UT sports mark season of SEC success

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

For the first time in 15 years, Tennessee has won five SEC team championships in the same academic year thanks to two women’s and two men’s sports.


The Twitter account of Tennessee Stats & Info (@Vol_Stats for those on social media) noted the accomplishment Sunday after the Vols baseball team claimed the SEC tourney title to go along with its regular season championship.

The other three team championships in 2021-22 came from women’s soccer, women’s swimming/diving and men’s basketball. It matched the excellence of 2006-07 when five UT teams also claimed SEC titles. The Twitter post didn’t mention the five teams who did so 15 years ago, so here they are: women’s basketball, women’s softball, men’s indoor track & field, men’s outdoor track & field and men’s golf.

The arrival of Tony Vitello in June 2017 set baseball on a stratospheric path to success. When the Vols hoisted the championship trophy on Sunday in Hoover, Alabama, it was the first time since 1995 that UT had departed the SEC baseball tourney with the tourney title. The double-double – winning the regular season and tournament – is not an easy feat, but UT became the third straight SEC team to do so after Vanderbilt in 2019 and Arkansas in 2021. (The pandemic erased the SEC season in 2020). Not surprisingly, nine SEC teams received invites to the 2022 NCAA postseason, which starts this week, with the Vols earning the overall No. 1 seed.

Vitello has not only assembled a talented roster, but he also has built a culture within UT baseball that puts the team first. In a sport judged so much on individual statistics and a roster with several players who could become wealthy in the big leagues, that’s not at all easy to do.

“It’s my life,” Vitello said Sunday. “My family is here. My parents, God love them, they’re probably like, when are you going to spend some time with me? Compared to our support staff, I don’t do nearly as much, but it’s a full-time job. So, during the spring, it’s literally your livelihood.

“They are unique. I think the way they go about it, it’s a really tight group. It’s to what extent are you willing to do it throughout the good and bad and then how determined are you going to be to kind of hold on to that. I’ve seen programs and maybe even been part of teams where it kind of vanishes as time goes on, but this deal seems to be gaining strength.”

UT baseball coach Tony Vitello (UT Athletics)

Sunday’s SEC baseball tourney title also marked Tennessee’s 200th all-time SEC team championship.

While current Athletics Director Danny White didn’t hire Tony Vitello – John Currie made that decision in 2017 – he got to work on extending Vitello’s contract to 2026 just a few months into the job after arriving in 2021. Those contract talks also included the plans for significant renovations to Lindsey Nelson Stadium, including increased capacity and amenities for fans and improved workout facilities for players.

So, why is UT having so much success across multiple sports? The obvious answer is a strong athletics department overseen by White. He has been on campus for just 16 months and made it clear that every sport needed to compete for championships. He already made head coaching changes in women’s golf and the men’s and women’s track & field programs. Several coaches who had success in the SEC and NCAA postseasons earned contract extensions in 2021-22, including volleyball coach Eve Rackham Watt and basketball coach Kellie Harper.

White and Chancellor Donde Plowman also are seemingly everywhere a UT team is playing. It’s the best academic-athletics combination since the days of President Joe Johnson and Doug Dickey for men’s athletics and Joan Cronan for women’s athletics. (On a side note, both Dickey and Cronan participated in a recent UT panel forum about the 50th Anniversary of Title IX. That will be a separate column in June.)

One other note about White: Last summer, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (WBHOF) in Knoxville held an induction ceremony delayed a year by the pandemic that included former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings. I have attended nearly all of the induction events since the first one in 1999 when Pat Summitt entered the hall with the inaugural class.

In 2021, White and his wife, Shawn, attended the event. He had been in Knoxville less than seven months at that point. Outside of Cronan, of course, I had not seen a UT athletics director at an induction ceremony. Granted, it was possible I missed one over the years, but White didn’t just show up. He mingled and engaged people. He seems to get it and understand both the importance of women’s sports and the Lady Vols moniker. As a member of the board of governors for the WBHOF and a longtime Lady Vols sportswriter, I walked over to thank him and his wife.

Speaking of the WBHOF, the 2022 class will be inducted June 11 and includes broadcaster Debbie Antonelli, contributor; Alice “Cookie” Barron, veteran player and one of the famed Flying Queens for Wayland Baptist; Doug Bruno, coach; Becky Hammon, player; DeLisha Milton-Jones, player; Paul Sanderford, coach; Bob Schneider, coach; and Penny Taylor, international player.

It always attracts a who’s who of those connected to the sport with a free autograph session with the inductees that Saturday morning and a ticketed post-celebration at the hall on Saturday evening after the ceremony at the Tennessee Theatre. See y’all at the hall.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press. She can be reached at mmcornelius23@gmail.com.

 

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