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VOL. 133 | NO. 95 | Friday, May 11, 2018

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Dave Link

Ensor: Vol Baseball Has Hurdles to Overcome

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Knoxville’s Rusty Ensor still hasn’t gotten baseball out of his system.

The 1978 Bearden High School graduate was one of the best power hitters in University of Tennessee history in just two seasons after two years of baseball at Motlow State Community College.

Ensor, now in his 32nd year as a Realtor in Knoxville, has stayed in the game as a broadcaster. He covered 13 consecutive SEC baseball tournaments for defunct Comcast Sports Southeast starting in 2002, often working double-duty for Fox Sports South. He began working for the SEC Network when it started in 2015, primarily covering Tennessee as a color analyst, and he will cover his 11th NCAA Regional Tournament from June 1-4.

Recruiting local talent must be a top priority for new UT baseball coach Tony Vitello, former Vol great Rusty Ensor explains. A priority for the school is updating/replacing aging Lindsey Nelson Stadium. (John Golliher | Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

“The reason I keep doing it is because it keeps me involved in college baseball, which is a big love of mine,” Ensor said last week. “Also, it keeps the juices going from a TV broadcasting standpoint because I still like to do it. 

“It’s fun. When you’re standing in front of the camera and the producer says, ‘We’re on the air in 10 seconds, stand by,’ and you’re getting ready to do your stand-up, you still get the butterflies. It’s like playing in a game. It’s just fun. I’ll still do it as long as they let me and I enjoy it.”

Ensor has a passion for Tennessee baseball, even though it’s been a rough ride for him and fans of the diamond Vols.

Tennessee hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament 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. The Vols’ only other trip to the CWS was in 1951.

UT is rebuilding again with first-year coach Tony Vitello after failed coaching tenures of Todd Raleigh (2008-11) and Dave Serrano (2012-17). The Vols didn’t reach the SEC Tournament in Delmonico’s final two years or any of Raleigh’s four seasons. Serrano got the Vols to the SEC Tournament three times in six years, but they were eliminated in first-round games each time.

Vitello, who signed a five-year contract last June, was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Arkansas from 2014-17. He was also an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Missouri (2004-10) and TCU (2011-13). 

This is Vitello’s first head coaching job, and Ensor knows he will be tested.

RUSTY ENSOR

“Listen, it’s a hard job. It may be the hardest job in the SEC,” Ensor says, adding Vitello’s rebuild should involve junior college players. That’s something he knows about.

After a standout career at Bearden, Ensor went to Motlow State. As a freshman first baseman, he hit better than .500 during the regular season, a school record at the time. UT coach Bill Wright signed Ensor for the 1981 season, his last as coach.

Ensor played his senior season under coach John Whited, and the senior-laden Vols finished second in the SEC Tournament behind Florida.

In two years with the Vols, Ensor hit 29 home runs, which ranks ninth on UT’s career home run list. He’s fourth in career slugging percentage (.636, ahead of sixth-place Chris Burke and seventh-place Todd Helton), and his 16 homers in 1981 are the seventh-most for a single season. His career batting average at Tennessee was .330. 

He graduated in 1982 with a degree in communications broadcasting.

“I wanted to do one of two things,” Ensor says. “I wanted to be a professional baseball player, which didn’t turn out too well, or I wanted to be a broadcaster.”

Ensor says the Cleveland Indians told him they would draft him, but they didn’t. And Whited’s plan to get Ensor on the Kingsport Mets’ rookie-league roster didn’t pan out, either, so Ensor went into broadcasting.

Bob Kesling, now the voice of the Vols, was sports director at WBIR Channel 10 at the time and hired Ensor as a sports photographer in fall of 1982. After about a year, Ensor joined the old WTVK Channel 26 – which is now WVLT Channel 8 – and spent about three years there, first as the No. 3 sports reporter, then as the weekend anchor, then sports director for about a year and a-half.

When Ensor decided to get out of broadcasting in 1986, WVLT spent about a year searching for his replacement before hiring Rick Russo, who’s still sports director for the station.

Ensor, meanwhile, embarked on what has become a fruitful career in real estate.

“It’s not really what I wanted to do, but because of my television background, it gave me instant credibility because people felt like they knew who I was because they recognized me,” Ensor acknowledges. 

“I still get recognized every once in a while. Somebody will go, ‘Didn’t you used to do the weather?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’”

Ensor returned to broadcasting part-time in the mid-1990s as a radio color analyst for a few Knoxville Blue Jays games with Mike Keith and Kesling doing play-by-play. (Keith is now the Voice of the Tennessee Titans).

Ensor began working for CSS in 2001 for a midweek game between Tennessee and Arizona State, and the next year worked the first of 13 consecutive SEC Tournaments for CSS while also covering NCAA regionals several years.

When ESPN got exclusive rights to the NCAA Tournament in 2013, Ensor was hired to cover an NCAA Regional, which he’s done every year since for the network. It’s a side job Ensor loves.

“I feel very fortunate,” he adds. “It’s been fun. I’ve met tons of great people that have turned into, quite frankly, friends of mine for over 10 years now.”

With the Vols 27-23 overall and 10-14 in the SEC after winning two of three games in a series against No. 13 Kentucky this weekend, and vying for a spot in the SEC tournament, The Ledger asked Ensor a few questions about Vitello and the state of Tennessee baseball. The interview was prior to last weekend’s three-game series against Kentucky; UT plays at Vanderbilt on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Where is UT baseball with Vitello in his first season?

“I think Tennessee is about where everybody expected them to be and that’s in 13th place (in the 14-team SEC). 

“I’ve told many people this: baseball and football in the SEC are very similar from a rebuilding standpoint. It’s hard to rebuild to get to the top because everybody else in the league is so good and so established. 

“I’m not saying coaching is not important because it is. There are decisions you have to make either during a football game or a baseball game that are crucial, but in this league, baseball and football, it is a players’ league. 

“You can be the best coach in the world, but if you don’t have good players, you’re not going to be able to compete and win on a consistent basis because everybody else has the players and they’re so good. 

“That’s the frustrating part (of where the program stands). Tennessee right now has 30 freshmen and sophomores, so I don’t think anybody expected them to compete for a championship, obviously. But just like any coach, Tony’s competitive, and he was hoping to maybe surprise some people. 

“I think if he can win two of the next three series (starting with Kentucky last weekend), he’ll probably qualify for the SEC Tournament, even if it’s the 12th seed, and if he does, I think it is certainly a win for his program. 

“It’s just going to take time. I don’t think you’re going to be able to see a huge difference until year 3.’’

What are Vitello’s greatest challenges as Tennessee’s coach?

“He’s obviously an established recruiter, but it’s a lot easier to recruit players to TCU and Arkansas than it is Tennessee because you’ve got history at both of those schools, and the facilities are a ton better at both of those schools. 

“He’s got to combat the facilities standpoint, and that’s tough because Florida’s getting ready to break ground on a $50 million complex. Kentucky will be playing in a new $50 million baseball stadium this time next year. Alabama’s built a new one. Mississippi State is basically redoing theirs, starting from the ground up again. They’re spending millions of dollars upgrading their facility, and of course in the last 10 years, South Carolina built a new one, Arkansas built a new one, LSU built a new one, Ole Miss did a bunch of improvements, and I could go on and on and on. 

When Kentucky finishes theirs, Tennessee this time next year will probably be 13th out of 14 SEC schools (in terms of quality of baseball facility), so when do you improve Lindsey Nelson Stadium or build a new stadium? 

“Do you say, ‘We’ve got to have a proven winner on the field before we invest in it,’ or do you invest in it before you have a proven winner, and that’s obviously a decision Coach (Phillip) Fulmer (athletics director) and the staff have to decide, and it’s a tough decision. I really think the baseball team draws fairly decent. 

“The team really hasn’t done anything in the last 10 years, and I’m sitting here going, ‘If they could produce a winner on the field, I think baseball has the potential at this school to be a revenue-producing sport and a stand-alone sport,’ and if you don’t believe me, just ask schools like Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Arkansas. 

“All those schools are revenue-producing baseball schools and they’re stand alone, and they make their own money. I’m sure they have their own travel budget out of that money and things like that. 

“If you can be a revenue-producing sport, when you go out and recruit in that sport, you can go to a recruit and say, if you’re Tony Vitello, ‘We’re going to charter (a jet) to Baton Rouge. We’re going to charter to Oxford. We’re going to charter to Gainesville,’ instead of riding on a bus for 12 hours, it makes a big difference (to recruits).’’

What did you think of the Vitello hire, and what is needed for him to succeed at Tennessee?

“I like Tony as a person. I think he obviously has a proven recruiting track record. Being the head coach is different than being the recruiting coordinator. I think his success is going to depend on not only getting better players but getting better local and in-state players. 

“In baseball, in the state of Tennessee, it is better than any other sport because if you can recruit some of the better players in the state and the area, you can have a team that competes for a (SEC) divisional championship and can qualify for the NCAA regionals. 

“Now once you get to a regional, you’re pretty close to getting to the College World Series, but you’ve got to get to the NCAA tournament first. 

“There are a lot of great baseball players in the state of Tennessee. For example, the starting catcher, first baseman, DH for Kentucky this year is Kole Cottam. I think he’s tied for second in the SEC in home runs, and he’s from (Knoxville) Catholic. 

“You’ve got the Saturday starter for Vanderbilt named Patrick Raby, and he’s from Farragut. You’ve got the pitcher Wil Crowe from Pigeon Forge (High). He was at South Carolina (and now in the Washington Nationals organization). 

“Ryder Green used to be at Hardin Valley (Academy), now he’s at Karns and he signed with Vanderbilt. You’ve got the kid from Christian Academy of Knoxville last year, (pitcher) Spencer Strider, now pitching at Clemson. 

“Here’s the point: you’ve got to have connections to a majority of the top players in the area and state. Here’s another key, I think, for (Vitello) to succeed. You get instant experience and mature help by going junior college (to get players). You’ve got one of the best junior colleges in the country 90 minutes from campus in Walters State (Community College in Morristown). 

“Tony knows more about it than I do, but if I’m the coach, I’m going to try to get probably the best two or three players off of Walters State’s roster every year. 

“You have Columbia State (Community College in Columbia), a team that always has a good program. I’m going to try to get two or three of their best players every year, too, if I’m the coach.’’

Is it accurate to say Vitello should build a program with power hitting and power pitching, as he said he would do in his introductory press conference?

“Yeah, that’s how you win in this league. Look at every (SEC) team that’s going to be playing in an NCAA regional, or just look at the top eight teams, let’s say, in the league. Every one of those teams has power arms and has the threat of the three-run homer. 

“I’ve said this many times on the air, Tennessee’s not going to get better until they get the threat of the three-run home run, because if you’re a singles-type hitting team and you’re going up against a staff like Florida that has Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, who will probably both go in the first round (of the MLB Draft) this year, in order to score, let’s say, four runs in an inning, you’re going to have to string together six or seven base hits. 

“These guys may not even give up six hits in an entire outing, much less one inning.

“You have to have power bats. Tony’s exactly right. The one thing that I like with Tony as coach is he has coached in this league. If you’ve never coached in this league, you have no idea. I think from an outsider like Dave (Serrano), he knew about the SEC, obviously, but until you’ve actually coached in the league, you’re like, ‘Wow, every team is pretty darn good, and this is a different brand of baseball than I’m used to.’ 

“Because they don’t play the same brand of baseball on the West Coast. Now, can a West Coast team win a regional or a super regional to get to the College World Series and beat an SEC team? 

“Sure, on one weekend, but you’re talking about doing it for 10 weekends (in an SEC season). There’s no way any of those teams on the West Coast, I don’t think, would win an SEC championship based on how they play.

Rod Delmonico took Tennessee to the College World Series three times (1995, 2001, 2005) during his tenure (1990-2007). Should UT fans expect at least that much success, or more?

“Rod was a great coach. He’s the winningest coach in Tennessee baseball history, but the thing that people don’t realize about Rod is, he wasn’t a consistent winner. Yes, every five years he would go to the College World Series, but he wasn’t a consistent winner in those years in between. 

“One thing I don’t want to hear a coach, or a new coach say, is we need to get Tennessee baseball back to where it was. 

“Well, you know what? In the last 10 years, it hasn’t been anywhere. Let’s don’t talk about the College World Series. Let’s don’t even mention that. Let’s get to the NCAA Tournament first. 

“That is a reasonable goal because once you make a regional, anything can happen, but you’ve got to get to the tournament first. Forget Omaha (where the CWS is played). That is way down the line. 

“In three years, hopefully, Tony can have Tennessee into a (NCAA) regional. If he does, he’s done a really good job because it’s hard to get into a regional. Look at the league this year. 

“The SEC, there’s probably two or three games that separate second place from 12th place, but the SEC might get 11 or 12 teams into the NCAA tournament this year. Now, they’ve never had more than 10. 

“Also, I think a lot’s going to happen in the next three or four years. No. 1, let’s see how Tony can build a program, but No. 2, what’s going to happen with the (Tennessee) Smokies (minor league team in Sevierville)? 

“Do they build a new stadium downtown (in Knoxville), and if they do, do Coach Fulmer and the Tennessee guys try to negotiate some kind of deal with the Smokies and play in the brand-new stadium because that stadium is going to have suites, and it’s probably going to have 7,000 seats, something like that, and it’s going to be a brand-new ballpark. That’s the good news. 

“The bad news is they’re going to have to work out the schedule so they won’t conflict at the same time. That would be the best and probably the most inexpensive way to get a new baseball stadium, but the downside would be it wouldn’t be on campus. 

“Now, on the flip side, and I’m not advocating this, if Tennessee and the Smokies did partner up, you could serve beer at the baseball games. It’s off campus. I’m not advocating that, but that would be another way to possibly raise money for the baseball team. 

“Can you imagine how many legalized students you could get to the game on $1 beer night on a Friday?’’

If Vitello is the right guy, how long do you think it will take for the Vols to be an NCAA regional contender, and what’s it going to take?

“I think by year three we’ll have a good idea of what he’s able to recruit on the field at Tennessee. I think 2020 is the key year.

“Now, back to the junior college talent. I think he’s signed 19 guys for next year, so if you’ve got 30 freshmen and sophomores and you’ve got 19 freshmen coming in next year, that’s way too many players, so there’s going to be a lot of turnover and a lot of new faces on the baseball team next year. 

“I’m not smart enough to say how you figure all that out, but I’m sure (Vitello) knows about it, and he’s going to be doing it. He’s getting his own identity and his own players in, which is what every coach wants. That’s what (football) coach (Jeremy) Pruitt’s doing as well. 

“But if you go back to when South Carolina won back-to-back national baseball championships, in 2010 and 2011, (coach) Ray Tanner, back then during his tenure at South Carolina, he always had recruited a really key junior college player or two in the starting lineup. 

So, when they won back-to-back national championships, they had a kid named Adrian Morales who was the third baseman. He was a junior college guy, and he played a significant role on that team. 

“If you can get a guy who’s played JUCO ball for either a year or two, he’s got experience, he’s typically a little bit more mature mentally and physically about the game and can help you immediately if the talent’s there. 

“It’s hard going from, let’s say, Farragut High School and being a starter as a freshman in the SEC. The game really speeds up in the SEC, more so than Knoxville high school baseball.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Loudon County.

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