The parallels between Tennessee’s baseball team and the 1995 squad are striking.
To reach this point, both teams performed the mandatory act of reviving dormant programs. Like before, a young, aggressive coach is manning the helm. Lindsey Nelson Stadium, which filled up during the ’95 postseason, will be packed again this weekend when the Vols host LSU in a Super Regional, beginning on Saturday night.
The similarities don’t preclude some significant differences, though, between now and then.
Here’s some thoughts:
Football vacuum: Tennessee is on its sixth football coach since 1995. The Vols have had the most players (25) exit via the transfer portal of any Power 5 program since Oct. 1 of last year.
The ongoing turnover associated with the athletic department’s signature program has left a cavernous void. In the meantime, none of the university’s other major sports have been able to fill it adequately.
Men’s basketball made the best effort, sharing the SEC regular season championship in 2017-18 and reaching the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 round the following season. But then COVID intervened and the Vols regressed last season. Their recruiting has suggested another surge is coming soon. But it’s not here yet.
Right now, center stage belongs to baseball.
Pandemic: Baseball’s season has coincided with the easing of attendance restrictions related to the pandemic.
Fans have been waiting to re-engage. Having a successful team to support has fed their yearning.
They didn’t want to leave after Drew Gilbert’s walk-off grand slam against Wright State in the regional opener last Friday.
If LSU thought the atmosphere was hostile for a three-game series here at the end of March, the Tigers might have another thought about the return trip.
The Vitello factor: The Vols won 54 games and advanced to the College World Series in 1995 under coach Rod Delmonico. The victory total was nearly double the 28 wins Tennessee had in Delmonico’s first season in 1990. He’s been a resource for current Vols coach Tony Vitello.
I don’t imagine Delmonico suggested that Vitello do a forward roll into a postgame team huddle, however. Along with the gymnastics, he also climbed into the stands to celebrate with fans following last Sunday’s regional-clinching victory over Liberty.
Those acts called to mind former men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl. Regardless of how his era ended, many fans still relate to the aura of excitement that Pearl helped create. Vitello is recalling that feeling.
Super Regional: There was no such thing as this weekend in 1995. There were eight regionals, which played out like marathons, and the winners advanced to the College World Series.
This format gives the baseball tournament more of a March Madness-like feel. The extra week of competition creates more drama. It’s even better for Tennessee, which is hosting both weekends.
This weekend, the streets around the stadium will be cordoned off for fans to populate. It might look and feel something like a football Saturday in June. That would be different.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org