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FILE - Tennessee NCAA college baseball coach Tony Vitello is shown before a game in Knoxville, Tenn., in this Tuesday, April 9, 2019, file photo. (Calvin Mattheis/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

Ever since Doug Dickey retired in 2002, the Big Orange Nation's acceptance of those University of Tennessee athletic directors who have followed him has run from lukewarm at best (Mike Hamilton and Phillip Fulmer) to downright frigid (Dave Hart and John Currie).

Hamilton, who succeeded Dickey, used up all the goodwill he'd earned with the hiring of basketball coach Bruce Pearl by firing Fulmer as football coach and replacing him with Lane Kiffin, then Derek Dooley.

Hart was an Alabama guy, which doomed him long before he hired Butch Jones as football coach to replace Dooley and the NCAA rules book-challenged Donnie Tyndall as men's basketball coach.

Then there was Currie, whose chief shortcoming other than his insufferable arrogance was attempting to replace Jones with Greg Schiano on Nov. 26,2017, then failing to land anyone else for the next five days before he was fired on Dec. 1, 2017, completing a tenure that ran exactly 277 days.

Attempting to smooth over the Currie disaster, the Vols brass turned to Fulmer as his replacement, a move that brought about the three-year football run of the overmatched former Bama assistant Jeremy Pruitt, whose incompetence may bring the UT program a lengthy NCAA penalty for rules violations.

But while Fulmer has since retired and been replaced by Danny White and Pruitt has been succeeded by Josh Heupel, Currie's brief time on Rocky Top may be in need of revision, if only for his hiring of current Vols baseball boss Tony Vitello.

While men's basketball coach Rick Barnes, also hired by Hart, has certainly been tremendous, Vitello's baseball program looks as if it may become to men's athletics what the late Pat Summitt's Lady Vols basketball team was to women's sports at the school, a juggernaut to be dealt with on the national stage every year.

After winning a series at Texas A&M over the weekend, the Vols rose one spot to No. 4 in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll. They're seventh in the current Baseball America poll. They stand 32-9 overall heading into Tuesday night's non-conference home game against Lipscomb and are 12-6 within an SEC that currently has eight programs ranked in the coaches poll, including No. 1 Arkansas, No. 2 Vanderbilt and No. 5 Mississippi State.

A single quote from Vitello following last week's series loss to Vanderbilt to show why he's the perfect coach to battle for SEC supremacy: "In this league, people say that if you go .500, you're going to have a good year. Well, we're greedy for more."

In college athletics, greed is good. In the SEC, greed is necessary. Nice guys tend to finish last. This was at least one reason why Currie hired Vitello away from an assistant's gig at Arkansas in 2017. Already known as one of the nation's top recruiters, Vitello wasn't scared away by the highly respected Dave Serrano's failure to post so much as a single winning conference mark during his six seasons in Big Orange Country.

Vitello arrived in Knoxville driving a Maserati and has never looked back, getting the Vols to the NCAA tourney his second year before starting 2020 with a 15-2 record prior to COVID-19 canceling the rest of the season.

A sign of his confidence in what he is building: After losing two out of three to Vanderbilt two weekends ago, Vitello said, "I like to think that we don't bow down to any other programs in our league, but if you look at the College World Series, it's automatic that there are going to be a minimum of two SEC teams in there, and there is almost always one SEC team in the final."

The Vols would appear to have the ability to be one of those teams, though the road ahead is sure to test them to their limits. After three-game league series at home against Kentucky this weekend and at Missouri the following weekend, UT welcomes the top-ranked Razorbacks to Rocky Top on May 14-16. The regular season concludes the following weekend at South Carolina. Then comes the SEC tournament followed by the NCAA tourney.

A reason to believe the Vols can master that considerable test: After watching his team explode for 20 runs at Texas A&M on Sunday, Vitello said, "I think we're just getting to where we can be as an offense."

If UT somehow reaches the eight-team College World Series in Omaha in late June, words spoken by Currie when Vitello was hired four years ago can't be ignored.

Said Currie: "I believe that Coach Vitello is the right person to build our program into a perennial contender and bring championship baseball back to Knoxville."

He may have been a clunker when it came to evaluating football coaches, but it looks more and more as if Currie hired Tennessee one Maserati of a baseball skipper.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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