University of Tennessee second-year baseball coach Tony Vitello may not be an overnight miracle worker, but he certainly has his Volunteers trending in the right direction.
With two Southeastern Conference series remaining on their regular-season schedule, the Vols are 32-16 overall and 10-14 in league play. The 32 total triumphs are the most for Tennessee since the 2007 Vols went 34-25, and a stout nonconference schedule in addition to the cannibalistic SEC has Tennessee 10th nationally in the latest Rating Percentage Index used by the NCAA.
A rapid fire with Tennessee second-year baseball coach Tony Vitello:
Q: What percent of your team watches “Game of Thrones”?
A: “I would say a third.”
Q: How many times have you watched talent-rich Baylor School play this season?
A: (Laughing) “We’ve watched them three times.”
Q: Who is Tennessee’s biggest baseball rival?
A: “That’s a tough one. I would say Florida. I know people around here don’t like the Gators, and our games with them have been competitive every year since Rod Delmonico was here. I don’t know if that’s the right answer, but it’s my answer.”
Q: What is your favorite baseball movie?
A: “There are a lot of them, but it’s hard to argue against ‘Bull Durham,’ so I have to go with that one.”
Q: What is the most hostile atmosphere in the SEC?
A: “The most hostile is probably LSU, because those people aren’t very sober when they walk in their park.”
"I am so excited for Tony, his staff and especially the young men who have worked so hard to get our baseball team back in the hunt," Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said Monday. "Coach Vitello brings energy and passion to his recruiting efforts and his coaching style, and they are fun to watch!
"I am proud of this season but even more excited about the future."
For those who haven't kept count, Tennessee's football struggles within the SEC during the last decade or so pale in comparison to baseball. Vitello's Vols went 29-27 overall and 12-18 in league play last spring, with the 12 conference triumphs marking a five-game improvement from the year before.
Tennessee's last winning SEC record occurred under Rod Delmonico, who went 18-11 in 2005. The Vols were 24-33 in league contests in Delmonico's final two seasons, 42-78 in Todd Raleigh's four years at the helm and 55-120 in Dave Serrano's six seasons that preceded Vitello's hiring.
Vitello isn't boasting about his 22-32 conference ledger to this point, but he's not embarrassed by it, either, especially given that SEC programs occupy 10 of the top 2o spots in the current RPI.
"In this league you're trying to get to 15 wins," Vitello said, "and even 14-16 or 14-15 with a rainout has you in the hunt for the postseason. It sounds crazy to the average fan, but if you break down the numbers, that's the reality that we live in."
Though he has yet to coach two full seasons in Knoxville, Vitello also is living in the reality of working for his second boss. Vitello (pronounced VIE-tell-oh) was hired in June 2017 by John Currie, who was removed several months later following several swings and misses in an attempt to replace former football coach Butch Jones.
Vitello previously had been an assistant coach at Missouri and Arkansas and had helped sign and develop six professional first-round draft picks, a list that is topped by Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer.
"You wind up happier for John Currie later," Vitello said, "because he's probably at a better fit with Wake Forest than he was here. I already had a relationship with Coach Fulmer when he was hired and really liked him, but expectations were that he would attack football and that everything else would take a back seat.
"It's been the exact opposite, because he has helped our sport as much as any other. I think he saw that our facility had become stagnant, and he has already replaced the field, which we thought might take another couple of years."
Vitello also specified that the weightroom needed painting and that equipment had been handed down from the football program and wasn't baseball-specific. Among his chief objectives moving forward are making Lindsey Nelson Stadium more intimidating from an environment standpoint — "That's what we encounter on the road," Vitello said — and enhancing relationships with former Tennessee players such as ESPN/SEC Network analyst Chris Burke and new Cincinnati Reds infielder/outfielder Nick Senzel, who homered twice Monday.
Tennessee will seek its 33rd win today when Austin Peay visits, and the Vols jump back into SEC play Friday at Florida. The Vols rank ninth in the SEC in hitting (.240) and eighth in team ERA (4.68), and their 10-14 conference mark would place them as the 10th seed in the league tournament.
That doesn't sound like much, but in the six 12-team SEC tournaments since Missouri and Texas A&M made it a 14-member conference, the Vols have been the 11th seed once and the 12th seed twice and failed to qualify the three other times.
It's not a recent history to evoke pride, and it's not something Vitello is giving much thought. Year two has been noticeably better than year one, and a first NCAA tournament bid in 14 years could be the reward.
"It's been a completely different place to come to work every day," said Vitello, who was a recent guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "We were all new last year, and almost everybody was new to the league. The kids really didn't know what to expect, and there were times they were almost kind of afraid of us.
"This year the older guys are helping the assistant coaches and tutoring the younger guys, and it's been great. These SEC games are a war. We've won some of those battles and we haven't, but we've been on the same page all season."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.