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‘It Is Pretty Remarkable’: Rick Barnes Reacts To Tennessee Baseball Winning National Championship

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

During Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes’ first years in Knoxville there was little interest in the Volunteer baseball program as they lived near the bottom of the SEC standings.

Barnes was at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha on Monday night when Tennessee baseball won its first ever National Championship. Having seen where Tennessee was when Tony Vitello arrived, it was surreal for Barnes to see the heights that the program has now reached.

“I think more than anything, his (Vitello) vision and what he saw and what he thought Tennessee could be,” Barnes told RTI following the game. “He’s never wavered in terms of who he is, his personality, and I think he is a highly competitive person and he’s really rubbed off on his players. What he’s built, the way he’s done it is pretty remarkable.”

Vitello created a culture that prioritizes hard work, playing with confidence and being a good teammate. While he altered his approach and specific details throughout his tenure, he never negotiated the program’s values. As a veteran head coach, Barnes understands the importance of that.

“It’s the most important thing,” Barnes said. “There’s different ways you can go about doing it but the core values you can’t waiver on. I’m sure we all go about some things differently every year but the core things, you can’t waiver on. And he hasn’t done that.”

In his seven years as Tennessee’s head coach, Vitello has had to fight to get his program where it is. He carved out respect for the Vols both in the SEC and nationally, something no one had for the program when he took over.

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Vitello also fought for his program on campus, helping get massive renovations and expansion approved for Lindsey Nelson Stadium and helping increase his assistant coach salary pool.

“He reminded me a lot of young coaches I’ve been around who knew that to get where he wanted to do and be he might have to take on city hall and fight the people who said you can’t do this and can’t do that,” Vitello said. “But I think the person, he would tell you he’s had great leadership at our university and they’ve given him what he needs.”

Young Rick Barnes was a fiery coach. He became infamous in his home state of North Carolina for going right at the great Dean Smith in a handful of public feuds while he was the head coach at Clemson. Back in the 1990s, Barnes was trying to carve out a space for Clemson in the elite ACC basketball conference.

Vitello has done the same thing at Tennessee in the elite SEC baseball conference, winning two SEC Championships and now a National Championship in his seven seasons as head coach.

“When I talked to him one time, I said that to him,” Barnes said of the similarities. “I said, ‘I remember being that age’ and when you’re that age there’s an innocence about what you’re doing and honestly you feel like you can take on anybody and everybody regardless of what people might think or say. I think he’s proved that here.”

Tennessee’s athletic department has become one of the best in the country over the last few years thanks to the leadership of Barnes, Vitello and a number of other great coaches and administrators. The Vols had conference championships and deep postseason runs, but they were missing a National Championship.

That is no longer the case.

“Most important thing,” Barnes said of Tennessee finally wining a National Championship.”We’ve won conference championships but what it does, for all the other student athletes on campus, we know it can be done. We all chase it every single year but for someone to finally bring it home, it’s been a long time at Tennessee, but it will reverberate through our department.”

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