At last, Tennessee is on Rocky Top after winning its first MCWS title

OMAHA, Neb. — Tennessee. Baseball school.

On Friday, three days before his Volunteers won their first-ever Men’s College World Series championship via a hot-as-Hades, suddenly-too-tight-late 6-5 Game 3 win over Texas A&M, head coach Tony Vitello was taken aback when a question about his school’s 0-for-forever title Omaha drought framed Tennessee as “baseball school.”

“First of all, I appreciate you calling us a baseball school,” he said on the eve of Tennessee’s second MCWS finals appearance and first since 1951. “But I think we’re an everything school.”

Fair enough. It is. Always has been. The school of Peyton Manning, who was in attendance in “Omaha!” on Monday night, sitting alongside Vols football and basketball coaches Josh Heupel and Rick Barnes. The school of Pat Summitt, the coach who pushed women’s basketball into the stratosphere where it lives today. The alma mater of Todd Helton, just elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January. Ernie and Bernie, Alan Houston, Johnny Majors, Reggie White … it’s a list of all-time sports greats as long as the Tennessee River.

But Manning, the most famous of the school’s four Heisman Trophy runner-up finishers, also came up one game short of a national title, losing badly to the Big Red Nebraska school just down the road from where he sat Monday night. Heupel has the Vols moving the football, but admittedly still has work to do. Barnes got his Vols to the Elite Eight in April, but that’s as high as they have reached under his guidance. Helton led his baseball squad to Omaha in 1995, but it had to settle for third.

So good. Seemingly always so good in everything at an everything school, with a building full of conference titles, but rarely quite great enough to win it all. The school’s last national championship had come in 2009, when the women’s track and field team followed up Summitt’s eighth and last trophy the year before, seven years before her cruel, too-early passing. Those 1998 BCS National Championship bumper stickers, the last natty won by a Tennessee men’s team, had long ago faded from bright orange to a pale shade of pain.

Until Monday night. When a Big Orange championship cavalry rode across a green field on the edge of Great Plains to finally hoist one of those monolithic wooden NCAA national championship trophies.

And it was the baseball team.

“I think that’s the best part,” said fifth-year Tennessee pitcher Kirby Connell. The reliever, known as Vollie Fingers because of his handlebar mustache, had just run in from the bullpen amid a chant of “Kir-by! Kir-by!” from the elated orange-clad fans. “They said our stadium wasn’t big enough and we would never get crazy SEC crowds like other places or win the big ones, but these folks over here stuck with us. They’ve made all that happen. They believed and so did we.”

In defense of those who weren’t in a hurry to jump on the Tennessee baseball bandwagon, there wasn’t much of a reason to risk jumping on that caboose. This was a program that lost that ’51 Series via an upset by Oklahoma and then didn’t make it back until Helton’s team 44 years later. After a pair of visits in ’01 and ’05, it lost its Road to Omaha map for another 16 seasons. But this year was its third visit in four years. The one year it missed, 2022, was in devastating fashion, as the nation’s top team lost at home in the NCAA tournament to Notre Dame.

The other two Omaha trips ended too quickly. The third ended as the last team standing. All while being forced to watch seemingly every other team in the conference come home from Nebraska each June with rings.

“They had been knocking on the door the last few years, been right there, and I’ve lived that,” Manning said on the field, having just hugged it out with Vitello as the confetti cannons started firing behind him. “But what would you rather do? Be someone who loses or be knocking on the door and have it hurt really bad? Which it has. That means you’re doing something right.”

All those others who had also lived that were on full excruciating display in the concourse of Charles Schwab Field in the closing innings of Monday night’s game. Hundreds of orange-clad fans paced the concourse nervously after every single pitch, a few crouched down against the wall, nearly in a fetal position, eyes closed and only able to listen to the game that they had traveled a third of the way across the country to watch.

“I have a seat, but I just can’t be down there, man,” said Drew Toth of Chattanooga, wringing his hands and rocking back and forth as he talked. “Look at us, everyone pacing around back here. We’ve got that PTSD, man.”

Tennessee started the eighth inning with a 6-1 lead, having just doubled that advantage with a three-run seventh. Then the Aggies singled. There were two wild pitches. Another single. A double. The eighth ended with a 6-3 lead.

“Dammit! Do not do this to us!” shouted a woman in a “We Back Pat” t-shirt featuring a portrait of Summitt.

“Get the hell away from that table! You’re gonna jinx this!” barked a man in a Todd Helton Tennessee No. 5 jersey, pointing to a group of fellow Tennessee fans who were already lined up at the souvenir stand, eager to purchase the first of the official national champion apparel that was waiting in sealed boxes, visible around the corner.

In the ninth, A&M opened with a double. Another wild pitch. Another single. A balk? ANOTHER WILD PITCH. It was 6-5.

A gentleman in his 2023 Sweet 16 t-shirt quietly stood up, and walked away to heaven knows where. He just knew that his previous location wasn’t working.

Then, finally, 1951, 1998, blown No. 1 rankings, lost Heismans, horribly timed injuries, worse-timed tantrums, all those almost-dids and get-’em-next-times. They vanished into the Big Orange ether.

Then, as quickly as they had started cheering, many of the Tennessee fans started spotting the crestfallen folks in Texas A&M gear who solemnly headed for the gates, still seeking their first-ever MCWS title and their first men’s national championship of any kind since 2009. The same scene played out on the field and in the tunnels after the game, where multiple Vols players ran over to console their SEC foes.

“You have to get close first to get over the hump,” said UT outfielder Dylan Drieling, who earned Most Outstanding Player honors after going 2-2 with a homer, a double and three RBIs. He was asked what he’d told the Aggies. The sophomore said it’s the same thing Tennessee has spent the past five years telling itself, as it chipped away with each visit — and heartbreaking lack of visits — to Omaha. “Nothing makes you focus more than being that close and not closing it out. And closing it out feels pretty great.

So, let’s get back that original question about program identity, shall we?

“Are we a baseball school?” Vitello said, laughing, remembering the conversation on Friday, and then looking around to acknowledge Heupel and Barnes, with whom he’d just posed for a photo. “Nah, we’re still an everything school. That’s why those guys were here and all these people were here.”

“Tony has shown us all the way,” Manning added. “But this won’t be the last. And I’m not just talking about baseball. Tennessee is coming.”


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