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Tony Vitello and his Tennessee baseball team remind us that patience is for losers | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Be patient.

It takes time.

These are the battle cries across America from losing coaches and the floundering athletics directors who hired them.

Tennessee coach Tony Vitello is poking a baseball-sized hole in the idea that it takes several years to lift a program from mediocrity to national prominence.

Vitello’s third-seeded diamond dandies moved within one victory of the College World Series by beating LSU 4-2 on Saturday night in Game 1 of an NCAA baseball super regional at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Game 2 is scheduled for Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

In four seasons under Vitello, the Vols (49-16) have gone from perennial afterthought to juggernaut. And they’ve done so within the nation’s toughest conference and despite having mediocre facilities, by the SEC’s gleaming standards.

It’s not as if Vitello took the reins of a program coming off a rough season or two. He stepped into a program that had been comatose for more than a decade.

In Vitello’s second season, Tennessee made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, which is also the last time the program reached the CWS. He might have led the Vols to the CWS last year if COVID-19 had not interfered. Tennessee was 15-2 when the 2020 season halted.

The raucous environment inside sold-out Lindsey Nelson Stadium (and at a watch party outside the ballpark) showed how hungry Tennessee’s rabid fan base is to support a top program.

Disregard Tennessee football, and the Vols boast a mostly successful, well-rounded athletic department. But 2009 marked the last time any Tennessee team won a national championship, when its women’s indoor track and field team captured the crown. The Lady Vols women’s basketball program won the most recent of their eight national championships a year earlier.

Make no mistake, this Tennessee baseball team can win the whole thing. Lacking a dominant ace, Tennessee wouldn’t be the favorite in Omaha, but the pitching staff is solid throughout, the lineup is robust, and the Vols are at their best in the most stressful moments.

The Vols didn’t falter Saturday after LSU (38-24) went ahead 1-0 in the second inning Saturday when Cade Doughty blasted a line drive through rain drops and over the right-field wall.

This Tennessee team has a license to thrill.

The Vols twice erased one-run deficits, taking control with a three-run sixth inning. Chad Dallas tallied a career-high 12 strikeouts through six innings to earn the victory.

How has Vitello steered this turnaround? For one, he’s brought a fiery mentality that his players emulate. But it’s more than that.

Tennessee has recruited at a high clip under Vitello. His first four signing classes were ranked in the top 12 nationally by Perfect Game.

A pair of women’s basketball coaches come to mind as examples of coaches who launched comparably quick turnarounds at programs with little pedigree.

Dawn Staley led South Carolina to a Sweet 16 in her fourth season. Staley has since taken South Carolina to three Final Four appearances, including a national championship in 2017. Similarly, Mississippi State reached the Sweet 16 in Vic Schaefer’s fourth season. The Bulldogs finished as the national runner-up the next two seasons under Schaefer, who is now at Texas.

Bruce Pearl offers an example closer to home. Tennessee men’s basketball reached the Sweet 16 in Pearl’s second season and made the program's lone Elite Eight appearance in his fifth season.

Jumpstarting a baseball program is a different type of challenge from basketball, a sport in which a few elite recruits can fast-track a program.

Regardless of sport, you usually know whether a coach is right for the job within the first few years of a coach’s tenure. Urban Meyer won the first of his football national championships in his second season at Florida, while Nick Saban won his first national championship at Alabama in Year 3.

Losing coaches ask for patience on their way to being fired.

Winners like Vitello don’t require the long road. His Vols are on a beeline toward Omaha.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.