The Beatles needed the Stones, Nolan Richardson needed Tom Penders, Eric Musselman needs Nate Oats and everyone needs Bruce Pearl and John Calipari. Even Michael Jordan needed…well, he just made stuff up about other players and coaches who “might” have provided some bulletin board material he could use to go drop 40 on them.
The point is, at a certain level, almost everybody in the sports world needs a villain to fire them up. And when that villain used to be part of your team, bring on World War III. The No. 1 villain for Arkansas baseball fans will be in Fayetteville this weekend, as the Tennessee Volunteers come to town. The recent history of Arkansas vs Tennessee gives fans plenty of reason to see what the next chapter may be in this series.
The last few chapters are scalding hot thanks to Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello, who conveniently enough used to be a Hog. He coached under Saint Van Horn as an assistant in Fayetteville from 2014-17.
Vitello was a good guy back then. Now? He sucks!!!
The Budding Arkansas vs Tennessee Rivalry
No seriously, all kidding aside, he really does. Sure, he’s been successful. In fact, he’s been very successful. When he left Arkansas to be the head Vol in Knoxville, he started slow. He put together just 26 SEC wins against 34 losses in his first two years.
Over the last two years, though, the Tennessee baseball team won 45 conference games and lost just 15. Vitello went to Omaha in 2021 and a Super Regional in 2022, when they were the unquestioned No. 1 team most of the season.
However, it’s not postseason play that Hog fans think about when they think about a former Hog assistant. The story is not about a former Hog coach who learned the lessons of winning baseball under a winner.
Nope, what has come to overshadow all that is what went down with Tony Vitello the last time these two teams squared off in a weekend series, when his Vols dropped a series to Van Horn’s Hogs in Knoxville two years ago. In wake of the rubber match loss, Vitello made national news.
How does a coach make national news in a loss? If you’re talking about college baseball, it’s simple. You mouth off to a legend and you come away looking like a sore loser. That’s exactly what Vitello did when he had words for the Patron Saint of Bats, Bases and Balls, Dave Van Horn. This would be like Lane Kiffin mouthing off to Nick Saban after losing to ‘Bama in Tuscaloosa and going on to play in the CFP.
The actual disagreement apparently had something to do with recruiting and some other “off-the-field” issues. However, it was clear that Vitello was in the wrong, because…well, he’s not a Hog.
For Saint Van Horn’s part, he says he thinks “we’re okay.” But apparently Vitello is not okay with everyone, including his own University of Tennessee. He was suspended and not allowed to coach his team during a three-game series against Dayton earlier this season. Tennessee issued a statement saying that suspension was about addressing “a violation in the program.” Hmmmm?
Why Tony Vitello is Actually Great
So, how *should* Arkansas baseball fans really feel about Tony Vitello? As if I didn’t already show my hand with all that villain talk above, he’s great! Let’s delve deeper into why.
Consider baseball is the No. 3 revenue generating sport at almost every school and if it’s not, it’s probably because the school doesn’t have a football program. And with all due respect to college baseball fans nationwide, most people don’t pay that much attention to baseball when it comes right down to it. There’s a reason it’s No. 3.
Let’s face it, you either come from a baseball family, or you don’t. You either know why the top of the inning is called the “top” rather than the “bottom” or you don’t. You either know what constitutes a “balk,” or you don’t.
Personally, I usually write about football and basketball, and I don’t know squat about baseball. I can’t name any other baseball coach in the SEC, or college baseball for that matter. I don’t come from a baseball family. However, I know Tony Vitello’s name and that’s why he’s “great.”
In fact, I shouldn’t even dislike Tennessee. They offered me a spot as a preferred walk-on to kick footballs back in the ‘80s, when Arkansas did not. But that was a long time ago when “Flock of Seagulls” was a popular band, so to Hell with Tennessee.
Most Hog fans can surely point to Phil Fulmer’s time there, as well as Bruce Pearl’s, and figure out why there’s no love lost between Arkansas and Tennessee, but when their baseball coach mouths off at his former boss who just happens to not only be a Hog, but a legend who undoubtedly must have made him a better head coach, well…that’s just a bridge too far.
Looking Ahead to this Weekend
The Vols will come limping into Fayetteville worse than Tiger limped out of the Masters. Despite a unanimous top-20 ranking, they’re fifth in the East with a conference record below .500 at 5-7.
Arkansas, on the other hand, is No. 5 in the country and leads the West at 8-4. They just won a series in Oxford for the second time in as many trips down there and followed it up with a crushing 21-5 win over Little Rock on Tuesday night. Sure, they then lost 11-4 on Wednesday, but a lot of backups and reserves saw the field.
Still, don’t let the hot start fool you. “The greatest trick the Devil ever played on the world was making the world believe he didn’t exist.”
With all apologies to the Sun Devils of Arizona State, for Arkansas fans, they can view Tony Vitello as the Devil of Baseball. He’s evil to the core as far as Hog fans should be concerned.
They should find it easy to show up and help their team not only win this series, but make sure Vitello knows he’s not welcome here. As they say in literature, “You can’t go home again.”
Arkansas vs Tennessee: How to Watch
The Hogs lead the Arkansas vs Tennessee series 39-28 all-time, including a 19-10 record in games played in Fayetteville. Under head coach Dave Van Horn, the Razorbacks are 27-14 overall against the Volunteers, including a 12-5 mark at home.
The Hogs have not dropped a regular-season weekend series against the Volunteers since 2005, Van Horn’s third season at the helm of the program. Arkansas, which has not lost a series to Tennessee in Fayetteville since 1996, most recently swept the Vols at Baum-Walker Stadium in 2019, the last time the two programs met on the diamond in Fayetteville. – via Razorback Communications
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