Women want to be with him. Men want to be around him. Tennessee baseball fans alike can’t get enough of head coach Tony Vitello. As the 43-year-old skipper enters his fifth season with the Vols, the fever pitch is at an all-time high for baseball on Rocky Top.
— Russell Smith (@Russell___Smith) February 14, 2022
The Vitello Experience
The adoration and excitement for Vitello and crew have never been more apparent than one night last June as Tennessee hosted its first-ever Super Regional. The opponent was Wright State – a vastly under-seeded veteran group that had the weapons to spoil UT’s fun. It almost succeeded.
Down 8-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning, with the bases loaded, then-sophomore Drew Gilbert swung late on a breaking ball. The count turns to 0-1, with one out. There’s still room left for the Vols’ clean-up hitter to do damage. On the next pitch, Gilbert used all 380 feet of right field – plus some of the train tracks beyond the bullpen – to end any doubt that Tennessee would stumble on its Super debut.
As the Volunteers cleared the bases, dejected Raiders walked with heads sagging towards the dugout adjacent to Pat Head Summitt St. Gilbert launched his helmet towards the sky before stomping on home plate and being engulfed by teammates.
It was a moment where Vitello admittedly “blacked out.” The coach ran aimlessly in foul territory – parallel to the right-field line – as soon as the ball came off the bat. He then joined his club as they proceeded to be serenaded by fans singing “Rocky Top.” The famous Tennessee anthem soon bled into chants of “Tony!, Tony!”
Those in attendance had no intention of leaving. With eyes transfixed on the field and vocal cords prime for endless hymns, fans were eventually directed out of the park by security and event staff.
Until June 4, 2021, Lindsey Nelson Stadium was foreign to such an atmosphere. Tennessee hadn’t even hosted a regional match since 2005 – let alone a Super Series. But as Vitello navigated his euphoria on this particular Friday night, it’s evident that fans discovered a much-needed affinity in an unfamiliar place. After crashing into the safety net, high-fiving fans, and embracing his staff, the St. Louis native realized that what he envisioned four years ago is suddenly alive with a vibrant force in Knoxville.
“The one vision that stuck out so clearly in my head was hosting a regional here,” Vitello tells Russell Smith of The Drive. “That’s why that Drew Gilbert home run – that was special for a lot of people.”
In an exclusive Fanrun interview, Vitello sat down with Smith to talk about the 2021 Super Regional, meeting those expectations, and what to look forward to in 2022 and beyond.
“Fans got on board and they changed our lives,” Vitello says. “They made it easier to play at home and made it a better environment to experience just for our kids. Maybe the ceiling is much higher because of all those people on board.”
As Week One of college baseball gets underway, Vol fans are piling on the Tony V train ready for another exhilarating ride. And the engineer is part Matthew McConaughey, a pinch of Tony Stark and firmly Vitello enough to meet their ambition and drive. Tennessee opens at home against Georgia Southern at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
Check back here or @foxsportsknox for more Tony Vitello and Tennessee baseball content all season long (Ladies take it easy – the fine men of Knoxville have to somehow be efficient in this market).