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57 wins and 1 middle finger: Tony Vitello explains Tennessee baseball's wild 2022 season | Estes

Tennessee's Head Coach Tony Vitello during game two of the NCAA Knoxville Super Regionals between Tennessee and Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

KNOXVILLE – In a room above Lindsey Nelson Stadium, the coach of the most despised college baseball program in America is trying to explain how it got that way.

It’s a lot to unpack. But so is Tony Vitello. He’s a walking headline, this guy, controversial and polarizing, edgy and entertaining, fun and so very successful in a brash way that’s impossible to ignore and easy to like or dislike. He's everything that Tennessee baseball, too, has become on his watch, which surely, wasn't by coincidence. 

Given all the antics and in-your-face stuff that rubbed others the wrong way while passionately endearing the Vols to their own fans, they've earned the brand. And they wear it proudly. They don’t apologize.

At least, they haven’t.

And Vitello, 43, isn’t doing that now. Not quite. It's more subtle, more thoughtful, the kind of introspection that naturally follows a season like the last one. When he had the nation’s best team by miles – and yet didn’t reach the College World Series. Top-seeded Tennessee’s super regional loss to Notre Dame was relished throughout the sport, it seemed, as a comeuppance for those villainous Vols. And also for Vitello.

Tennessee's Head Coach Tony Vitello during game two of the NCAA Knoxville Super Regionals between Tennessee and Notre Dame at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, June 11, 2022.

“If I could go back and do things,” he says, “my job as a coach is to observe and point things out to our guys. And I think we had gotten to a point where they needed to recognize they were being looked at differently by people, and you need to make an adjustment.

“You don’t need to change who you are, but you need to make an adjustment.”

The unforgettable finger

Without being asked about it specifically, Vitello brings up an incident.

It’s a moment that’ll long be associated with Tennessee’s team and season, and Vitello knows that and doesn't like it.

Vitello didn’t make a big deal of it publicly at the time. But when outfielder Jordan Beck raised a middle finger as he rounded the bases in an NCAA regional game against Georgia Tech, that didn’t sit well with his coach.

“As much as I love my guy Jordan Beck – and he changed our program for the better forever, one of the best kids I’ve ever coached – that deal against Georgia Tech really agitated me,” Vitello says. “Because what it did was it gave evidence – you can’t erase that evidence – and it basically solidified some things that people were saying that until that moment was not true. …

May 26, 2022; Hoover, AL, USA; Tennesse head coach Tony Vitello watches his team play Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met in Hoover, Ala., Thursday. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-The Tuscaloosa News

“It kind of checked a box for people that wanted to say, ‘These guys aren’t the villains like in a fun (way).’ … It was kind of like, ‘These guys are maybe doing some things they are not supposed to do over there.’ Illegal bats, steroids, all those things that were thrown out there.”

In going 57-9, Tennessee’s team was indeed so dominant that it was already suspicious, even before Beck's one-finger salute. The Vols were being viewed as perhaps the best team ever in college baseball. They had arguably the nation’s best pitching and the best hitting, a stunning combination that appeared invincible.

It wasn’t, as Notre Dame proved. But Tennessee’s team wouldn’t have been so hated if it hadn't been so dang good.

Or, obviously, if it hadn’t acted at times the way it did on the field. Vitello freely admits, “We did some stupid things.”

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He brings up the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s, noting that “Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas are not bad boys at all.” But when it became that team's brand, Vitello says, the Pistons had other guys on the team “start to change their behavior, like ‘Well, if this is who we are, I guess this is who we’ve got to be.’ ”

“I think a little bit of that took place last year," Vitello says. “... Jordan Beck is the nicest, ho-hum, down-home, small-town kid that you’re gonna find. But I think even he started to do some things that were outside of who he is because of that brand name.”

'The right place for me forever'

After the Notre Dame defeat, the Vols lost a ton of talent via the Major League Baseball draft. That happens with top teams, and Vitello is busy “replacing the entire lineup” ahead of the 2023 season.

The cupboard is far from empty, though. Tennessee’s pitching rotation should continue to be outstanding with arms like Chase Dollander, Chase Burns and Drew Beam. That trio went 26-3 last season and each posted an ERA below 3.00.

Tennessee Head Coach Tony Vitello during a game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, April 30, 2022.

While that scared off some pitching talent in the transfer portal, it leaves little question that Tennessee is going to be formidable again. Baseball America and College Baseball Nation each had the Vols No. 2 in an early Top 25 for the 2023 season, behind only LSU.

And about that brand? Oh, it’s still there.

Vitello isn’t hiding from that. He recounts a team meeting, in fact, at the start of this semester in which he sought to make the reality – and the expectations – as clear as possible for his players.

“We are liked, we are hated, people are trying to copy, people are trying to investigate what’s going on,” Vitello says he told them. “And there’s no secret. There’s nothing special. There’s no one taking supplements they shouldn’t. There’s not a weightlifting program that’s unique. There’s not (impermissible) bats. ... There’s not a crazy recruiting secret.

“It’s just our brand is our brand, and part of it is there’s a lot of work into it.”

In the past, they've speculated about whether Vitello might look elsewhere, perhaps for a more traditional baseball power. They’ll probably do it again, too, though it’s getting less likely as Tennessee's administration has stepped up with planned facility upgrades.

Clearly, that’s what Vitello has wanted. He has won enough to get it, too.

So now, when asked about his own future in Knoxville, he doesn’t hesitate to describe the relationship as a lasting marriage.

“Because they chose me,” Vitello says. “They made it the right place. I was eager to be a head coach at a younger age than when I was selected to be. … The fact that they were willing to take a chance on an unproven – my record as a head coach was 0-0 – for them to take a chance on me made it the right place for me forever.”

Forever.

That’s a long time. But you listen and wonder, is there anywhere else Vitello would fit so well? And be so beloved?

He’s a handful, but he’s Tennessee’s handful. Just like his team.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.