Marshall basketball: Tinnon hopes rocky road lasts bit longer
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It's impossible to miss Dennis Tinnon's smile. It's big and toothy and seems tattooed to his face.
Whether it's on the practice court, in a game or away from the arena, the 24-year-old senior forward loves every second of his life as a Marshall men's basketball player, and that smile makes it obvious.
"People ask me, 'Are you ever serious?' " he said.
Make no mistake, he takes things very seriously - his sport, his education and his future. He does it because of the three people who make his grin stretch the widest: his wife Robin, 3-year-old daughter Denyah and infant son Dennis III. When he peeks in on his two children before he goes to sleep, he thinks about the beautiful lives he and his wife have made.
For his family, he'll juggle the responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood, education and Division I college basketball. And for them, he took a risk he wasn't sure would pay off.
Tinnon's final season as a Thundering Herd basketball player was not guaranteed, and hanging around for the answer could have derailed his professional basketball dreams before they ever began. Yet through hard work, a long process and a little faith, he wore a Marshall uniform this season.
He's not ready to take that uniform off just yet. Tinnon and the rest of the Thundering Herd take the court today in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament. They face Tulane at 9:30 p.m., and Tinnon will try to extend his collegiate career just a little longer.
When Tinnon arrived in Huntington after a standout career at Kansas City Kansas Community College, he knew he might have only one year on Marshall's roster. Before enrolling at KCKCC, he had enrolled at Williston State, a North Dakota junior college, in 2007. He had planned to get his GED and then join the school's basketball team, but he left the school before that happened.
He learned later that, despite never practicing with Williston State's team or even holding a high school diploma at the time, enrolling there started the clock for his NCAA eligibility. Student-athletes have five years to use four seasons of eligibility, and Tinnon's clock was ticking faster than he originally thought.
There was something else he knew when he enrolled at Marshall. Herd Coach Tom Herrion and the athletic department would do all they could to fight for that final year.
"My commitment when we recruited him was we'd do everything we possibly could within our means and probably went above and beyond from an institutional standpoint," Herrion said.
Robin Tinnon said Marshall started discussing the appeal when the family first arrived in Huntington. The process began in earnest in January 2012 and the formal appeal was filed in the spring. The university also enlisted the help of Ropes & Gray, a law firm with offices from Boston to Shanghai.
Statements were taken from a litany of people, including Dennis, Robin, Dennis' teachers and coaches at Green Bay East High School in Wisconsin, his coaches from KCKCC, even the coaches he never played for at Williston State. The NCAA returned with several requests for even more information.
It didn't help that Tinnon's predicament - enrolling in junior college without a high school diploma, leaving that college and then going back and graduating from high school - was unprecedented. In most NCAA eligibility cases, universities could look at how the NCAA ruled in similar situations. Here, Tinnon and Marshall were flying blind.
So they stood by as the NCAA did its work.
"It felt like a year, but it was only four months," Robin Tinnon said. "Every day was so hard. We were so nervous, and we were constantly thinking about what the NCAA was going to decide, just constantly coming together and praying about it."
Meanwhile, Tinnon was getting himself ready for his basketball future, even though he wasn't sure what that would be.
Tinnon and Marshall hoped they'd hear back from the NCAA by the end of the spring semester in May. The month of May came and went, as did the month of June. So did the NBA's pre-draft camp, the draft combine and the 2012 draft itself.
"I just had to make sure in the offseason, with the worst-case scenario, I can still stay in shape and still keep my game up," Tinnon said. "If it does come through, I'll be prepared for next season. If it doesn't, maybe I'll get lucky and be able to slide through and get a tryout.
"That back door, it wasn't promised," he added. "Everything could have been done, said and done right there, if I didn't get that year back. That would have been just, 'Oh ... what do I do?' "
Even if he couldn't play at Marshall in 2012-13, he'd still have his scholarship so he could complete his degree in business management. But if he chose that route, if he put basketball on hold for his degree, what would a year away from the sport have done to his pro prospects? Yes, he'd have his degree, but would the window have closed on his NBA dream or his chances at a good contract with a European team, one that would provide for his wife, daughter and son on the way?
"I don't know if I would have gotten a third chance," Tinnon said. "I already got lucky in getting it twice."
Tinnon's road to Marshall at times was a rocky one. A misdemeanor theft charge after stealing football tickets from Green Bay East's office as a junior - and his failure to complete community service obligations from that charge - led to three weekends in jail during his senior year. Too many school absences also left him short of graduating.
He left Williston State shortly after arriving, partly because of a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge. He and a friend were using a stop sign for BB gun target practice, and Tinnon was accused of missing a sign and hitting a pedestrian. That violated his probation from the high school theft charge. Because Tinnon waited so long to turn himself in on the probation violation, the judge sentenced him to four months in jail.
After his release, he spent days working toward his GED and nights working in a meat processing plant before getting his opportunity at KCKCC.
Through it all, Robin was there. She'd known Dennis since she was 11 years old. She was his friend first, became his girlfriend and then his wife. She was there to support him and there to tell him to get his act together.
"That's why she's my wife now," Tinnon said. "She's seen the worst of me and she's seen the better of me. I love my wife to death. She's done so much for me, and she'll continue to support me.
"My wife is my backbone."
And she tried to stay strong as her husband waited for the NCAA's decision. She knew that if she showed worry, it would worry him.
"Whenever he is worried," she said, "it's the weight of the family on his shoulders."
She tried to be his rock, but the fissures would show. Herrion never lied to the couple. He never said Marshall was 100-percent sure Dennis would win his appeal, but the university was confident it had a precedent-setting case. Still, Robin said the wait was agonizing.
"I kept trying to fight back the emotions because I didn't want it to resonate with him," she said. "He had to stay calm and continue to work hard. I know when I worry a lot, that makes him worry. He's such a humble person. I basically tried to stay calm, but I constantly stressed about it."
Finally, in the first week of July, the wait was over. The news was good. Dennis would get a second year on Marshall's roster. When Robin got the news from Herrion and her husband, she was ready with a big bear hug the second he walked through the door.
"I was just screaming and Dennis was so happy," Robin said. "He smiled the whole day."
"I smile all the time, constantly, anyway," Dennis said.
If anything, this season gave the Tinnons some stability. Dennis could finish his degree, while 21-year-old Robin could continue work toward her psychology degree. No back-door entries into the professional hoops ranks were necessary. Dennis could work on his game through the college basketball season and go through the draft process like every other prospect.
At 13-18 entering today's tournament game, the Herd's season hasn't gone the way Tinnon wanted. Still, he's averaging 10.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, similar to the 10.2 points and 10.0 rebounds he averaged last season. He's recorded nine double-doubles this year, including three in his last six games.
He's also expanded his repertoire, working on his ball handling and his outside shooting. He's made 13 3-pointers this year after taking and making just two last year. It's a difference from when he arrived in Huntington two seasons ago from KCKCC. Herrion said Tinnon came is as a 6-foot-8, 232-pound workhorse, overpowering and playing harder than most of his opponents.
He still displays that tenacity - his 3.3 offensive rebounds per game is fourth in C-USA by three-hundredths of a rebound - but he's also been able to grow as a player.
"His skill level, his ability to step away from the basket and make shots now and put the ball on the floor a little bit better, he's much more versatile, there's no doubt about that," Herrion said.
And it allows Tinnon to spend less time worrying about his future and more time enjoying the present. When he's on the road with the team, he yearns to return home to see his wife and children.
"I love being a dad," he said. "It's a great feeling. The most important thing is watching them grow and being involved in their lives. It gives them an opportunity to learn things the right way, to learn what not to do and what to do."
Tinnon's teammates see that, and see how his journey through life has molded him as a player and a man.
"He went through a lot of adversity," senior center Nigel Spikes said. "I commend him on that. I can see why he plays hard, goes out and gives it his all, because he's been through so much.
"Look at him," Spikes said before one practice. "Big smile. I don't think I've ever seen him in a bad mood, ever."
Dennis dotes on Denyah, Robin said. They laugh and play and joke. He'll color pictures with her or sit there as she plays with her Barbie dolls. He'll pepper the doctor with questions about Dennis III - what percentile he's in with his height, whether he'll grow tall.
"My son, I'd love for him to follow in my footsteps in basketball," he said. "Not my journey to get here, but to play basketball, not the jagged edge route."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.