Opinion: Young Assistant Makes Sense for Struggling Vols Baseball Program

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    Tennessee couldn’t go the same direction it did seven years ago.

    Dave Serrano was a proven head coach with College World Series experience on the West Coast. But in six seasons at Tennessee, Serrano was 55-117 in the SEC.

    This time around, UT got a guy on the other end of the spectrum. And that’s the best route for where the Vols’ program is right now.

    In fact, it’s been the route for most teams in the SEC over the past few years. Five of the last six hires made by SEC teams came from recruiting coordinators in the SEC.

    But the question has to be asked: If Dave Serrano can’t win at Tennessee, then who can?

    There’s not one right or wrong answer. But John Currie couldn’t afford to bring in another older, established coach. Much less one with a background outside the Southeast. Tennessee needed a young mind who can recruit in the SEC.

    So Currie went out and got one of the top recruiters in America — Arkansas assistant Tony Vitello. Vitello was ranked as the No. 2 recruiter in college baseball by D1Baseball.com last November.

    In his introductory press conference, Vitello made it clear that keeping the top high school talent in Tennessee is a priority.

    “We want to make our money in the state of Tennessee,” Vitello said. “We want to start in and work out.”

    Six of Tennessee’s 15 signees in the 2016 recruiting class were in-state prospects. Only three of those players — Justin Ammons, Will Heflin and Zach Linginfelter — saw the field last year. Ammons is the only starter from the state of Tennessee returning next season.

    The high school baseball scene in Tennessee has to be utilized. Between elite programs in Farragut and South Nashville, elite prospects are out there within a few hours down I-40.

    Not to mention, UT’s current class is ranked No. 41 in the country, according to Perfect Game. There’s lots of work to be done on the recruiting trail before August.

    Vitello brings experience recruiting in the Southeast to his new job. He knows coaches around the region.

    Through its struggles over the past five years, UT has developed numerous top prospects in multiple major league farm systems. With Vitello, there’s no development drop off. In three MLB drafts, Vitello has had 16 players drafted. That doesn’t even include this year’s draft.

    Serrano was a pitching expert when he came to town. But Vitello is an expert on developing talent on the mound and at the plate. He’s coached a Golden Spikes Award winner for the nation’s best hitter (Andrew Benintendi, ’15) and a Roger Clemens Award winner for the NCAA’s best pitcher (Aaron Crow, ’08).

    Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn had high praise for Vitello in a release on Wednesday, “He’s elevated our recruiting. I knew when I hired him that I would probably only have him for three or four years.”

    Vitello’s last class at Arkansas was ranked sixth in the country. That isn’t counting three commits who signed with Major League rosters. Serrano’s last class at Cal State Fullerton was No. 21 in the country, according to Perfect Game.

    This hire represents an energetic new era. UT hasn’t been relevant in baseball in a decade. And the Vols aren’t going to break out of their mediocrity by playing it safe.

    Serrano represents an era of college baseball coaches who are stuck in an older style of baseball. Much of his downfall at Tennessee was demonstrated by his inability to change with the game. His “small ball” style of play didn’t translate to the SEC.

    Vitello has only coached in the SEC.

    It was time to take a risk on a young up-and-comer with new ideas from within the conference.

    Perfect Game writer Jheremy Brown had high praise for Currie’s hire.

    “Vitello is a tireless recruiter who not only can land the blue-chip prospects, but also uncover those diamonds in the rough, polish them up, and turn them into the highest level performers on college baseball’s biggest scale,” Brown said.

    One of those blue chip prospects was Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who also had good things to say about Vitello.

    “I’m really happy for him to get this opportunity in the SEC,” Scherzer said. “He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever had, and his attitude is contagious. He has done amazing things at every place he has been, and Tennessee should be thrilled to have him on board. It’s fair to expect the best out of him, because he will get the best out of his players.”

    It was only a matter of time until Vitello landed a big-time job. Tennessee should feel lucky it had the right timing.