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VIProfile: Tony Vitello




By Gay Lyons

When St. Louis, Missouri native Tony Vitello accepted the position as head baseball coach at the University of Tennessee in June 2017, he took the helm of a team that hadn’t finished better than fifth in the SEC East since 2007. Since then, in just three seasons–not counting the promising 2020 season interrupted by covid–Vitello, who previously coached at Missouri, TCU and Arkansas, has led the team to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2019 and 2021 and the College World Series in 2021. The 2022 season, just underway, is off to a winning start.

So, how did he turn things around so quickly? It might be summed up with one word: confidence.

“You see a beautiful campus and a strong tradition,” said Vitello. “It was obvious there were
good players in the program. It just hadn’t clicked. There had been individual players who were
successful, but the team success just kind of stalled out. There was the potential for it to explode.”

“The number one problem was self-belief,” he explained. “It was almost like [the players] didn’t think they belonged here. They lacked confidence. It was important for our players to be around winners. Our goal was to win right away. So we tried to get as many people who know what winning looks like in the same room.”

Last year Tennessee fans fell in love with the team, packing Lindsey Nelson Stadium during the regionals and super regionals and giving the stadium a fever-pitched atmosphere.

“The fans are what separates a good team from a great one,” said Vitello. “The home crowd can literally bring you from being a good team to being a contender. People, including coaches’ wives who’ve seen a lot of games, said last season’s crowd had the most electricity they’ve ever seen.”

“Perhaps [post-covid] everyone needed something to cheer for,” mused Vitello. Maybe. But the revved up 2021 team gave them plenty to cheer about.

According to utsports.com, “Tennessee was ranked for the entire 2021 season and checked in as high as No. 2 in the polls on multiple occasions—the program’s highest ranking ever. The Vols set a program record with 16 road victories and hit 98 home runs—second most in school history. Tennessee also had five players earn All-America honors in 2021, another program record. Since Vitello took over the program prior to the 2018 season, the Vols have increased their win totalduring every full season (29 – 2018, 40 – 2019, 50 – 2021).”

To accommodate the demand for tickets, approximately 1,000 new seats and 10 more porches
have been added to the stadium. The numbers are a good indicator of the team’s increased
popularity, but Vitello says the electricity is even more important. “You don’t need the biggest
crowd. You need the one that’s the most into it.”

Vitello admitted he has a reputation for being competitive, something he traces back to his family. “My father was a baseball and soccer coach,” he said, “and I grew up cheering for my father’s team. You’re involved at a different level if it’s family. My dad is as intense a competitor as you can imagine. He comes here and tries to coach the team.”

He said he was attracted to baseball by its traditions and his own family connection to the game.

“The history of baseball has always appealed to me,” he said. “It’s the American pastime; it’s the ultimate father-son game–playing ball with dad in the front yard. More than anything, baseball was my dad’s first love.”

Vitello looks forward to the new baseball stadium downtown. “There’s the opportunity to expose people to how fun it can be to spend the day at the park and cheer for your team,” he said. “I think people here appreciate the right things. Wins, of course, but playing well and treating kids wanting autographs well. I think Knoxville could become a baseball town.”

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