Arkansas Is Stuck Between Rock and Hard Place with College World Series Outcome

Arkansas baseball fans are having to brace themselves for impact as the College World Series Finals go down to one last game in Omaha.

A new national champion will be crowned tonight, and it’s a fairly nightmare scenario no matter who comes out on top – be it No. 1 Tennessee or No. 3 Texas A&M. Tennessee tied up the series 1-1 on Sunday night with a 4-1 win over the Aggies. They are favored going into tonight’s deciding Game 3 according to a litany of sportsbooks including Tipico online sportsbook.

The Volunteers are trying to break the nearly 25-year curse of the top seed by bringing home the College World Series title after a terrific season that has seen them compile a 59-13 record. That’s the most wins in a single season in program history.

The Aggies, on the other hand, finished second in the SEC West to none other than Arkansas, and bowed out to the Vols in Hoover. Texas A&M, with a 53-14 record, has certainly gotten hot at the right time, though. Until Sunday, it hadn’t lost a game in the NCAA Tournament.

Both teams are loaded from top to bottom with pitching and hitting talent and depth. Everything on paper suggests an excellent championship series – but it’s one that will make many Arkansas fans nauseous.

The No. 5 Razorbacks were eliminated in their own regional for the second year in a row, once again falling short of the goal of delivering the program’s first national title. Neither Texas A&M nor Tennessee have won a championship – meaning that no matter who wins, it will be their first time bringing home college baseball’s ultimate prize.

Including Mississippi State in 2021 and Ole Miss in 2022, this will be the third time in the last four years that Razorback fans will have to watch an SEC rival hoist its first ever national title, beating the Hogs to the punch in doing so. It’s a brutal feeling that has become all too familiar.

Going back a little further, five of the last six national champions have come from the SEC. The lone outlier was the Oregon State Beavers. No reminding of how they won that title is necessary.

This year’s championship series is the Arkansas baseball version of The Matrix’s “red pill or blue pill” dilemma: there’s no truly right answer, but it’s worth diving into. So let’s weigh up the pros and cons to find out which team winning would add more salt in the wound for the Diamond Hogs.

The Case to Root for Texas A&M in Game 3

This one is pretty straightforward, mostly due to the fact that Arkansas and Tennessee fans have been entangled in one of the country’s most hostile baseball rivalries in the last few years. From online Twitter fights to masked postgame arguments on national television, Dave Van Horn and Tony Vitello’s rocky relationship has produced some top-tier drama in the last few years.

This beef, along with Vitello’s brash personality that his Tennessee baseball teams have taken  on, has led many Arkansas fans to despise the Vols. For that reason, many in the Natural State will be hoping for Tennessee’s demise.

However, there’s another reason for rooting against the Volunteers that’s equally petty, and even more selfish from a Razorback perspective – and that’s the prospect of Tony Vitello as the next Arkansas baseball coach after Dave Van Horn retires.

When brainstorming a hypothetical shortlist, the other names that come to mind include pitching coach Matt Hobbs and Georgia head coach Wes Johnson (another former assistant under DVH), but Vitello has by far the most decorated resume out of that group. Having served as Van Horn’s apprentice from 2014-17, he knows the program well – and it wouldn’t be a ground-up rebuild like he’s had to do at Tennessee.

For the Arkansas fans turning up their noses at the thought of Tony V back in Razorback red, I need you to be honest with yourself for a moment. If he was the head coach of Arkansas instead of Tennessee, you would absolutely adore him just like Vol fans do. 

He’s got a fiery personality that folks gravitate toward. He always sticks up for his players and knows how to give a good quip in the press room. And most importantly – he wins. A lot. If you liked Eric Musselman and relished in the fact that everyone else hated him, then you should recognize that Vitello at Arkansas would be the exact same situation.

All of that adds up to a compelling case for Vitello as the next Head Hog. For that reason alone, it’s in Arkansas’ best self interest to root against Tennessee this weekend. Bringing a national title to Knoxville would decrease the motivation for Vitello to leave the program for another job, given he would have already reached the pinnacle of the sport.

If he wins it all for the Volunteers, they’ll build him a statue on Rocky Top. He’ll be known as the face of Tennessee baseball, rather than the guy trying to fill the shoes of Van Horn at Arkansas. But if the Vols’ trophy cabinet keeps missing that final piece, it leaves a door open for a return to Fayetteville.

Arkansas is obviously miles ahead of Tennessee in facilities and prestige. The state-of-the-art stadium and training ground that they’re building for Vitello in Knoxville already exists at Baum-Walker Stadium. There’s also the 22 years worth of previous success under Van Horn (not to mention 33 years before that under Norm DeBriyn) that have made the Razorbacks a national name, compared to just a few years of dominance under Vitello at Tennessee.

If the Volunteers are victorious this weekend, the reasons for Vitello to move dwindle. If Texas A&M wins, that door remains open. For that reason, Hog fans might need to swallow their pride and root for the Aggies.

Tye Richardson offered a similar perspective on ESPN Arkansas’ The Morning Rush on Thursday. He said that while it hurts his soul to root for Texas A&M, he thinks it’s the better scenario for Arkansas.

“I think you know my hatred for this school in College Station, even more prevalent than the one in Austin, Texas,” Richardson said. “Do you know how painful it is for me to cheer for a team in maroon and white? It’s going against every fiber of my being.

“I’d rather have A&M win. I want to see the SEC West streak continue…and I don’t think Arkansas fans can come to grips with a Dave Van Horn assistant getting the national championship before him. I think that pain is a little closer to the heart.”

Richardson is right. For entirely selfish reasons, Hog fans should hope that Vitello doesn’t beat Van Horn to the punch in winning the College World Series.

The Case to Root for Tennessee

The first reason why Texas A&M winning would be harder to stomach for Razorback fans is admittedly a bit petty. While Tennessee has a tendency to be a bit in-your-face with its particular style of winning, that’s nothing compared to the bizarre state of Aggie baseball, and Texas A&M as a whole.

Everybody knows at this point about the incredibly cringe-worthy yell leaders that cosplay as military members at the football games, but that weirdness has made its way to the baseball team, as well.

From strange chants and bubbles to grown men dressed as Teletubbies to match their star player’s nickname, College Station is a downright strange place. Rewarding this collective idiocy with a national title just doesn’t feel right.

Cult-like cringe aside, there’s an important on-field reason for Arkansas to not want Texas A&M to win, as well. That has to do with recruiting the Lone Star State, something that Van Horn relies on quite a bit when he’s building his teams.

You might have heard of a couple of pitchers named Hagen Smith and Kevin Kopps. Those guys came from the fruitful grounds of Texas high school baseball. Other key Razorbacks from that pipeline include Heston Kjerstad, Jalen Battles, Hudson White, Dominic Taccolini, Trevor Stephan and more. Additionally, there’s plenty of blue-chip Texas tennagers who signed with Arkansas but ended up getting drafted and never making it to Fayetteville.

Texas A&M baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle being able to boast a national title that Arkansas doesn’t possess would make those key recruiting battles in the Aggies’ home state much more competitive, and the weakening of that Lone Star pipeline would make the Hogs’ pursuit of a national championship of their own that much harder.

Tommy Craft, co-host of The Morning Rush alongside Richardson, played the role of devil’s advocate on supporting the Volunteers.

“To me, it’s easy. You root for Tennessee,” he said.

Richardson said that he thinks the sight of Vitello winning a title before Van Horn will hurt a lot of Arkansas fans, but Craft argued that the recruiting aspect is more important than the emotional side of things.

“I don’t think anyone’s dying on that hill,” Craft replied. “I just think from a regionality standpoint, where you’re competing a little more for athletes moving forward, I would much rather have Tennessee win.

“Tennessee is growing in this direction, they recruit nationally. But I don’t think it helps you in Texas to have A&M have anything to brag about. I think from a Razorback standpoint, you’re wiser to not let anything good get started in College Station.”

Craft is right in the sense that a more formidable Texas A&M baseball program would present another hurdle that Van Horn won’t want to have to deal with.

Orange Pill or Maroon Pill?

Richardson added that while the regional recruiting landscape would be more challenging with a Texas A&M triumph, the Hogs would be alright in that regard because of the reputation that they’ve built up over the years.

“That does make sense to me, but I think Arkansas baseball is surpassing regionality. I think they recruit more nationally,” he said. “I also think about the timeline post-Dave. If Tony wins a national championship or two in Tennessee, why is he going to go to Arkansas?”

The two hosts joked that the most preferable outcome would actually be a natural disaster that prevented anybody from winning, a morbid “none of the above” option that would certainly save Razorback Nation some pain.

It comes down to whether Arkansas fans should prioritize short-term recruiting gains or the long-term opportunity to hire arguably the best college baseball coach in the country to succeed Van Horn. 

Of course, all of this is hypothetical. No matter what, the sting of defeat will be worsened by the sight of an orange- or maroon-clad conference rival getting to experience the Omaha triumph that Arkansas has coveted for so long. The only thing Hog fans can hope for is whoever they perceive to be the lesser of two evils to prevail.

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See BoAS’ latest on Arkansas baseball here:

Watch the full episode of The Morning Rush with Tye Richardson and Tommy Craft:

If you can stomach it, here’s some highlights from the CWS so far…

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More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS:

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