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VOL. 10 | NO. 25 | Saturday, June 17, 2017

Power Pitching, Hitting Goal Of New UT Baseball Coach

By Dave Link

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Tony Vitello wants to put a Power T in Tennessee baseball, and with it a yearly contender for SEC championships and NCAA tournament bids.

The new UT baseball coach was introduced last Friday at Tennessee’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium. He emphasized power pitching and power hitting as part of his rebuilding plan.

“We can’t give you all the secrets yet, but in the SEC, you’d better bring some power to the mound,” Vitello says. “So, there’s no question, we want to recruit guys like that, but we also want to develop them.”

Vitello, 38, has seen UT’s program from the other dugout, most often and recently as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Arkansas from 2013 to 2017. He’d like to see some pop in UT’s bats like his team had at Arkansas this spring.

The Razorbacks led the SEC in homers with 83 (through June 6). Tennessee was 13th with 33, ahead of only Auburn with 30.

“There’s no question this park is small,” Vitello said of Lindsey Nelson Stadium. “The best batting practice we took (at Arkansas), and we did lead the SEC in home runs so there was some talent there, but the best batting practice we took all year long was on Thursday night before our series here.

“And you want hitters who can put it over the fence, but hitters know, if the only thing you’re talking about is putting it over the fence, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Vitello was introduced by UT athletic director John Currie at the stadium. Vitello’s parents, Greg and Kathy, sat on the front row. After thanking them and many others, Vitello recounted to media and fans the 1:45 a.m. phone call he took from Currie on June 6, which led to a meeting later that night before his hiring.

Currie’s call came shortly after Arkansas was eliminated from an NCAA regional by Missouri State the night of June 5 in front of 10,527 fans at Baum Field in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

“That’s my job, so (the phone is) attached at my hip, non-stop,” Vitello pointed out. “Hopefully, I would have been able to answer it even if I would have been dozing off. My family is here, I’ve got three sisters that I love very much, but I don’t have my own family.

“It’s the players, to be honest with you. So, if they need something, and hopefully the Tennessee guys will know this, hit me up in the morning, hit me up at night and I should be available.”

Vitello was hired to replace Dave Serrano, who announced his end-of-season resignation May 17 before UT’s final SEC series against Missouri. Vitello signed a five-year contract with an average annual compensation of $493,000.

Serrano failed to get Tennessee to the NCAA tournament in his six seasons as coach. UT hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2005 when the Vols went to the College World Series for the third time under coach Rod Delmonico, who was fired after the 2007 season. Tennessee’s only other trip to the CWS was in 1951.

The Vols reached the SEC tournament three times in Serrano’s six years and were eliminated in first-round games each time. UT didn’t get to the SEC tournament in Todd Raleigh’s four years as coach (2008-11) or in Delmonico’s final two years (2006-07).

“Our history includes shining moments, like four trips to Omaha (for the CWS),” Currie says. “But it also includes the reality of just seven SEC tournament appearances this century, which is not acceptable for the University of Tennessee.

“We will always expect our coaches to have unquestioned integrity, a commitment to following the rules and achieving academic excellence.

“But this particular situation, we felt like we needed proven experience evaluating and recruiting at the highest level and understanding the grind of the Southeastern Conference.

“Our coach must also be able to develop and mentor our players, have technical knowledge across the sport and be able to build relationships with high school and club programs across our state and around the country.”

Currie called Vitello a “perfect fit” for the UT position, but two reports – one by D1baseball.com and another by AL.com – indicate South Alabama head coach Mark Calvi was Tennessee’s first choice before negotiations broke down.

“I was offered the job by Tennessee yesterday (June 6) and turned it down,” Calvi told AL.com. “I have a great boss. I love it here. I don’t just jump at anything. The right things matter to me.”

Vitello, a native of St. Louis and walk-on player at Missouri, has spent his career as an assistant coach and holds the rare distinction of having mentored a National Hitter of the Year (Andrew Benintendi, 2015 at Arkansas) and National Pitcher of the Year (Aaron Crow, 2008 at Missouri).

Vitello has been lauded for his work as recruiting coordinator at Arkansas, TCU (2010-13) and Missouri (2003-10). In 2016, he was rated No. 2 nationally and No. 1 in the SEC in D1Baseball.com’s list of top 30 recruiting coordinators.

In 14 years as a Division I coach, Vitello has signed and developed six first-round major league draft picks and 12 who have reached the majors.

Lacking on his resume is experience as a head coach, a question Currie was asked about during the introductory press conference.

“If you’ve been an assistant coach as long as (Vitello) has, under three different head coaches, I think you’re able to take a lot from all those people and put them all together,” Currie explained. “In our league you have some demonstrated examples of assistant coaches with a strong SEC background who become great head coaches.”

Delmonico was an assistant at Clemson (1981-83) and Florida State (1984-89) before getting his first heading coaching job at Tennessee in 1990.

Vitello said he will welcome advice in his new job from those with UT ties, and since he has no head coaching experience, would consider having a former head coach on his staff.

“I’ll take two of them if I can,” he added.

“Again, whether it’s someone with Tennessee ties or not, I just want to get the guys that I can walk into the office every day and say, ‘This is the best team I can put together.’ So, with each of those positions that’s available, my job is for people to say, ‘That’s one of the best guys arguably in his field in the country.’ And this is such a great place, that’s a reasonable goal … But that’s no doubt a desirable goal (to have a former head coach on staff). We’ll see if we can pull that off.”

Vitello’s task of building a title contender is not an easy one. Not in the SEC, the toughest baseball league in the country. Vitello was asked why he thinks he can make UT a consistent winner in the SEC.

“There’s no question there’s been talent here,” he said. “There’s no question there’s been good people in those coaches’ offices.

“I think one word comes to mind, and ‘Lingo’ (rising sophomore pitcher Zach Linginfelter of Sevier County High) was talking near the locker room, ‘Continuity,’ and just having a flow, and a style that really matches this ballpark, the state, and is something that is consistent, that the guys can rally around, because again, the margin of victory in this league is so, so small.

“So maybe having two or three more guys from the state of Tennessee that are wearing ‘Tennessee’ across their chests and are willing to bleed for that makes a difference in a one-run game like we played here twice in the spring.”

Although most of his recruiting ties are in other states – like Missouri, Texas and Arkansas – Vitello will focus on in-state players first.

Tennessee had 11 in-state players on its roster this spring. Only two were seniors, infielder Jordan Rodgers of Memphis University School and pitcher Hunter Martin of Blackman High in Murfreesboro.

“I don’t think we’re going to make our money there (recruiting states in the Midwest),” Vitello pointed out. “We’re going to supplement what we’re doing. We want to make our money in the state of Tennessee and work in, and then work our way out.

“But you’re crazy not to use connections. I had one guy in Texas, and (I) really like his players, and he said, ‘I’m still going to get you guys.’

“And the other thing is, it’s the SEC, it draws out the most competitive (players), and a lot of times when you have a kid on a visit, and it’s the SEC versus another school, with all due respect to those other programs, sometimes the decision works itself out, the guys that maybe are thirsting for a little more competition and really want to see what they can do that gravitate toward the SEC, and sometimes not.

“But the kids make the decision for a lot of different reasons.”

About a week into the job, Vitello is hard at work. He wants to prove Currie and UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport made the right choice by hiring him.

“I’ve kind of been married to the game, and it’s put me in a happy place,” Vitello says.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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