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Tennessee Vols coach Tony Vitello’s bases are loaded with popularity

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There’s no question Tennessee’s football program is the top dog in it’s athletic department. As for the top dog among coaches, well, let’s just say baseball coach Tony Vitello is making a pretty good run at that recently created title.

Let’s start with what I think of Vitello as a coach, his future at Tennessee and what he’ll do for the Vols’ program:

Tony Vitello will build Tennessee into a national baseball power with multiple national championships and will coach at least 10 more seasons as a Vol.

There, we got that out of the way. Now, one would have to be incredibly optimistic to say any football coach in the nation will win multiple national championships and be at his school for 10 years, unless their name is Kirby Smart. The odds are just stacked against it. However, football coach Josh Heupel looks like he wants to be a Vol for the long haul and I could see at least a couple of SEC Championships on his resume within in the near future. So how would the two compare at that level?

Would an elite baseball program even come close to rivaling a good SEC football program? Financially, the two aren’t close. The Vols might be turning a buck or two on baseball, but football pays the bills and the vast majority of them for all sports. Tennessee’s fans and coffers have seen the difference between the three former guys that called themselves head coaches and a real coach, like Heupel, so they understand the importance of quality at the most important position on campus. Yes, even more important than athletic director. Sorry Danny.

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Heupel is also worth more because he’s exciting. His offense has value. Television stations want to run the highlights. Fans love touchdowns. That just happens to be what Heupel’s brand of football is all about.  However, Vitello ain’t so bad himself.

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The Vols hit more home runs than Vitello has female fans. He also has some spunk that resonates with Tennessee fans. That was evident by the reaction to his postgame press conference following the Vols’ 12-1 win against Evansville on Sunday evening.

Message boards posters and social media barons were going wild until the wee hours of the morning discussing how Vitello passionately defended his players, thumbed his nose at NIL demands and shared his patriotism with the assembled media during his postgame press conference. It was fresh out of an Adam Sandler movie. However, Vitello made one clear point: The College World Series isn’t a darn bit of fun if you get knocked out early. It’s akin to a Heupel pregame press conference: everyone is in attendance, but nothing is accomplished.

Vitello will always have a personality advantage over Heupel, but that’s by design. Heupel likes to say nothing at press conferences and has bragged about it behind the scenes. He doesn’t want to give the media anything for fear that it might help the Vols’ next opponent. Paranoid? A little. Prudent? Absolutely.

As great of a story as Vitello is and despite the fact that I think he’ll have great success at Tennessee, he can’t be Heupel. In fact, a great football coordinator in the SEC is held in as high of regard as a coach of most any other sport, other than men’s basketball, which is the only other sport that traditionally generates revenue. That could soon change.

It’s not unreasonable for college baseball to be bigger than college basketball one day. Regular season ratings continue to flatline for college basketball while college baseball finds itself in a peach position. In fact, if the NCAA could move the college baseball season back just a bit and, perhaps, hold the national championship game on July 4, that could be something that could perhaps, one day rival March Madness, which is about all that college basketball has left going for it. 

When is the last time you’ve gotten together with a bunch of buddies to watch a regular season college basketball game other than one in which your favorite team is a part of? The sport needs an overhaul, but that’s left up to the NCAA. Don’t get your hopes up.

If the NCAA made those well-thought-out and wise moves, which it won’t, college baseball could also avoid those idiotic February games in which it’s cold enough to freeze dry a rosin bag. However, let’s be realistic. We’re asking the NCAA to make solvent, prudent and forward-thinking decisions. All at once!

No, Vitello may never be as valuable as any football coach, but he means plenty to Tennessee. The Vols have won national championships with two coaches in football. Vitello would be the first to do it in baseball. 

Vitello may not be able to be a Heupel at Tennessee, but the dashing, young coach may be the next best thing. In fact, Vitello is the most popular, non-football coach at Tennessee in modern history other than former Lady Vol basketball coach Pat Summit. There’s no shame in falling short of a legend.

Vitello’s worth is far more than his $1.6-million contract would indicate, especially when Heupel is making $9-million. Vitello could possibly get to $3-million per season with a strong run in Omaha, but there just isn’t a scenario in which he makes football money and he seems fine with that.

Tennessee has done plenty for Vitello for those that think the love is a one-way street. He would be wise to remember all that UT’s athletic department has done for his career with financial support and backing that would rival any baseball program in the nation. The Vols have gone from a dump of a stadium to one of the best home venues in the nation. 

There is one other coach that rivaled and, to some, topped Vitello’s popularity. Basketball coach Bruce Pearl was certainly a fan favorite when he was the head coach of the Vols from 2005 to 2011. Then, Pearl lied to Tennessee and the NCAA and things went south in a horribly tough-to-watch fashion. Vitello would have to do something historically bad like that to fall out of favor with Tennessee fans, who would probably still love him no matter what. Many Tennessee fans still love Pearl and he’s at Auburn.

Vitello, however, has a different feel than Pearl, who fans always wondered about. Was he looking for another job? Was Tennessee just a stepping stone? Was he just too good to be true? As it turns out, it was the latter, until things clanked like a bricked free throw.

Things could always go south for the Vols and Vitello. After all, he has been suspended as recently as last year. However, now isn’t the time to think about that. Let Vitello be the Vols’ top dog in Omaha for a bit before football season rolls around.

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