Coming to Grips with Death of Arkansas’ ‘Prodigal Son’ Succession Plan

Tony Vitello, Dave Van Horn, Arkansas baseball, Tennessee baseball, Arkansas vs Tennessee
photo credit: Tennessee Athletics / Craven Whitlow

It’s happened, folks. Hell has frozen over – Tennessee baseball won a College World Series title before Arkansas.

Razorback Nation’s worst nightmare came true Monday night as the Volunteers won the last two games of the CWS Finals against Texas A&M to take home their first national title in program history. It’s not like the Aggies winning would have been much better, but Tennessee’s triumph stings Arkansas for a number of reasons.

If you ask a fan in Baum-Walker Stadium who the Diamond Hogs’ four biggest rivals are, they would likely point to Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. That list also happens to spell out the programs who have won the last four national titles, in that order. Making matters worse is the fact that three of those four teams – excluding LSU – secured their program’s first CWS title, beating Arkansas to the finish line in doing so.

Going back a few more years throws even more salt in the wound. The 2018 CWS Finals saw the Razorbacks suffer, without exaggeration, one of the worst choke jobs in sports history with the infamous foul-territory debacle that allowed Oregon State to come back and break the Hogs’ hearts. In 2017 and 2019,  two other SEC teams lifted the trophy in Florida and Vanderbilt, respectively.

When you tally it up, that’s six of the last seven national championships going to SEC foes, with the lone outlier year seeing the Razorbacks as runners-up. Funnily enough, the last four years have seen seven of eight CWS finalists come from the SEC, with the only exception being Oklahoma, who is joining the conference this year:

This graphic puts it all on display, and exposes the Razorbacks as the culprits of ruining what should be a seven-year SEC stranglehold on the national title.

It’s an absolute gut punch for a fanbase that has craved a national title for so long. Seven trips to Omaha, eight SEC division titles and nearly 900 victories under head coach Dave Van Horn – yet none of his 22 seasons in charge of the Razorbacks have ended with a victory dogpile.

Who else to rub in the sting of that elusive missing trophy but Van Horn’s former assistant and current rival, Tony Vitello. The St. Louis native won the ultimate prize in just his seventh season as a head coach.

Van Horn’s Student Becomes the Master

Vitello took over as head coach at Tennessee in 2018, departing his role on the Arkansas staff after four seasons in Fayetteville. He spent the first couple of years rebuilding the relatively dormant program in Knoxville, laying a foundation for future success.

Sure enough, that fruit came to bear after the pandemic. The Vols burst onto the national scene in 2021 with a CWS appearance, their first in 16 years. They followed it up with a rampage in 2022, winning 57 games en route to an SEC regular season and tournament title and a No. 1 national seed – but they were upset by Notre Dame in the Super Regional.

2023 saw a return to Omaha, where they went 0-2 on the big stage and were sent home. On Monday night, however, Tennessee made it to the summit of college baseball, and broke the infamous curse of the No. 1 seed in doing so – a hex Arkansas fell victim to in 2021.

Van Horn has been a college head coach since the 1990s. In fact, he took the Arkansas job in 2002 – the same year that Vitello finished his undergrad at Missouri. The now 45-year-old Vitello, 18 years younger than DVH and with a fraction of the head coaching experience, has already beaten his former boss to the finish line. 

Judging by recent comments from the two skippers, it appears their arguments from the last few seasons are mostly water under the bridge. At Monday’s press conference, Vitello made sure to thank Van Horn and Arkansas for helping make him the coach he is today.

Van Horn said on SEC Radio back in April that most of their previous beef was based on recruiting disputes, with the two programs recruiting the same players after Vitello left Arkansas.  The Head Hog clarified that he was back on good terms with his former assistant and the pair even hung out together in Nashville at one point, channeling Vitello’s Italian roots to squash the beef.

“Tony and I took a couple of funny little pictures together like we were in a boxing match or strangling each other, just goofing around. We’re fine,” he said. “He got me, I got back at him, then we went and had a glass of red wine, okay? So we’re good.”

Regardless of that rekindling, the sight of Tony V as a national champion is sure to make Arkansas fans sick to their stomachs after the events of the last few years.

Vitello’s Victory Kills Arkansas Baseball’s Succession Plan

A lot of the impatience around Arkansas’ pursuit of a national title revolves around the recognition that, at 63 years old, Van Horn isn’t getting any younger. Some coaches retire earlier than others, and the Arkansas skipper hasn’t given any indication he’ll hang it up soon. But at his age, he doesn’t have that many years left in the tank – whether he’d like to admit that or not.

With that in mind, there’s a constant discourse around Arkansas baseball circles of who’s on deck as the successor to the legendary head coach. The common names brought up by fans mostly include current and former Van Horn assistants for the sake of continuity. 

Pitching coach Matt Hobbs and Georgia head coach Wes Johnson, who was previously in charge of Arkansas’ hurlers, are usually candidates thrown out there.

But the man at the top of that list – and the most controversial one, as well – is none other than Tony Vitello.

Vitello turning the Volunteers into a national juggernaut has been quite the surprise given the state of Tennessee baseball when he took over. Tennessee’s previously-mentioned CWS run in 2005? That was the last time the Vols appeared in the NCAA Tournament, or even posted a winning record in conference play, until Vitello’s tenure.

Because of that, there’s been grumblings in the last few years around the country, and particularly in Arkansas, that Vitello might eventually entertain the opportunity to leave Tennessee and move to a more traditional baseball powerhouse.

The prospect of Vitello taking over at Arkansas after Van Horn’s retirement mirrors a baseball version of the TV show “Succession”, but the Volunteers’ triumph in Omaha means the pipe dream of Van Horn’s “number one boy” coming home is likely dead.

He just proved he could win it all at Tennessee, so what’s the point of moving to Arkansas? Vitello is going to get a statue on Rocky Top one day. He will always be known as the guy who led the Volunteers to the promised land. 

He’s become a legend in Knoxville in his own right, so why would he ever want to leave that behind just to come to Fayetteville and be the guy trying to fill Van Horn’s shoes?

Tennessee Baseball Catching Up With the Competition

When discussing Vitello’s motivation for a hypothetical move to Arkansas, a lot of that conversation hinged on the gap in facilities between the two programs. The idea was that the top-tier facilities in Fayetteville would give him a leg up on the competition and raise his ceiling as a coach, thus making it an appealing destination.

Unfortunately, it looks like that ship will have sailed by the time Van Horn retires. While Tennessee has long prioritized football with its resources, there are some very deep pockets on Rocky Top. Vitello’s success on the diamond garnered attention and motivation to bring the baseball program’s infrastructure up to par. The school’s baseball facility, for example, has recently undergone renovations.

“More work was completed to enhance player amenities underneath the stadium during the 2022 offseason,” the University’s website states. “Tennessee’s locker room was completely redone, highlighted by the addition of brand new, state-of-the-art lockers for all players.”

The weight room and scouting department was also overhauled to give the Volunteers the amenities they deserved. Additionally, the athletic department has already broken ground on renovations of Lindsey Nelson Stadium that are set to be complete in the next few years.

While it won’t reach the quality or capacity of Baum-Walker Stadium and the brand-new Hunt Development Center in right field, these upgrades certainly narrow the perceived gap between Arkansas and Tennessee.

As for the recruiting front, Vitello is already holding his own and then some. The Volunteers are bringing in the nation’s top-ranked class this offseason, and look set to bring in a third consecutive top-five group in 2025. Simply put, he’s not having any issues there.

Tennessee has exploded onto the scene as a national name. Any difference in facilities or recruiting that Vitello might gain with a move to Arkansas are marginal, at best, and have shrunk in the last few years. He also has, you know, a national title to flex that Arkansas does not, which is sure to boost his future recruiting endeavors.

The Daunting Prospect of a Lifetime of Vitello in Knoxville

The thrill of winning a championship in a major team sport is an extremely emotional moment. 

Note: This is an Arkansas sports outlet and thus I can’t personally attest to title-winning feelings, but I’m just assuming based on what I’ve heard.

In such moments, people tend to say crazy things. One of those came last night – and no, I’m not talking about Vitello accidentally saying, “Holy s***,” to the entire stadium on a national television hot mic.

It was Tennessee pitcher Zander Sechrist, who started on the bump in Monday’s win, who made headlines with a call to action for Tennessee’s athletic director.

Oh boy. Lifetime contracts in sports get a lot of spotlight and ridicule, and understandably so. Marriage arrangements in a volatile industry like college coaching frequently end poorly. 

Just ask Kentucky basketball, whose rolling lifetime contract with head coach John Calipari put the Wildcats in quite the financial predicament when postseason results turned sour – until Arkansas and John Tyson swooped in to bail them out.

But Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara argues that in this case, a lifetime contract for Vitello might actually be warranted. O’Gara notes that at just 45 years old, Vitello brings an incredibly rare combination of youth and proven success to the table. That sets the Vols up to potentially dominate college baseball for a long time.

He’s the definition of a player’s coach, he understands the modern landscape of college athletics and, most importantly, he wins a lot of baseball games.

Locking up a coach like that is a no-brainer. He’s already the highest-paid coach in the SEC – yet another reason why there’s no point in him coming to Arkansas – so it’s just a matter of keeping him happy with the resources he needs to reload the team.

The idea of Vitello staying in Knoxville for years to come is a daunting one for Arkansas, who will have to continue to deal with the Volunteers’ in-your-face style of play. But hey, when you win championships, you can do what you want.

Ship Has Sailed on Vitello to Arkansas

At the end of the day, Tony V is a fiery personality and an intense competitor. While it’s impossible to know what exactly is on his mind, you have to think the satisfaction of having built his own juggernaut is something he relishes. It’s hard to see him leaving that behind to go somewhere else.

Continuing to build on that success in Knoxville with the full support of the athletic department is the most likely future for Vitello, which means Arkansas will have to look elsewhere for the next Head Hog. Certainly, that was also the case for Texas, which has reportedly had to settle for Jim Schlossnagle.

Unfortunately, it seems the Razorbacks have missed the window on their master plan, as Van Horn’s apprentice has gone out on his own and quickly overtaken his former boss by stealing the mantle of the sport’s best head coach.

Whether Van Horn ever held that crown to begin with is a topic for another day, but it’s indisputable now that Vitello and the Tennessee Volunteers are the new kings of college baseball.

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Highlights from Tennessee’s Game 3 victory over Texas A&M, if you can bear to watch it:

Tony Vitello’s viral speech on the definition of success after Tennessee won its Super Regional a few weeks ago:

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More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS:

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