It’s been a long time coming for Tennessee baseball, trying to build up the program to heights that have never seen before. Whether it be the packed crowds at Lindsey Nelson, during a pandemic by the way, or the way the fan base has been captivated by the head coach, this has been special.
When the university announced they would open up the stadium to full capacity for the Arkansas series, it was a powder keg waiting to explode, thanks to years of hard work. Think about that night when a grand slam brought the crowd into a frenzy and went down in the books as one of the biggest moments in program history. You can’t write some of the things that have gone down this season in Knoxville.
Looking back on Friday night’s dramatic win over Wright State, if Drew Gilbert doesn’t hit that grand slam, is Tennessee still alive today. I know, it’s a tough question. But, that shows you the resilience of this team, as they take after their coach in the never giving up attitude. Vitello will fight for his kids, he’ll piss off opposing coaches in the process if it will motivate his team to be better. Tennessee has finally figured out that they have a winner who will promote his school like a southern wrestling promoter in the mid-80’s.
They’ve hit pay dirt and the fans are loving it. I spoke with one donor who said, “You’ve got a coach that everyone can get behind and actually like. He’s a marketer, he knows how to sell the program and does it not because he has too, but because he wants to. He also understands this fan base and their dire need of something to cheer for, just look at that environment this weekend”.
Tennessee drew what Tony Vitello called the “Group of Death”, referencing his younger days, where he was a “soccer guy” growing up. He was asked postgame about his group getting through the regional, which many experts called the toughest one in the Tournament.
“It shows their resiliency, but it also shows the way, again. I think four years ago, Will (Heflin) can kind of attest to this, the mentality piece needed growth, and without that mentality piece this year, they wouldn’t have been able to do that. I mean, it was so challenging to come home after a difficult loss you figure, celebrating on Monday we’ll twist that around a little bit, and the kids were excited to host. But when you hear over and over again the same message, it’s going to be difficult. You didn’t get a good break. Things like that. It’s tough not to believe it. So, whatever that ping pong match was going on in our guys’ head, clearly they said to themselves enough times or more times than the negative, we’ll get this done. This is the spot we’ve been working for all this year.”
Vitello got emotional during his postgame interview with ESPN, while the raucous crowd chanted his name during the postgame celebration Sunday night. He reflected on the crowd and past week leading up to this regional.
“I thought I got away with that deal there, but, you know, the crowd… that noise creates emotion, and honestly it’s my favorite thing in the world. The guys in the locker room… I could hear them afterwards, as you can imagine. They’re all in unison, and, you know, (it’s like) a concert, a game… anything, you know, postgame there when the whole crowd is in unison—it’s my favorite thing in the world, along with my family, obviously. So, it kind of sparks some emotion. But it was tied into the question that, as you mentioned, talked about the whole week. When we got the job, I mean… I grew up watching Pat Summitt and watching Philip Fulmer’s football teams. I’m from St Louis, but I knew what the Vol fanbase was all about.
If you want to know how much Vitello means to his players, just listen to Drew Gilbert, as he was asked if this was what he envisioned when he signed with Tennessee.
“Absolutely, I mean, you know, this guy right next to me… He’s the reason I wanted to come here. He made me believe in a vision. And I wanted to go somewhere where we could do something special. And these two guys right next to me, we’re taking some big steps in that direction. And it’s pretty special to be a part of a team like this, and it was the best decision of my life to come here.”
This is what you get from a group of players who buy into a vision, and a coaching staff that believes in what their preaching. This isn’t just a recruiting pitch, though that has to be on the uptick over the last few months. What you’ve seen over the last few years is what Tony Vitello envisioned for his program, what he wanted to build. We’re getting closer to the baseball program having a stadium they can be proud of, but for the fans and donors, they’re now getting a taste of what a sustainable winning program looks like.
On this day, in 2017, Tony Vitello signed his contract to become the next head coach at Tennessee. Just four years later, the Vols are headed to the Super Regionals, while Tony Vitello headed to the stands to celebrate with the fans that came out to support his ball team.
It’s crazy how things can come together if you put in the hard work and dedication, while not taking no for an answer.
The build continues and the fans are all-in on the ride.
Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics