Before the Tennessee baseball team had completed their best season in over a decade, talks were going on behind closed doors to keep head coach Tony Vitello in Knoxville for the long haul.
Even by the halfway point of the Vols’ 2019 regular season, it was clear that Vitello’s vision for what Tennessee baseball could be was taking shape and lending quicker results on the field than many outside the program had expected.
It wouldn’t take long for other programs to notice too, especially those with openings.For that reason, Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer went ahead and offered Vitello a contract extension and raise earlier this month. The extension was good through the 2024 season, and the raise will pay the Vols’ second year head coach $650,000 by the time the agreement ends.
“Coach Fulmer had initiated conversations about halfway through the season,” Vitello told the media on Tuesday. “We felt like it was in our best interests to hold off until the season was over. We knew we were going to move forward. The administration, headed by Coach Fulmer, did what we needed to do.”
The results spoke for themselves. Vitello, who arrived as a first-time head coach from Missouri ahead of the 2018 season, lead Tennessee to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005. There, the Vols went 2-2, finishing as runner-up to North Carolina in the Chapel Hill Regional.
“Reflecting on the season, it was a successful one in a lot of different ways,” Vitello said. “The biggest way was our last group meeting where we talked about this group doing an awful lot of work to lay the foundation for what everyone wants around here.
“I think this group deserves a lot of credit. When that regional number goes up on the wall, that’s something they can be very proud of.”
In addition to making the postseason, other achievements that previous Tennessee teams had missed out on in the last 15 years included five series wins in SEC play, a third-place finish in conference play and 26 wins in the non-conference slate.
Perhaps their biggest series win was taking two out of three from then-No. 2 Georgia in Knoxville on April 11-13.
Now that the Vols have proved they can hang with the best of the SEC’s elite, Vitello and the rest of the Tennessee coaching staff have more to sell to recruits than just an idea.
“When our players come back in August, they realize that there is a new tradition going on here,” Vitello said. “It’s not just about making one regional. I think now there is something to point to for recruits instead of just our vision. Now there’s some concrete things there that are truly tangible.”
But even Vitello knows that it doesn’t just start with winning, although that is the most important element in building a baseball program in college baseball’s premier baseball conference. Part of the stipulations in Vitello’s new contract was the guarantee of facility upgrades.
As it stands, Tennessee has lagged behind in the SEC’s ever-changing arms race. Rivals Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida have either built new stadiums or have the plans in place. That’s where Vitello wants his program, and with the recent contract, is getting his wish.
“The first priority is getting done now,” Vitello said. “We have some gentlemen painting our batting cages. I know that’s not an upgrade that’s going to be on the front page of the paper, but there’s a lot of things we want to have our hand in and initiate our brand of Tennessee baseball.”
Looking ahead to year three of his tenure, Vitello hopes that players see how their development at the collegiate level helps them achieve their professional aspirations.
Building on that, says Vitello, leads to the next crop of players stepping up in a big way.
“With guy’s in our league constantly getting looked at to play pro ball, there’s an awful lot of turnover,” Vitello said. “This year, we have an ideal set up. We want to help develop kids so when they’re juniors, we can support them in signing a pro contract. It’s a great building block for the program.
“At the same time, we want to hold on to our guys so they can improve their status and earn their degree. You want that healthy turnover, and when you have it, there’s going to be young guys ready to step into their roles.”