Vitello returns to Fayetteville for 'just another series'

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, April 26, 2019
Arkansas assistant coach Tony Vitello, left, and Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn watch batting practice Tuesday, May 23, 2017, at Jerry D. Young Memorial Field on the UAB campus in Birmingham, Ala.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas assistant coach Tony Vitello, left, and Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn watch batting practice Tuesday, May 23, 2017, at Jerry D. Young Memorial Field on the UAB campus in Birmingham, Ala.

FAYETTEVILLE — Tony Vitello will be back in Baum-Walker Stadium this weekend, but in a different spot than University of Arkansas fans were used to seeing him.

Instead of standing in the third-base coaching box when the the Razorbacks are batting, Vitello will be leading the team in the visiting dugout.

Vitello, 40, is in his second season as the head coach at No. 18 Tennessee (31-11, 9-9 SEC), which opens a three-game series against No. 7 Arkansas (31-11, 12-6) at 6:30 tonight.

It’s the first game at Baum-Walker Stadium for Vitello since he was an Arkansas assistant coach for four seasons from 2014-17, when he helped the Razorbacks make three NCAA Tournament appearances and advance to the 2015 College World Series.

“My emotions are going to need to be kept in check, that’s for sure,” Vitello said. “Because a lot of my heart is still in Fayetteville.”

Vitello recruited some of the players on Arkansas’ current roster.

“He’s a really good dude,” said junior Isaiah Campbell, the Razorbacks’ starting pitcher tonight. “I have all the respect for him and what’s he’s brought to Tennessee.

“I know he’s going to be pumped up and excited to come back to Baum and play us. He’s going to have his team ready to go.”

Vitello also recruited Arkansas junior center field Dominic Fletcher.

“That’s one of the reasons I came here actually,” Fletcher said. ‘He’s a great guy and he’s going to go out there and compete with whatever team he’s with. It’s going to be fun to play against him.”

Vitello was an assistant coach with NCAA Tournament teams at Missouri and TCU, but said his time with Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn helped prepare him for the challenges of being an SEC head coach.

“I feel like Coach Van Horn has done everything for me,” Vitello said. “I would say he elevated me as a coach.

“I learned a lot from listening to him and just watching how he did things, and he also told me things and corrected me on some things that have really stuck with me.

“Being at Arkansas for four years with Coach Van Horn was like being in a baseball classroom setting. In the SEC, there’s nothing that’s new or unchartered territory for me because I was able to be a part of his program at Arkansas.”

Van Horn praised the job Vitello has done at Tennessee, but said he’s approaching this weekend as another SEC series.

“Once the game starts, it’s all about how the Razorbacks play,” Van Horn said. “It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the other dugout.”

The Vols were 27-26 overall and 7-21 in 2017 in Dave Serrano’s final season as coach, then went 29-27 and 12-18 in Vitello’s first season.

Now Vitello has Tennessee positioned to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Vols played in the College World Series in 2005.

“We inherited some nice pieces and we’ve been fortunate enough to land a great coaching staff and some good recruits early,” Vitello said. “So I think where we are right now is pretty good.

“Whether or not it’s ahead of schedule, I guess depends on your standards. We’re just trying to get every category of the program as good as possible as fast as possible.”

Vitello said his biggest move was hiring Frank Anderson from Houston to be the Vols’ pitching coach. Anderson previously was a head coach at Oklahoma State.

“I feel like we have the best pitching coach in the conference,” Vitello said. “On top of that he has head coaching experience, which is a big help to me.”

Tennessee’s pitching staff leads the nation with a 2.68 earned run average and nine shutouts, including a 5-0 victory over Gardner-Webb on Tuesday night.

The Vols’ rotation this weekend will be sophomore left-hander Garrett Crochet (3-2, 2.45 ERA), junior right-hander Garrett Stallings (7-2, 1.82 ERA) and junior right-hander Zach Linginfelter (6-4, 3.91 ERA).

Redmond Walsh, a sophomore left-hander, has seven saves and a 0.35 ERA.

“I don’t know that we have the one ace that everybody falls in line behind,” Vitello said. “I think it’s more that each weekend anyone could be the guy that throws the best — and that could be a long reliever or a guy at the back end of the game or one of those starters.

“It’s a staff with a lot of depth and lot of options.”

Tennessee started 17-1 — including a three-game sweep of Indiana and taking two of three games from Fresno State — but opened SEC play by losing three games at Auburn.

“It was tough,” Vitello said. “We were all on the bus, just kind of depressed. We knew then as a coaching staff we’d find out what we had in our ball club by how our guys reacted the next week.”

The Vols reacted by taking two of three games from South Carolina to start what’s been a 9-6 stretch in SEC play, including winning two of three games against overall conference leader Georgia.

“I think the big thing was there not any panic or anyone saying, ‘Here we go again,’” Vitello said. “The guys just kept it simple and were anxious for a chance to answer back.”

Van Horn said he’s not surprised Tennessee is playing so well in Vitello’s second season.

“I’m proud of Tony for what he’s done,” Van Horn said. “You’ve got your veteran pitching coach doing a great job. You’ve got a couple of younger guys [assistant coaches Josh Elander and Ross Kivetti] helping out. Then Tony is managing it and still doing a lot of recruiting.”

Vitello said he’s been so busy building up Tennessee’s program that he hasn’t had time to shave. After being clean-shaven when he took the job, Vitello now has a full beard.

“I thought about shaving, because I’m giving Hognoxious some material to work with this weekend,” Vitello said, referring to Arkansas fan Bobby Smittle and his reputation of heckling opponents. “I’ve got way too much hair on my face, but it was just one of those things where earlier this year I said, ‘Well, I’m going to stay warm for a while.’

"Then the weather has been so bad this spring everywhere I didn’t want to lose the beard.

“Lately it’s been, ‘Oh, the heck with it. I’m just going to leave it as is and worry about how I look when the season’s over.’“

The way Vitello has the Vols playing, that might be awhile.

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