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January 4, 2013

Basketball success should be rewarded


Sometimes you just know when a situation is right. That's the feeling that many Southern Miss fans have with the Golden Eagle Basketball program right now. The Eagles are 11-4 under first year head coach Donnie Tyndall in what many expected to be a rebuilding year.

Just a season ago Larry Eustachy led the program to their first NCAA Tournament in 20 years and promptly bounced to Colorado State knowing that he was losing the core of his tournament team. Fans also learned that two top returnees had applied for hard-ship transfers and would be heading to programs closer to home.

When Donnie Tyndall was hired excitement was high but expectations were pretty low for the first year head coach who said all the right things, talked to everyone, was a clear motivator and had a career of success at every stop.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. We've all heard that old cliché, but it rings true and Donnie Tyndall knocked it out of the park with Southern Miss fans, players, boosters and alumni.

He went right to work from day one assembling a solid staff, a perfect mix of experienced coaches and young road warriors who know the game and will pound the pavement in recruiting.

He brought in Wade O'Connor as his Assistant Head Coach, O'Conner was a candidate for the Morehead State job the Tyndall left to come to Hattiesburg. Looking back, there's a pretty good chance that the administration there wishes that they would have given him the node over Sean Woods.

O'Conner brings a wealth of experience to the Southern Miss program including time at Western Carolina, St. Cathrine's College, Marshall (under Billy Donovan), Dayton and Tulane.

At some point he's going to head coach at the Division I level.

Assistant coach Jareem Dowling brings a wealth of international coaching experience to the program. A native of the US Virgin Islands, he has strong ties to the Caribbean and those ties have already paid dividends as the Eagles signed Deon Edwin and Norville Carey during last year's signing class. Both hail from the British Virgin Islands.

He is known as a relentless recruiter and heavily recruits the Caribbean as well as portions of the Northeastern United States for the Eagles.

Adam Howard is the third assistant, he began his coaching career at Morehead with Tyndall after a playing career at Western Kentucky that earned him four letters. He has become known as a tireless recruiter with a solid knowledge of the game of basketball. He won't stay in the 3rd assistant role long.

Tyndall also made a savy move in the strength and conditioning department. He went outside of the previous strength and conditioning program and hired Ben Sowders from Western Kentucky. This move has paid huge dividends with Sowders running a separate program for basketball while the overall strength and conditioning programs was in shambles under Dr. Stephen Maples. Maples was dismissed before the end of the fall semester.

The move to hire Sowders didn't come without a steep price, because of budget concerns, Tyndall dropped a home game and elected to play at Top 25 Wichita State to raise the funds to hire his own man.

Putting together this staff was one of the first tangible accomplishments that Tyndall had in Hattiesburg. He built a team that could get the job done and that he could count on if things got rough.

The second move he and staff made that gave Southern Miss fans a reason to feel good was they hit the recruiting trail with a vengeance.

They signed a mix of high school players, JUCO players and Division I transfers. The transfers are sitting out this season because of NCAA transfer requirements, but it showed Southern Miss fans that he was building for the long term and not the short term. In fact, because of the Division I transfers that will be eligible to play next season, Southern Miss will be better on paper next year than this even if the staff didn't sign a single player this year.

Somehow Tyndall made time to make over 100 personal speaking engagements and alumni functions between the time he was hired and the season tipped off. No coach in the country can boast that kind of dedication to building a fan-base.

On the academic side of the program he inherited a tough situation. The team was facing major APR issues and a low team GPA. He managed to turn that around in short order.

This summer, the team had a 2.962 GPA. This fall, they had the highest Fall Team GPA on record with a 2.6, including six students athletes on the Honor Roll.

To help combat the APR issues he brought back several players that had left school after their eligibility was up and encouraged them to finish their course work for graduation. They did.

He also reached out to former players and coaches and has began building a family atmosphere around the program that includes everyone.

All of the above would have meant very little if the Eagles would have fallen flat coming out of the gate on the 2012-13 season.

But, that didn't happen, in fact quite the opposite. Southern Miss is sitting at 11-4 heading into C-USA play having played only five home games.

The Eagles went undefeated in The Legends Classic, defeating Georgia, Sam Houston State, UC Irvine and Liberty along the way.

They also picked up wins over Western Kentucky, Georgia State and Morehead State. They were competitive in losses to No. 5 Arizona and Wichita State who was ranked at the time of the meeting.

The Eagles have kept their home winning streak alive that currently sits at 20 games and is currently the fifth longest home winning streak in the nation.

The success has caused attendance to continue to swell this season, the University recently moved to open more concession stands in Reed Green Coliseum to accommodate the larger crowds.

National media have taken notice of Southern Miss' early success, several outlets have pegged the Eagles as a potential NCAA tournament team.

Heading into conference play Southern Miss has the third best overall win-loss record but their 49 RPI ranking (WarrenNolan.com) is clearly tops in the league with UTEP having the second best RPI at 89.

Certainly nobody knows exactly how the C-USA portion of the schedule will turn out, because there is a lot of parity in the league this year. Traditional league powers like Memphis, UAB and UTEP look down while Southern Miss, Tulane and maybe Houston look to be on a upswing. Marshall and UCF are expected to be dangerous teams this eason.

The bottom line is that in many, many ways Tyndall and Co. have already exceeded expectations and barring second half nose dive they'll be dancing somewhere this season.

With the game of college basketball in such a state of flux this year there will be a lot of schools looking for a head coach in the offseason.

Programs like Auburn, Georiga, Wake Forest, Texas Tech, and Mississippi are headed toward making changes in the coming year.

At least a couple of those could come after Tyndall.

Now is a perfect time for Southern Miss to make a commitment to basketball and Donnie Tyndall. Before the season is over it could be a very savy move for Director of Athletics Jeff Hammond to sit down with Tyndall and draw up a new four year contract.

Not a roll-over to the current contract, a new contract that allows for Tyndall and his staff to be rewarded even more for their success. A new contract heavy in incentives for improving attendance, post season play and academic improvements.

Money always has and always will be an issue at Southern Miss, we all know that including Tyndall and Hammond. But, there has to be some ways to lay out a new contract that will give Tyndall and his staff a chance to reap benefits from the resurgence of the Southern Miss basketball program.

A new contract, even without large raises in guaranteed money would be, if nothing else, a huge symbolic effort in showing just how committed Southern Miss has become in making basketball a priority in Hattiesburg.

The basketball program needs this, the fans need this and it would be a big feather in the cap of the Administration if they make it happen before the season even ends.


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