Dan Fleser: Late Night Call To Vitello Was Prelude To Vols Baseball Reawakening

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

Tony Vitello was wide awake in the wee hours of a spring morning in 2017, watching the movie “Tombstone,” when his phone rang.

Vitello’s attention was being redirected from – in this critic’s opinion – one of the all-time great guy movies to a matter of greater importance. Then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie was calling.

Thus began the process that converted the former Arkansas assistant into Tennessee’s head coach.

Vitello, in turn, has initiated the resurgence of a dormant program.

Life resembled art last Saturday night when Kirby Connell pitched the final three innings of a 5-4 victory over Florida. Connell erupted with joy with the game’s final called strike, which clinched a fourth consecutive SEC baseball series victory for the Vols. It was the first time that had happened since 1970.

Tennessee has risen to No. 5 nationally in the DIBaseball rankings. The Vols (28-6, 9-3 SEC) face No. 2 Vanderbilt beginning Thursday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in a series that ought to be brimming with drama.

Connell, the Vols’ sophomore left-hander, has a swashbuckling presence. He sports a distinctive mustache, which calls to mind one of the Tombstone movie’s most iconic characters. Val Kilmer played Doc Holliday in the Western and had similar facial grooming. He had one of the movie’s best lines (I’m your Huckleberry) and was central to one of the best scenes (a duel with pistolero Johnny Ringo).

Connell has resisted his mother’s pleas to shave the mustache. During a postgame interview on the Vol Network, he said teammate Redmond Walsh has supplied mustache wax and is encouraging him to curl the ends.

Former Vol Chris Burke worked the SEC Network broadcast of last Saturday’s game and was focusing more on Connell’s pitching than his manscaping. Burke said on Wednesday that Connell makes up for any lack of velocity with fortitude.

“There’s a conviction and a belief in his (pitching) offerings,” Burke said.

During the broadcast, Burke said Connell called to his mind former teammate Will Curtiss from the 2001 team that advanced to the College World Series.

Curtis didn’t look anything like Connell. I covered that team and recalled him as a quiet, unassuming sort. The resemblance was his pitching. Although Curtiss’ repertoire was understated, he got outs. He became a key reliever for a team that didn’t have much pitching depth and still won 48 games.

Overall, Burke said the 2001 Vols were not understated. They had a lot of moxie and it enhanced how they competed.

“I always joke that if Twitter and Instagram were around (then) some of our guys would’ve been superstars,” he said.

Burke and his former teammates communicate regularly these days via a text threat. He said the alums are getting into the current team. They can watch via the SEC Network and other viewing outlets that weren’t available when they played.

Perhaps they’re noticing a resemblance. Burke has and it will serve them better than any likeness to a movie character.


“I think this team plays with a ton of personality,” he said.



Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

PHOTOS: Lookouts Host Trash Pandas Friday Night

Flames Win In Gulf South Tournament

Randy Smith: Fool Me Once

The Lee bats came alive on Friday morning in the opening round of the Gulf South Conference Baseball Championship being played at the Choccolocco Park. The Flames pounded out 13 hits in the 8-3 ... (click for more)

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." That's an expression we've all heard at one time or another. Tennessee football fans are among the many people who have been fooled more ... (click for more)


PHOTOS: Lookouts Host Trash Pandas Friday Night

Flames Win In Gulf South Tournament

The Lee bats came alive on Friday morning in the opening round of the Gulf South Conference Baseball Championship being played at the Choccolocco Park. The Flames pounded out 13 hits in the 8-3 victory over Auburn Montgomery. "It was a great start to our tournament. We got solid pitching performance from (Logan) Workman, solid defense, and clutch hitting throughout the line-up. ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Red Bank Commissioners Still In Major Fuss; City Attorney Stulce Upset About Allegations Of "Illegal" Meeting

A special called meeting of the Red Bank Commission on Friday was contentious from the start. Mayor Hollie Berry and Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton contend that a vote for a contract to retain Tim Thornbury on an on-call basis at the April 26 meeting was not legal because the city had no representation present. City Attorney Arnold Stulce has recused himself from matters concerning ... (click for more)

Parade And Luncheon Highlight Armed Forces Celebration

Sunny skies and perfect weather made for a crowd friendly 72nd annual Armed Forces Parade down Market Street Friday morning – although it was briefer and with fewer marching bands than in years past. And a bright future was predicted as well for America’s security by the Armed Forces celebration luncheon speaker, Congressman Mark Green of Tennessee, despite the admitted challenges ... (click for more)


Ron Swafford Has Had An Outstanding Career

It has been a pleasure working with Ron Swafford in City Court. Ron has done a great job and has had an outstanding career. During the pandemic Ron and his staff worked tirelessly and courageously to keep the wheels on, even while in court proceedings were cancelled. During our working relations, Ron and I have become good friends. He is a good man with a fine family. I ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Saturday Funnies

The best giggle came this week when Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher – feeling his oats -- told a bunch of Aggie boosters he promised he would beat Nick Saban while Nick was still coaching football at Alabama. The media wags could hardly wait for Saban’s reaction and his calm two-word reply was so classic it is still being chiseled in granite somewhere: “In golf?” This ... (click for more)