Column: Vol Baseball’s Turnaround More Impressive than Basketball’s

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(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee’s turnaround in men’s basketball under Rick Barnes was shocking and much quicker than anyone anticipated outside of the program. The Vols went from hiring their third head coach in three years when they brought Barnes in and suffering three-straight years of irrelevance in Donnie Tyndall’s only year and Barnes’ first two seasons to suddenly winning a share of the SEC regular season title in Barnes’ third year and tying a program record with 31 wins in his fourth.

Not only is that kind of about-face astounding on the surface, but it becomes even more impressive when you dig deeper.

Barnes and his staff helped the Vols go from a 15-19 team and a 16-16 squad in his first two years to winning 26 games in Year Three and 31 games last season without any McDonald’s All-Americans or even top-100 prospects on the roster. Every player who contributed to the Vols’ 57 victories the last two seasons was rated as a three-star coming out of high school, and those lowly-rated recruiting classes produced a two-time SEC Player of the Year, a First-Team All-SEC wing, a Second-Team All-SEC point guard, and a co-SEC Sixth Man of the Year.

But as impressive as the turnaround has been for Tennessee’s men’s basketball program, the current rebuilding efforts in Tennessee’s baseball program are even more surprising and extraordinary.

When Tony Vitello was hired to lead UT’s baseball program after Dave Serrano stepped down following the 2017 season, he was taking over a baseball program that had fallen into obscurity for the last decade-plus. Tennessee had finished last or second-to-last in the SEC East in 10 of the previous 12 seasons before Vitello took over, and the Vols had won fewer than 10 conference games in five of the previous seven seasons.

Not only was Vitello tasked with dragging the Vols out of the gutter, but he was also a first-time head coach. At least Barnes had decades of experience as a head coach to draw on when he took over at Tennessee. Vitello had never been a head coach at any level period.

In his first season, Vitello and his staff helped the baseball Vols show improvement, but ultimately they fell short of making it to the SEC Baseball Tournament for the second-straight year. The baseball team won two more overall games and improved their SEC record by five wins in Vitello’s first year, but they still finished second-to-last in the East for now the 11th time in the last 13 seasons.

Entering his second year, expectations were raised for Vitello and Tennessee’s baseball team, but not by much. The Vols were voted before the beginning of the season to finish fifth in the East, and they were expected to at least make it to the SEC Tournament but probably miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

Now, however, the baseball Vols are putting the finishing touches on their best season in well over a decade.

Vitello’s second squad finished the regular season with a 38-18 record and 14-16 mark in SEC play, making it in to the SEC Tournament as a No. 9 seed. Tennessee’s 38 wins are the most since the Vols won 46 games in 2005, and their 14 conference victories are the most since that same season. Not only that, but the Vols are all but guaranteed to make it to the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in the SEC Tournament, and that would be a first since 2005 as well. The Vols finished third in the SEC East this season, finishing the highest they have in the division since, again, the 2005 team. That 2005 squad went 46-21 overall and earned an 18-11 SEC record while finishing second in the East.

If Tennessee wins just two more games, it would mark only the fourth time since 2000 that UT’s baseball program has won 40 games in a season.

Since Tennessee’s last SEC title in 1995, the Vols have finished third or better in the East just five times. That fifth time happened this season, and the previous four times all came between 1996-2005.

When you consider the pit that Tennessee’s baseball program had fallen into over the last decade, the fact that Vitello — in just his second season not only at UT, but also as a head coach period — has helped the Vols get to this point is nothing short of remarkable. Vitello obviously doesn’t deserve all the credit; he’ll be the first to say that, and he would likely give a large portion of the credit to UT’s new pitching coach, Frank Anderson. Regardless, the type of turnaround the Vols’ baseball program has seen this year has been unexpected and highly impressive.

The Vols’ nine-game improvement in the win column from last season to this season is tied for the sixth-best win improvement from one season to the next in UT’s program history since joining the SEC in 1939. And there’s a good chance that this team can build on that in either the SEC or NCAA Tournament.

Very few people saw the turnaround of Tennessee’s men’s basketball team coming. Even fewer predicted the kind of year Tennessee’s baseball team has had this season. Both rebuilds went quicker than expected, and both were very impressive.

But when you consider the prolonged period of ineptitude the baseball program had fallen into, what Vitello and Co. have done this season is nothing short of incredible.

Tennessee’s rebuild in baseball is far from complete. The Vols need to do more than finishing third in the East and flirting with .500 in conference play in the future. But given the expectations heading into this season and the results over the last few years, there’s no reason not to celebrate this year’s team.

The season isn’t over yet for UT’s baseball team, but this year’s turnaround has already caught plenty of attention. There’s still time to make it more memorable, too.

Nathanael Rutherford
Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.