By Mark Nagi
Back in January 2006, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team upset Florida 80-76, in one of the most exciting games ever played at Thompson-Boling Arena. Students waited in line for hours and were rewarded for their patience with that victory. The atmosphere was electric.
The Vols were an undermanned group that battled under then first-year coach Bruce Pearl. There were no expectations for that team, following four years of mediocrity with former head coach Buzz Peterson.
I remember thinking at that moment that Tennessee men’s basketball would never be better than in that moment.
Sure, they could win the SEC (and did) and advance to the Final Four (almost did) under Pearl, but after that Florida win, the expectations would continue to grow. Wins like that would become expected, and not shocking.
I bring up that story because that’s the way that I’ve felt watching Tennessee’s baseball team this season.
Under fourth-year head coach Tony Vitello, the Vols have become one of the best teams in the country. Recently, they beat top-ranked Arkansas 8-7 on a walk off three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth by second baseman Max Ferguson. Earlier in the season, they knocked off 2019 national champion Vanderbilt 8-4 in a game when outfielder Evan Russell hit three home runs.
And while the Vols lost both of those series two games to one, it was obvious that Vitello has built what is currently the most dominant team on campus. Well, the SEC champion men’s tennis team might want a word, but you see where I am going with this statement. The Vols haven’t been to the College World Series since 2005, and they have as good a chance as any opponent to get to Omaha.
The Ferguson moment was special because it was the first big game situation since the pandemic hit that a noticeable number of Tennessee fans could be there in person to experience that magic. The SEC Network broadcast crew did a terrific job shutting up and getting out of the way once Ferguson’s blast carried over the right field wall. Lindsey Nelson Stadium erupted with a sound that hasn’t been heard in a few years on the UT campus.
Certainly, the level of a few thousand can’t match the volume brought forth from a big moment at Neyland Stadium or Thompson-Boling Arena, but the sheer outpouring of emotion that a crowd totally invested in an outcome just feels different.
Tennessee’s baseball program might win the SEC, or even win the College World Series for the first time in program history under Vitello… but moments like the recent ones won’t happen again as expectations continue to rise.
Which brings me to my next point. New Tennessee athletics director Danny White is about to have to earn his large paycheck by finding a way to keep Vitello happy, because another program (maybe Texas A&M?) is going to offer him a big bag of dough to leave Rocky Top.
It’s no secret that the Vols baseball facilities are in the bottom third of the SEC. If and when the new stadium is built downtown for the Tennessee Smokies AA baseball team, the Vols could play some games there, but that is a few years down the line from becoming a reality. Vitello is already at a disadvantage because he often can only offer partial scholarships when private school programs like Vanderbilt’s can offer free rides. But he’s recruited at a high level and developed that talent as well, and that should be rewarded.
The problem of course is that the baseball program, a non-revenue sport at Tennessee, has taken a bath financially during the pandemic. White’s ability to fundraise will be put to its first true test in efforts to keep Vitello in Knoxville.
Because if White fails, this truly will be as good as it gets for Tennessee baseball.