KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Traffic snarled across the University of Tennessee campus earlier this week.
Parking garages swelled to the brim. A sea of orange-clad fans blanketed the campus, and the fraternity houses were in full party mode.
All on a Wednesday, mind you, about the time most people were finishing up their workday.
No, Peyton Manning was not in town for an all-day autograph session, nor were Kenny Chesney or Dolly Parton on campus for a free concert. Josh Heupel didn’t open up a spring football scrimmage, either.
So why all the gusto?
Tennessee’s baseball team — the unanimous No. 1-ranked baseball team for the first time in school history — was playing a midweek game at home against Western Carolina, a game the Vols won handily, 11-1.
The place was sold out, 4,607 strong at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, making it the largest attendance for a Vols midweek game in school history and the fourth-largest for any Tennessee home game.
“We used to come in here, and even for a weekend SEC series, you’d look up into the stands and they wouldn’t be half full,” said Tennessee senior third baseman Trey Lipscomb, who leads the team with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs. “There’s a buzz about this program, about this team, about some of things we’re doing for the first time that has everybody excited.
“The best part is that we’re not anywhere close to playing our best baseball.”
As well as the Vols (24-1) have played, it will likely take their best baseball this weekend if they’re going to win their third straight SEC series and stay atop the college baseball world. Perennial powerhouse Vanderbilt awaits in Nashville for a three-game series that begins Friday night (7 p.m., ESPN2 and ESPN App). The last time Tennessee won a series over Vanderbilt in Nashville was in 2009 when the Vols swept the Commodores.
“You want to get to a point where the challenge every year is what it is for Duke basketball … competing for championships on a yearly basis,” said fifth-year Tennessee coach Tony Vitello, the architect of one of college baseball’s most impressive turnarounds.
The Vols advanced to the College World Series last year for the first time since 2005, which also was their last NCAA tournament appearance prior to Vitello’s arrival. He’s made Tennessee baseball a must-see event in Knoxville, to the point that a proposed project budget of $56.8 million has been earmarked for Lindsey Nelson Stadium upgrades.
That’s very much an estimate at this point, Tennessee athletic director Danny White notes, but still a strong indicator of what Vitello has meant to the program. He was heavily pursued by Texas A&M last year, but Tennessee made him one of the highest-paid baseball coaches in the country with a $1.5 million annual salary.
On the field, Vitello has brought an edge to a Tennessee team that plays with a fiery flair that has endeared itself to the orange-blooded Vols’ fans but rubbed plenty of rival fans, teams and coaches wrong.
“We embrace it. Whether you like us or not, we don’t really care,” said center fielder Drew Gilbert, whose in-your-face energy permeates throughout the entire locker room. “You don’t like us … well, all right, we’re still going to roll the way we roll.”
Back in February, Arkansas veteran coach Dave Van Horn sounded off on “shenanigans going on in dugouts” and other things he didn’t think had a place in baseball. He never mentioned Tennessee by name, although the Vols are right up there when it comes to “shenanigans.”
Vitello worked under Van Horn at Arkansas before coming to Tennessee, and the two had a heated exchange after one of their games last season in Knoxville.
“I heard some scuttlebutt about that. We still talk,” Vitello said of Van Horn. “I don’t know if that was directed at us or not. I think a lot of people try to force a team image out there and think a lot of things that go on are kind of choreographed. A lot of what our guys have done has just organically popped up, or if a guy in the dugout has an idea, the kids roll with it.
“I guess that’s something other people will pay attention to if you win some games. If you don’t, it will kind of become something that people will poke fun at you about.”
Either way, the Vols are the kings of shenanigans, from teammates swarming to put on the pink “Daddy” hat, a holdover from last season, and, new to this season, a full-length mink coat on every player who hits a home run as he returns to the dugout. The official name of the mink coat is the “cheetah coat,” according to the players.
Homer. Put on Daddy hat. Put on HR coat. Repeat.
— Tennessee Baseball (@Vol_Baseball) March 30, 2022
Gilbert said he thinks the hat is the same one used all of last season and thus may smell a bit foul.
“Yeah, I think it is,” Gilbert said. “But I know this, there’s a lot of homers in that hat.”
Another staple shenanigan is the Vols’ extra-base hit celebration, a Gilbert creation: sort of a cover-your-face kneel-down to the baseball gods once you get on second or third base.
Gilbert, his face and cheeks covered in eye black and sporting the Terminator shades, laughs when asked to explain it all.
“Honestly, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “There’s no meaning behind it. We just made it up. It just kind of evolved. It’s weird, just something that’s funny. It’s different. That’s why we do it.”
And, yes, he’s well aware that such antics make him and his teammates a target.
“I like competition. I like when people are coming after me,” Gilbert said. “It makes the game more fun.”
Rest assured, this Tennessee team loves having fun, but loves winning even more. The Vols’ 24-1 start is their best in school history through 25 games. They now have gone 89 straight innings without trailing and have swept each of their first two SEC series against South Carolina and Ole Miss.
The Rebels were ranked No. 1 in the polls a week ago when the Vols went into Oxford and won 12-1, 10-3 and then 4-3 on Sunday, when sixth-year senior Redmond Walsh struck out the side in the ninth inning to preserve the win.
“What it gets down to is: Can you sustain the standard that has been created?” Vitello said. “I think we’re a long way away from doing what we want to do and having the successes that we want to. There’s something to brag about right now because we’ve won some games, but if you’re going to line up with what Mike Martin (the winningest baseball coach in Division I) did at Florida State or what’s going on at some other places in our league, there’s not really a bragging point there.”
Clearly, Vanderbilt is one of those “other places.” The Commodores (20-4) have long been the gold standard in the SEC under Tim Corbin, who’s in his 20th season as head coach. They’ve been to four College World Series championship finals in the past eight years and won national titles in 2014 and 2019.
“Obviously, we know they’re a really good team, but this [Tennessee] team has a different confidence that most teams don’t,” Vols freshman pitcher Drew Beam said. “We feed off of each other, and the other thing is we love being the team that everyone just despises. It leaves something for us to prove every week. When people try to bring us down, it just fuels us even more, makes that flame even bigger.”
Beam, a two-sport star from Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, is one of two UT freshman pitchers from the midstate area who have been sensational. He has been the Sunday starter, with fellow freshman Chase Burns starting on Friday. Combined, they’re 10-0 and have allowed just seven earned runs. That’s not to mention a combined 70 strikeouts against 15 walks.
Beam pitched sparingly his last two years of high school because of injuries and the 2020 season being canceled because of COVID-19. He said Vanderbilt never showed any real interest.
“They talked to me one or two times, never really recruited me,” Beam said. “I fell in love with this place, so it didn’t really bother me that they didn’t talk to me.”
The Saturday starter for the Vols is Chase Dollander, a Georgia Southern transfer who leads the team with 54 strikeouts. All three weekend starters throw well into the 90s. The Vols’ most talented returning pitcher from a year ago, Blade Tidwell, didn’t pitch this season until Wednesday’s game against Western Carolina after missing the first part of the season with shoulder soreness. Tidwell, a projected first-round MLB draft pick in 2022, says he’s healthy and ready to fill in wherever the Vols need him the rest of the way.
If that’s not enough, redshirt junior Ben Joyce has become an internet sensation. Joyce, in his first season of pitching in games at Tennessee after battling back from Tommy John surgery in 2020, uncorked a pitch earlier this season against South Carolina that was clocked at 104.1 mph. The fastest pitch thrown in Major League Baseball last year was 103.4 mph.
“All I can tell you is that you better not blink,” Tennessee catcher Evan Russell said.
Elite pitching has just been a part of the Vols’ ascent to No. 1. At the plate, Tennessee has been, as one SEC coach said, “scary good.” The Vols lead the country with 66 home runs and have scored 10 or more runs in 15 of their 25 games, including eight or more runs in four of their six SEC contests.
Even guys who aren’t every-day players are coming off the bench and blasting home runs. Freshman Christian Moore is second on the team with eight homers in 41 at-bats, while freshman Blake Burke has four homers in 29 at-bats. Leadoff batter Jared Dickey, who’s been slowed with a bone bruise, has seven home runs. He redshirted a year ago, lost a ton of weight and worked his way into the starting lineup.
“This is the most talent we’ve had in my three years here,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think it’s close. We’re deep and can roll out a bunch of different lineups and compete with anyone.”
Lipscomb, in a lot of ways, epitomizes this Tennessee team. He waited his turn, continued to grind and is now producing in a big way. Prior to this season, Lipscomb had made just 11 starts in his previous three seasons.
“It’s the type of team and family the coaches have built here,” Lipscomb said. “There’s no quit in you, and they’re going to believe in you as long as you believe in yourself. That goes a long way, not only on the baseball field, but in life.”
It’s part of the culture Vitello was determined to create in Knoxville, a culture built on trust and a culture that thrives on inner-team competition.
“The guys who are afraid of competition will be weeded out,” Vitello said. “It will become apparent. We’ve had guys like that since we’ve been here, and some of them have been good players. But for the most part, these kids are fighters. They’ve bought into the ideal that if you stick with what goes on here, you’ll get what you want.”
That includes the three “grandpas” of the team, as Vitello refers to first baseman Luc Lipcius, Russell and Walsh.
Lipcius, who earned a degree in aerospace engineering last year, is in his sixth season in the program along with Walsh. Russell is in his fifth season, and a year ago, was the starting left fielder on the Vols’ College World Series team. But he transitioned to catcher in the offseason to stay in the lineup and open up another spot for the wealth of talented players Vitello has brought into the program.
Russell walked on to the team out of high school back in 2018 during Vitello’s first season and has never received athletic scholarship money. But as an aspiring coach, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I try to view the situation from a coach’s perspective,” said Russell, one of seven players on the team with five or more home runs. “In order to be where we are today, I did not need to have [athletic] scholarship money, so I’m actually thankful for how Coach V handled it. He didn’t let my status as a walk-on prevent me from seeing the field every day.”
It didn’t take Russell long to show Vitello that he belonged on the field. During his freshman season, there was a collision at first base in the Ole Miss game involving former Vol Pete Derkay.
Lipscomb said Vitello has repeated the story several times: that Russell was the only one to come out of the dugout in defense of Derkay.
“The whole thing has flipped since Coach V has been here,” Lipscomb said. “If that happened today, we would all be out of the dugout and having each other’s back, and that just trickles down from Coach V.”
Russell joked: “There would have been a lot of players suspended.”
Perhaps so, but this is a different Tennessee team, one that’s a newcomer to the top of the polls, but a group of players who expected to be here all along.