When Tennessee Baseball beat the Southern Miss Golden Eagles to reach the College World Series in a game that went into the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Vols added to a historic athletic season. UT may have the best athletic program in the country right now.
Both the baseball and softball programs reached their respective College World Series for the first time in school history. The men’s and women’s basketball programs each reached the Sweet 16, doing so together for the first time since 2014.
Then there’s Tennessee Football, going 11-2 and finishing in the top 10 for the first time since 2001. UT is the only program since 1998 to win a New Years Six Bowl, reach the Sweet 16 with both basketball programs and reach the College World Series with both diamond programs.
And it all happened two and a half years after the athletic department was in free fall. Remember in January of 2021, when Tennessee Football fired Jeremy Pruitt and athletic director Phillip Fulmer stepped down on the heels of NCAA violations?
Nobody could have predicted where the program would be now. However, that didn’t start UT athletics falling as a program. Instead, that was the watershed moment for an athletic program that had been a disaster since Fulmer was fired as head coach in 2008.
Dating back to that time, UT has had six athletic directors (one interim). The Vols have also had eight football coaches (two interim), four men’s basketball coaches, three women’s basketball coaches and three baseball coaches.
In men’s basketball, two separate coaches were fired due to NCAA violations. A football coach and athletic director were fired less than three years ago for the same reason. Worst of all, the women’s basketball program lost Pat Summitt, its most legendary coach, due to a tragic illness.
Simply put, this athletic department has had every negative thing possible happen to it, from bad hires to scandals to tragedy, all within a decade and a half. Heck, their fan base even nixed a football hire.
Ironically enough, though, all the success happening right now is due to a different AD. Dave Hart hired Rick Barnes for men’s basketball. Fulmer hired Kellie Harper on the women’s side. John Currie hired Tony Vitello for Tennessee Baseball.
Danny White saved the football program with his Josh Heupel hire, and that stands out above all other moves, but every AD deserves some credit for the different hires they made.
Now, this isn’t the most successful athletic season in school history. That would be 1998-99. Football winning a national title trumps everything, which happened that year, and men’s basketball still won the East and reached the NCAA Tournament Round of 32.
Meanwhile, softball made its first NCAA Tournament, and baseball had a winning record. Women’s basketball missed out on a fourth straight national title but still reached the Elite Eight.
The 1998-99 year was the culmination of a decade-plus of stability brought about by Doug Dickey, though. This year could be just the start of something great under White, who has made lots of great steps to this point.
Hey, Tennessee Baseball isn’t done. If Tony Vitello’s team brings home a national championship, we may have to talk about this season in a different light. It doesn’t trump football, but the totality of success tells another story.