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June 5, 2014
Love and basketball on Rocky Top
The only game of one-on-one came just weeks after their first meeting and shortly after their first date.
Once Donnie Tyndall had begun to realize he needed to toss out some self-ascribed dating rules. And once Nikki Young had realized she wanted to better get to know the then-head coach at Morehead State.
"We just ran into each other. One of his friends knew one of my friends," says Young, recalling first meeting Tyndall following the rising coaching star's speech in basketball-crazed Lexington, Ky. "We were just kind of talking and one of his friends says, 'You know he's the coach at Morehead State?' He swears it wasn't planned, but I feel like it was a planned attack."
"She should have known me! We had just gone to the NCAA Tournament," Tyndall cracks. "What more could I do?"
Tyndall could text and call and a few weeks later formally ask out Young on a date. What he could not do was allow the former Kentucky High School All-State honoree Young, who played collegiately first at Kentucky and then capped her career at Transylvania, to win a game of one-on-one.
Though the free-flowing banter between Tennessee's new first couple of basketball reveals the final result remains clouded five years later.
"We had to stop that immediately after we first started dating," Young explains. "This was in Morehead, he had a goal set up in his driveway."
"We just played one-on-one to five or 10," the coach chimes in.
"Needless to say it got physical and there were some bumps and bruises and scratches. I'm pretty sure I won," Young replies.
"No, you're pretty sure you didn't win. I beat her," Tyndall emphasizes with a laugh. "She was (ticked). I did [foul], but I won."
"We don't agree on that, but that's our only game of one-on-one in our five-year relationship," she says. "It was ugly. I think he knocked me down, tripped me, fouled me on a layup."
"I won the game," Tyndall flatly says.
Their relationship in many ways is metaphor for Tyndall's rather systematic coaching ascension; the dating took place at mid-major Morehead State; the engagement followed at higher profile Southern Mississippi; they'll marry later this summer, just three months prior to Tyndall's formal debut as Tennessee's basketball coach in Tyndall's destination league, the Southeastern Conference.
"For me, it's been we break a school record in winning 29 games (at Southern Miss), so the success and how quick that season went and then riding right into this position. And then here, the first month on the job, you really don't have time to catch your breath," Tyndall says, not bothering to catch his breath, in explaining one of the most significant years of his life. "And all of a sudden, you're in league meetings and I walk in, and I don't want this to sound arrogant, but I'm not in awe or intimidated by anybody but yet, it's all happened so quick and all of a sudden you're sitting in a meeting room with (John) Calipari and (Billy) Donovan and Kevin Stallings and guys you just have great respect for. Yeah, you almost pinch yourself like, 'Damn! This happened so fast!'. That's how I feel.
"Knoxville's so much closer to my daughters (Taylor and Grace), which is exciting. So yeah, everything has just kind of fallen into place. And I think that's the biggest thing I want people to know: Yeah, I wanted to be in the SEC, but there's some SEC jobs I wouldn't have left Southern Miss for. But this is one of the best jobs in the SEC, and the proximity of it and the city of Knoxville and the type of people who are here, that all was important to me."
Adds Young, "I've had more time to process than Donnie, because he's been working till midnight every night. I know it's a dream come true for Donnie. He's been wanting to get into the SEC, and it's close to Kentucky where I was born and raised. So I've had a couple of times to just, yeah, pinch myself."
Those pinch-yourself moments arrive with almost dizzying regularity, personally and professionally, this year for Young and Tyndall, as well as throughout their relationship. Their first date, both recall, at a spot in Morehead, Ky., includes the footnote that Kentucky House of Representatives Majority Leader Rocky Adkins picked up the tab.
"It was kind of ironic because one of the state legislators was a former player and alum (Adkins) and he happened to be in the restaurant with four or five of his buddies. We walked in and went over and said hello and sat down and ate. Well, he ended up picking up our meal," Tyndall says. "So she was impressed, our very first date someone bought us dinner."
Young, sitting poolside in Destin, Fla., just a couple basketball court lengths from where they'll marry in two months, laughs it off.
"He didn't buy my dinner. That was real impressive," she needles. "It was neat, he was there for our first date and he was a big supporter of Morehead State and we ran into him several times after that. It was neat to see somebody who kind of saw us from the actual beginning."
The trip to Key West, Fla., that both say, independent of the other, is when they fell in love; where maybe they'll take a three-day honeymoon later this summer.
"It really didn't take too long to know I loved her," says Tyndall, he with the 143-68 ledger in his last six seasons as a Division I head coach, including a staggering 56-17 his previous two years in Hattiesburg. "I'd been divorced less than a year and I'm thinking I don't know if I'll ever get remarried. I'm not going to get too serious with anybody. And then probably within about two or three months, we took a weekend trip to Key West and I think at that point, I knew I was in love."
"The Key West trip," Young says. "We can't really take a full blown honeymoon this year because of the new job. So we talked that we'll get married, go back to Knoxville and then maybe go back to Key West for a little break. It would be special for us. We haven't been back since that trip, and it's just a special place for us."
So, too, of course, is Tyndall's last stop. It's where both chuckle at the execution of his marriage proposal, complete with his parents and daughter clued in but not Young; where Young remembers enlisting Tyndall's daughters to aide in her getting the head ball coach a pet alligator.
"I was getting ready for this event. My hair was in a towel. It surprised me. Literally I had absolutely no idea. I kind of just did an 'Oh my gosh!' and then ran into the other room," she says. "His oldest, Taylor, and his mom came in there. They were all excited. And they said, 'So, what's the answer?' I didn't even realize that I didn't say yes. I kind of just ran out of the room. It was exciting; surprised me."
Tyndall doesn't run from alligators; they fascinate him. So Young delights in explaining how she got him probably the most unique pet among all college basketball coaches.
"The two things that people find most interesting are his sneaker collection; he's got 400 to 500 pairs. He's got a little closet to showcase them. And then he's fascinated with alligators," says Young, a former finance professional who spent a season helping coach the Southern Miss women's team. "He loves alligators. At Southern Miss, we had one for about a year and a half. I wasn't really supposed to tell anyone that. But the girls and I surprised him; alley-oop, the alligator. We had it right there in his office. I think it just helped distract him."
Adds Tyndall, "I love alligator (TV) shows. I don't know if I have just one (favorite shoe). I would say that I have a style, and I have about seven or eight different colors, the Air Max '95s.
"Obviously, I didn't have the money to do it [as a youth] but I've always been a shoe fanatic. I remember my mom and dad would give me a hundred dollars the week before school started and I had to make that work for my clothes. So usually it was three pairs of jeans and three shirts. But one year, they gave me a hundred bucks and the brand-new Jordans came out like the day before and I spent all hundred bucks on those."
Young is mostly handling getting the family settled into Knoxville while Tyndall spends hours that defy labor laws, if not physics, compiling his inaugural Tennessee roster. Five signees are full-go on campus, Detrick Mostella is on Rocky Top awaiting final clearance from the NCAA while Tariq Owens and Eric McKnight are expected by second session summer school.
These days, finally, Tyndall feels like Tennessee's basketball coach. It isn't mandatory SEC meetings in Florida; standing ovations along the five-stop, statewide Big Orange Caravan; private receptions with donors, many of whom are recovering from a disconnect with the previous staff. Tyndall marvels at the hospitality he continually receives, but he gets antsy for a chance to see his roster begin the embryonic stages of development.
"That's what I'm so excited about. My favorite part of coaching is practice," Tyndall explains. "These workouts this summer aren't technically practice, but you can kind of get your guys to the floor a couple hours a week and you can kind of see what you have. Maybe a guy surprises you and can do something that you didn't think or anticipate that he could. Or vice versa, so you can tweak your recruiting moving forward. So I'm just excited to start getting what I call the base into our team of how we do things and how we work and that's the funnest part of the job for me."
There's also his burgeoning friendship with fellow Michigander and Vols' football coach Butch Jones. Barbara Jones and Young also already are fast friends.
"Well, I think you've got to start with Butch's humility. He's a guy who's very, very popular, he's a great football coach and he's obviously a great person. Our fans love him and rightfully so. He didn't have to take time to help me get acclimated or situated, and he's not only done that but he's gone above and beyond to help me just feel comfortable," says Tyndall, who sports a mark of 13 games or more above .500 in four of his past five seasons. "And Barb and Nikki have hit it off; they've already had us over to their house for steaks one night. I tell you, he's been a guy that even though he's a football coach, in a short period of time he's been a mentor to me and I'm always picking his brain about the landscape at Tennessee, the landscape in Knoxville and just his thoughts in general because he's had great success everywhere he's been. So his thoughts in general on coaching. And I don't want to get too corny, but he's almost been like a big brother my first month on the job here.
"Obviously I knew about the tradition of great players and coaches at Tennessee, but the facilities and the city of Knoxville, I didn't know a whole lot. Just basing my decision on Coach (Dave) Hart [UT's vice chancellor/director of athletics], how comfortable I was with him, and the fact that it was a job that I felt like was in the upper half of the SEC and it was a league I'd always wanted to coach in. Once we got here, I've not heard one person say a negative thing about the city. The people are unbelievably kind and it just seems like a perfect fit. It really does."
"I'm excited," Young says. "We're closing on our house in July. I'm very excited. Donnie was very nice and kind, and it's on the lake and I'm excited to get in there. We're still living out of suitcases. It will be nice to kind of get him organized and have all of our stuff. It's distracting when you don't have your sneakers there for you. I'm excited for the wedding, Aug. 2. We've got a lot going on."
They finish each other's sentences; both talk openly about the excitement for their pending nuptials. They're the portrait of Tennessee basketball --- all smiles, of course, as long as no one suggests a game of one-on-one.