After Tony Vitello and the Tennessee Vols punched a ticket to the College World Series, many fans and former players rejoiced in seeing the Volunteers capture a victory over legendary LSU Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri in the Knoxville Super Regional.
One alumnus of UT, who toed the rubber for the Vols from 1986-88, thinks the excitement on Rocky Top is something that can be established going forward.
According to former Volunteer pitcher Greg McMichael, it’s the vigorous approach of Vitello that will lend to a successful tenure in Knoxville.
“He brings the energy,” says McMichael. “Just the energy level that it has taken to turn the ship around. It’s not easy to take over a team that’s been kind of average for a long period of time. There’s something special that has to happen to turn it around. It looks like Tony V has the ability to do that because he has done so in such a short period of time.”
McMichael suggests that the immediate success of Vitello isn’t just a blip on the radar. “I don’t see this as a fluke. I think it’s just who he is.”
The Tennessee head coach has tallied 134 wins in just 200 games. This season’s advancement to the Super Regional marked the Vols’ first appearance since 2005 – the last time the program had a winning conference record. Under Vitello, UT won this season’s SEC Eastern Division crown – a first in 26 years.
So, how has a young coach from St. Louis been able to make such an impact in Knoxville?
McMichael says it’s the synergy Vitello has created with his squad.
“You have to be able to respond to your coach,” McMichael says. “And as a coach, part of your worth is how much you can get out of your players. Will they run through a brick wall for you?”
Images of the Tennessee coach and his players have made the rounds on social media due to their knack for winning big games, knocking home runs, and creating an atmosphere that most aren’t used to seeing from the program.
“Everybody is their own individual,” says McMichael. “Even though it’s a team, you have a bunch of individual players out there. You really have to know what motivates them and be able to relate to them on that kind of level.”
So far, it looks like the UT baseball program has a perfect match between its players and leader.
“That’s really what tells you how good a coach is,” McMichael says. “Does he bring the best out of his team? And so far, they look like they’re rising to each occasion.”
The Vols weren’t necessarily tabbed as favorites coming into the season. After a 15-2 start to the abrupt 2020 season, Tennessee came into this year with mixed reviews. Its highest preseason ranking was No.16, listed by the USA Today coaches poll before play began.
UT also saw three players from 2020 get drafted in the five-round MLB draft last summer. Then it lost a key cog just a week into the current season. Senior Jackson Leath, a preseason All-American, went down with a hamstring injury in his first start of 2021. The pitcher has been sidelined ever since he came off the field against Indiana State in the first inning on Feb 28.
“You get to see the grit of a team when it loses a key player,” says McMichael. “Now the great thing about that is, you had guys that stepped up. They filled the gaps.”
The Vols saw a weekend starting rotation form that’s never wavered. Formidable arms emerged out of the pen after Leath went down. It’s a staff that has been one of the most consistent and effective groups in the country. Tennessee is second in the SEC with a 3.42 ERA. It’s also second in the nation in K/BB with a mark of 3.72.
“That’s a sign of a good team and coach; where you take that adversity and you give others opportunities to fill the gaps,” McMichael says.
McMichael pitched eight years in the MLB. He is a Knoxville native who grew up playing for his hometown team. He logged 151.1 innings for the Vols before working 523.1 frames in the big leagues. McMichael was runner-up to Mike Piazza in the National League Rookie of the Year race in 1993 and was part of the 1995 Atlanta Braves World Series team. The right-hander was elected into the Tennessee Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
Surrounded by talented competition early in his career, McMichael can draw comparisons to the Vols’ current situation and the meteoric rise of Vitello.
“Tony is a young guy. He’s a talented recruiter and great coach,” says McMichael. “It would be unbelievable to be able to keep him there for 20 years or so. He could pull off the same type of dynasty that we’ve seen in places like LSU, with Skip Bertman.”
Bertman is a five-time College World Series champion. He took LSU to the CWS 11 times in his 18-year coaching tenure. It was Bertman who set the winning template for those in Baton Rouge, like Mainieri.
Perhaps the more appropriate analogy – at least for McMichael – is a program and coach that took off when he stepped off the mound in the SEC.
“I think back to Ron Polk with Mississippi State and what he did with that program,” McMichael says. “We have a chance for that to happen at Tennessee.”
Polk won over 1,300 college baseball games in his 30-year career. The retired coach has eight CWS appearances on his resume. Six of those trips came as the skipper in Starkville. Out of his 28 years with MSU, Polk had a seven-year stretch of winning 40 or more games each season. He won 104 contests between 1989 and 1990 alone.
As vibrant as Vitello seems to be, the UT head coach likely can’t reach that type of success without some outside help. McMichael also states how important it is for the university to back up the winning by providing Vitello with the resources needed to succeed.
“First of all, you have to win,” McMichael says. “Then number two, you have to have the facilities. You can’t be subpar to anyone. You already have the coach – so, if you do that have the trifecta.”
The measures McMichael talks about pertain to renovations in and around Lindsey Nelson stadium. Despite the installation of temporary pop-up bleachers for the NCAA tournament, there is some buzz about reconstructing part of the landscape to add more seats and create an environment that’s more aligned with SEC programs.
“They’re going to have to do something if they want to keep one of the best coaches in the country,” says McMichael. “But also, he’s going to have to have all the tools to go out and recruit. And I just hope they step up and do that for (Vitello).”
As an alumnus of the Volunteer program, the former MLB World Series champion feels confident that the stage is set for Vitello to create a winning legacy on Rocky Top.
“It shouldn’t stop if you’re doing the right things and have the right school behind you,” McMichael says. “Tennessee is an unbelievable school. The town is tremendous. Now, it’s just a matter of bringing the two parties together. There’s no reason why we can’t sustain this success over a long period of time.”