Don’t get me wrong, you enjoy a big win, but I never really sat down and absorbed it and enjoyed the process and how much fun we were having or should’ve been having.”

Morehead State also had self-imposed sanctions for recruiting violations involving boosters that resulted in two years of probation at the end of Tyndall’s tenure.

But Tyndall kept climbing, moving on to take over at Southern Miss where he reached the NIT quarterfinals twice in his two seasons.

The winning took him all the way to Knoxville, where he became the SEC’s youngest coach at 43. But his time with the Volunteers lasted just one 16-16 season, as an NCAA investigation into his time at Southern Miss led to his firing in 2015.

Later, he received a 10-year show-cause penalty as the NCAA concluded Tyndall committed multiple Level I violations, including academic misconduct and payments to players.

Tyndall’s appeal of the show-cause, which keeps him out of NCAA coaching until 2026, was denied. The Final Four runs he dreamed of likely will never come.

“I’ll always believe and never waver, that we would’ve won a national championship or two at Tennessee — it’s that good of a job,” said Tyndall, who declined to address the NCAA's findings from his time at Southern Miss. “So everything was there to finally do it, and to have it ripped away unfairly was one thing, but then you get the show-cause where you can’t go anywhere else and do what you love to do. It’s so unfair and it’s tragic.”

With Tyndall lost in the coaching wilderness, Martin made a call to Casey, the former Kentucky assistant who knew Martin well from the time he was Morehead State’s head coach in the 1980s.

Tyndall’s story resonated with Casey, who was coaching Toronto at the time. Casey was once given a five-year probation by the NCAA, a penalty later rescinded when he was later cleared of any wrongdoing of a pay-to-play investigation.

His career derailed, Casey went to Japan to resume coaching and it would be more than five years before he returned to the United States to climb the NBA coaching ladder.

Similar to how George Karl once did for him with Seattle in the 1990s, Casey gave Tyndall a shot coaching in summer league and then with Toronto’s G League team under head coach Jerry Stackhouse, the former Pistons guard.

The Raptors 905 team won the 2017 G League title, in part because of the development of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, players who later would become key contributors to Toronto’s NBA title last season.

When Casey came to Detroit last season, he placed Tyndall as an assistant with the Drive. This week at Pistons media day, the former NBA Coach of the Year praised Tyndall’s loyalty. The Ravenna native is now back in the head coaching seat, one Casey values, especially given the onus he puts on player development of young prospects like Sekou Doumbouya, Detroit’s first-round pick.

“It’s probably one of the most important parts of the program that we can have is our G League team,” Casey said. “Donnie will do a great job as far as teaching our system, teaching fundamentals, terminology, patience, the whole nine yards. He’s just an excellent, excellent teacher.”

Tyndall spent much of the summer in Los Angeles working with prospects like Doumbouya and second-round pick Jordan Bone, a two-way player. Bone starred at Tennessee for coach Rick Barnes, who offered Bone a scholarship a couple of weeks after taking over Tyndall’s program.

At 49, Tyndall said his goal is now to coach in the NBA with hopes of sitting in the head chair, back in the national spotlight he enjoyed for a fleeting moment a few years ago.

“It’s been tough, it has, but at the end of the day, I also found out both good and bad, who was with me and who wasn’t with me. Who my true friends are and who my true friends weren’t,” Tyndall said. “My dreams and goals are pretty high. Who knows if I’ll reach them? But I don’t think people ever thought I was going to be youngest head coach in the SEC either, so we’ll see.

“I shoot for the stars, that’s just who I am and what my personality is.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.