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Tennessee baseball: What exactly were head coach Tony Vitello’s violations?

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Tony Vitello was handed his third suspension in six seasons on Friday. The University of Tennessee released a statement outlining that the head coach of the Vols’ baseball team had been suspended for the series with Dayton, and we should expect an update on Monday. 

Hitting coach Josh Elander has assumed Vitello’s role for the weekend. He offered no update about Vitello’s status. The Vols beat Dayton 12-2 on Friday with two more games set for Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

“Just to be straight up, I understand, respect you guys have a job to do but I’ve been told there’s nothing really I can say on Tony’s deal,” Elander said after Fridays win over the Flyers. “Anything I can say on baseball, I’d be more than happy to answer.”

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While the reason for Vitello’s suspension is unclear, the university issued some clarification via a public release, claiming that Tennessee and Vitello are “working collaboratively with the NCAA to address a violation in the program.”

So, what could this violation be?

Vitello’s suspension comes right after transfer shortstop Maui Ahuna had his eligibility denied by the NCAA. His family traveled from Hawaii to Arizona to watch Ahuna play, but just hours before first pitch he was deemed ineligible. 

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Tennessee committed a minor violation in Ahuna’s recruitment, as reported by Knox News. The self-reported violation was deemed a Level III, the lowest tier of transgression by the NCAA. Tennessee approved a flight for Ahuna to visit Knoxville before they had received his transcripts from his former school, Kansas. 

Suspending a coach – and more importantly the eligibility of a student-athlete – seems like overkill for a Level III violation that happened back in June. 

The statement from the university goes on to say that Vitello has acknowledged and taken responsibility for his mistake, whatever that mistake is. The ban is also self-imposed, not handed down by the NCAA, which could still hold a formal investigation into the matter. 

“Coach Vitello has acknowledged his mistake and accepted full responsibility,” the statement read. “We appreciate his cooperation in the process and his dedication to do right by the student-athletes in the Tennessee baseball program. NCAA bylaws prohibit additional comment or details. The University will continue to emphasize—to all staff—the imperative of leading with honesty and integrity.”

Outkick wrote on Friday that the NCAA was looking into Tennessee’s baseball programs due to “tampering,” per sources. Whether this report holds merit is yet to be determined, but it opens up a possibility given up’s prompt, strong response. 

For one, tampering isn’t something that has been defined clearly by the NCAA. College  sports, in general, seem like the wild, wild west of transfers, recruiting and NIL money. 

Speaking of NIL money, the NCAA passed its first NIL tampering punishment on Friday. The Cavinder twins, Haley and Hannah, play women’s basketball for Miami and are thought to be the subjects of the first NIL investigation by the recently beefed up NCAA enforcement staff.

Back to the tampering, Outkick writes that the tampering described in the Tennessee case has to do with illegally contacting Ahuna. While this may or may not be the case, it is safe to assume that rampant tampering is occurring broadly in college sports. 

While the NCAA issues with Vitello may not be related to tampering with Ahuna, it certainly looks that way and any investigation is not good for a program. The NCAA may go looking for one thing, and find a lot of other things that could be punishable. 

For a program on the rise in college baseball, an investigation does not bode well. However, it may play into Tennessee’s image. 

The Vols, on the baseball field, have quickly picked up a reputation for bat flips, high emotion and even obscene gestures toward opposing players.  An NCAA investigation going after a head coach that doesn’t stick to norms adds another layer to the bad boy persona. 

Vitello has been suspended before, most recently for bumping an umpire’s chest. Tennessee should manage on the field without Vitello, at least for now. 

Should the investigation or suspension extend into SEC play, the Vols may be without their head coach, who is responsible for returning Tennessee baseball to the national scene, and Ahuna, one of their brightest young stars and a major coup in last year’s transfer scene.

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