Vol baseball champs swinging for bigger prizes

Marvin Westwestwords

What follows is a profound statement. Please commit it to memory.

National championships in college sports are difficult to win.

Pat Summitt distorted that truth with eight titles. She made it look easy. Believe me, it isn’t.

Championships are built on hard work, the proverbial blood, sweat and tears plus crafty recruiting, sound instruction, motivation and a pinch of luck.

The University of Tennessee claims 23 national crowns in women’s basketball, football, track and swimming. Some of the six in football are seriously questionable.

Note that baseball is not on the list. Tennessee has been trying, more or less, for 126 years. Six times the Volunteers have been to the College World Series. Once they finished runner-up. Of course, the current team hopes to do better. It might.

UT baseball coach Tony Vitello (photo from UT sports information)

If it does, credit will likely belong to coach Tony Vitello, home-run champ Christian Moore, his bash buddies and gritty but not grand pitching.

Tennessee, ranked No. 1 in the country, is approaching the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 22-8 league record, 42-10 overall.

This may be Vitello’s best performance.

He has won with somewhat- above-average pitching. Offense has been somewhere near awesome. The Vols have hit 141 home runs. For perspective, in a few more half-innings, opponents have hit 62.

I didn’t expect an SEC title. I didn’t expect the No. 1 national ranking. I did expect Vitello to be competitive. That’s who he is. He has twice been national coach of the year. His 2022 team set the school record with a 57-9 record.

“He is a fantastic coach that has proven he has what it takes to build a winner,” said Chris Burke, former Vol all-American, now a baseball analyst for ESPN and the SEC network.

Vitello, 45, is a perfect fit for Dr. Danny White’s ambitious goal of competing for championships in all sports.

“We want to build the best athletic department in the country – an absolute juggernaut at Tennessee.”

UT Chancellor Donde Plowman understands and endorses the idea.

“We were prepared to invest what it takes to be the top baseball program.”

White matched money with mouth. Tennessee is suddenly among the nation’s biggest spenders on college baseball. Vitello is paid $1.5 million, more than some major league managers and top 10 among the highest-paid college coaches.

UT is in the process of investing $98.5 million in improving Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Seating capacity is going up from 4,300 to 7,600. Vitello was the inspiration.

Tony V is the son of a St. Louis high school coach who won state championships and stayed in the game 46 years. Tony says much of his foundation and many of his principles he gained by observing his dad, Greg.

“He was a maker of men. I was fortunate enough to watch him.”

Tony didn’t do all that much as a Missouri infielder. He often quips that he was a lousy player. He was all-conference in academics, earned a degree in management and a master’s in business.

He became a graduate assistant coach. He moved up quickly. He was a natural recruiter. He was involved with some names you may have heard – Max Scherzer, Andrew Benintendi, Ian Kinsler. There were other first-round draft picks.

Vitello left Mizzou after the 2010 season and spent the next seven years on staffs at Texas Christian and Arkansas.

UT athletics director John Currie, while AD at Kansas State, had heard quite a bit about Vitello’s impact as a recruiter. I don’t know how he happened to have his cell phone number but he called at 1:30 a.m. June 6, 2017, a few hours after Missouri State had shockingly knocked the Razorbacks out of an NCAA regional.

Vitello, hitting coach, was nowhere near sleep. He was on his last cold taco. A Tombstone rerun was on TV. He was in very bad humor.

“I was still upset but my mind was racing.”

The Currie call lasted two hours.

“All the dynamics that Tony Vitello represented were the dynamics that we needed,” Currie said. “But especially his ability to connect with his student-athletes and build a competitive team culture.”

Tony was destined for the moon. Why Tennessee as his first big step?

“I like people who are willing to bet on themselves,” Vitello said. “I am taking this job because I see the opportunity. I know what I can do and I am going to do it.”

The Vols had a losing SEC record in each of the previous 12 seasons. Vitello, in time, gained a colorful understanding of the challenge.

“The job is a monster. You’re trying to climb Mount Everest while also trying to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. You’re trying to not get your brains beat out day after day, while trying to build for the future … You’re trying to climb so many mountains or tackle more than one dragon at a time.”

This intriguing Italian did it. His record is 281–109. National championships are the hard part.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *