Wiedmer: Corbin working to keep Vanderbilt baseball at top

Wiedmer: Corbin working to keep Vanderbilt baseball at top

July 24th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Deftly stacked atop Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin's office desk, the pile of handwritten letters and printed-out emails has grown to almost a foot tall, each one a thank-you note for the school's first national championship in a men's sport.

"I'll eventually answer every one of them," Corbin said a few days ago. "But the stack keeps growing. A lot of them are from alums who are 60, 70, 80 years old. Handwritten notes. Very emotional. They just want you to know how much this means to them."

Even now, 29 days later, it broadens the smile and softens the heart to look back on the Commodores dropping anchor on Virginia in the third and final game of their College World Series championship series. It wasn't just John Norwood's improbable game-winning homer in the eighth inning, the first one swatted by any VU player in 40 days, and only the third hit in the entire CWS inside TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

It was also closer Adam Ravenelle -- who said he couldn't breathe the entire ninth inning -- earning the save. It was 2,000 Vandy fans watching the game on the video boards at Vanderbilt Stadium back home. It was knowing that three times previously throughout this tournament, Corbin's cardiac kids had faced elimination yet somehow won.

"You have to be very fortunate," he said. "It's a very difficult set of progressions you have to go through. Moments like this should only make you more humble."

But also more proud. Especially for an athletic department that's never previously won a men's national championship. Ever.

Or as one Commodores letterman told me recently, "At least we don't have to hear about the women's bowling title anymore. Nothing against that, but most people don't even know you can win a NCAA championship in bowling. The College World Series is something everybody knows about."

Almost nobody knew anything about Vanderbilt baseball when former VU athletic director Todd Turner turned to Corbin, nine years an assistant at Clemson, to turn around the Commodores.

"I go back to 2003, when we first got here," the 53-year-old coach said. "Because the school had such a rich academic tradition, that's what we tried to sell."

It didn't always work.

"My former assistant, Erik Bakich, who's now the head coach at Michigan, slammed the phone down one day after talking to the parent of a recruit who was also looking at a Big Ten school," Corbin recalled. "I said, 'What's wrong?' Erik said the father told him, 'No disrespect, but Vanderbilt's not even a blip on the college baseball scene.' We just didn't have any baseball tradition. All we had was academics."

But both Bakich and Corbin were undeterred. They soon signed current Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, who became the overall No. 1 pick in the 2007 major league draft and finished second in the 2010 Cy Young voting before winning the award in 2012. Check current MLB rosters and you'll find a total of six Commodores in the big leagues: Pedro Alvarez (Pittsburgh), Curt Casali (Tampa Bay), Ryan Flaherty (Baltimore), Sonny Gray (Oakland), Mike Minor (Atlanta) and Price.

"Getting a guy like David Price to believe in us really helped early on," Corbin said. "Then we've been very fortunate to get one or two guys a year like that to keep it going."

He also believes the yearly timing of the College World Series should further boost recruiting in the future.

"It was free advertising for our program," he said. "It put Vanderbilt out there on a national stage. For two and a half weeks the only thing we were competing against was the World Cup. The World Series is what you watch that time of year if you're a sports fan. I think it reached a lot of high school kids."

And not just high school baseball talents.

While spending most of this month on the road recruiting, Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings is already seeing the benefits of his close friend Corbin's national title.

"It's always great for your school to win a national championship, but I think more than anything it just brings more awareness for your school and your brand," Stallings wrote in a Wednesday email. "We have a great product to sell here, and baseball proves that you can win at the highest level and also study at one of the world's top universities. You truly can have the best of both worlds."

The best of both worlds. That's also the view Corbin's 83-year-old father, Jack, had of his son's championship as he sat with the coach's 80-year-old mother Ann, watching the celebration.

"My mom pulled me aside after the game and told me, 'You've just made your dad's life,'" Corbin said. "She said, 'He's so proud that his son found a lifestyle rather than a job.'"

Yet the job also never ends. Corbin has spent much of the past 29 days on the road evaluating high school talent during summer ball tournaments.

"I don't think you can enjoy the glow of victory very long," he said, "or you won't enjoy it again."

With a work ethic like that, Corbin's office desk could be piled high with congratulatory emails and letters for years to come.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com