Full disclosure – I’m biased toward Arkansas baseball play-by-play man Phil Elson. We’ve been friends for close to two decades, and in the fall, you’ll find me on his radio call-in show ‘Halftime’ weekly talking high school football promoting SBLive Sports. But our friendship notwithstanding, Phil is a heckuva broadcaster – MLB-level for sure.
So, it wasn’t surprising to me after I watched the Hogs’ deciding game of the Stillwater Regional and was driving to pick up my son listening to the postgame that Phil dropped a good nugget.
He and color analyst Bubba Carpenter, a former Hog and MLB player, related a story of the pregame where a member of the Oklahoma State grounds crew parked a utility vehicle used to pull out the batting cage. It just so happened it was in front of the Hogs dugout entrance, which made it difficult for the Arkansas players to enter and exit the dugout during batting practice.
The ever-ornery Carpenter tried pushing the vehicle, but the groundskeeper kept moving it back and insisted to Carpenter it had to be parked there.
Well, apparently and not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn. He was more than irritated. I’m thinking he was already at his wits end with some of the on-field antics displayed by freshman Roc Riggio and others, and this passive-aggressive maneuver was the coup d’état.
Arkansas Baseball Gathers Steam
There might have been a time that Van Horn would have made a big stink about such bush league nonsense. Instead, the broadcasters said the incident just fueled the fire to beat the Pokes and move on to the Super Regional against North Carolina.
Feeding off the momentum of an emotional slugfest in Stillwater, Arkansas swept the Tar Heels in Chapel, Hill to capture another College World Series berth. It seemed like an improbable run to some, who had written off the veteran skipper and his club that went ice cold to end the regular season.
It’s puzzling that anyone would count Van Horn out. On a campus filled with quality coaches, who are also good people, Van Horn is the best (Eric Musselman has gotten off to a great start, but doesn’t yet have nearly the same body of work). Van Horn is a great coach and recruiter, sure, but he also knows baseball is a funny game. Being around as long as he has, the 61-year-old knows how to punch the right buttons. The OSU series and Riggio and the stubborn groundskeeper gave him plenty of fodder as did a local radio host who said some shameful things about Hogs senior transfer catcher Michael Turner. Since those comments, Turner has caught fire and so has Arkansas.
Don’t give Van Horn ammunition. He will quietly rally his team. It’s a lesson Arkansas baseball competitors would do well to not forget.
Tennessee Baseball Folded Like a Garishly Orange Tent
And if Hog fans don’t appreciate Van Horn’s ways, maybe watching how Tennessee folded like a tent under former Hogs assistant Tony Vitello may change their minds. Since his hiring in 2017, Vitello has turned the Vols into contenders. They were the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and the favorite to win the title in Omaha.
While Tennessee has been synonymous with winning under Vitello taking the past two SEC East Division titles as well as the SEC crown and tournament title this season, Vitello’s program has also developed a reputation for outlandish behavior. Hogs fans remember last year’s SEC Tournament where Vitello confronted Van Horn and his old boss gave him the business while other Vols players mouthed off.
There has been a string of incidents where either Vitello, his assistants or players, have been tossed from games and Vitello has defended that behavior. There is a swagger that is a part of the program that old-school, baseball purists would bristle at with bat flips and eye black that is worn more like Ultimate Warrior face paint.
“We embrace it. Whether you like us or not, we don’t really care,” Vols center fielder Drew Gilbert told ESPN. “You don’t like us … well, all right, we’re still going to roll the way we roll.”
Price to Pay for Tony Vitello
In the end, all of those antics may have caught up with Vitello and Co., and while they are sitting at home Arkansas and its level-headed leader is playing in Omaha. It is a mystery why Vitello, who learned under Van Horn, would allow such a loosey-goosey atmosphere when the buttoned-up approach has done so well in Fayetteville.
Maybe he thought he needed to get hip to attract big-time recruits, which he has. He’s also 18 years younger than Van Horn and may try to use that relative youth to appeal to recruits, but it appears the cocky attitude caught up with his Tennessee baseball program and their fans who so often like to portray Van Horn as out of touch. Notre Dame, and its terrible blue uniforms, marched into Knoxville and played good, fundamental baseball and pulled the upset.
Now, the Van Horn who in 2003 took over the Arkansas baseball program from his old skipper, Norm DeBriyn, is not the same guy as we see today. Van Horn admitted at a gathering in North Little Rock in 2019 that Van Horn became more mellow after raising children. He does seem more mellow and giving his No. 2 to senior Jalen Battles is proof of that. Dave Van Horn certainly appears to be more of a players’ coach than he used to be.
However, he still stands firm when it comes to principals of the diamond – standing up to umpires and defending his players and holding his players to standards that are held by baseball purists. The tomfoolery that exists in Stillwater and Knoxville isn’t prevalent in the Hogs program. Van Horn can get riled, and he could get tossed, but that happens in baseball. What Van Horn or his team isn’t is cocky. They play good, hard-nosed baseball which trickles down from the longtime coach. Van Horn has had no problem finding talented players who are willing to be reeled in and not prance around the bases or gesture to the opposing dugout or get tossed from games. You might see some bat flips or some fist pumps, and that is something that the younger generation of players enjoy that Van Horn can deal with to an extent.
Van Horn’s silence in Stillwater speaks volumes. He knows that adage that there isn’t anything you can say that is more powerful than beating your opponent. Arkansas made a statement by knocking off two quality teams when it counted most and now has a chance to win a national championship. Tony Vitello may want to take notes.
Does Tony Vitello Live in the Head of Hog Fans?
Some Arkansas baseball fans are accused of being obsessed with Tony Vitello. Some of that is because he is seen as a potential replacement for Dave Van Van Horn one day when Van Horn retires, but he would need to chill out quite a bit and tone down his style some before most fans are happy with that choice.
Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin chimed in with own take on the supposed obssesion on a recent “Ask Mike”: “Most Hog fans remember the grief they took from Tennessee fans after the Vols went to Omaha and Arkansas didn’t last year. Those guys pretty much labeled Arkansas as the winner of two meaningless titles, regular season SEC champs. SEC tournament champs, like it didn’t matter.”
“So this year, those guys are the victim of their own insults because that’s what happened to their team. This season was more than that, though, with these guys from Tennessee. Arkansas fans have no use for the way Tennessee players and coaches behaved this season, but it was more than just them. It happened a lot of places. Like let’s look at some of the responses on social media. George Toler says, “Embarrassed to be a Vols fan.” Again, we needed to call out these fans that continue with unsportsmanlike conduct. That’s one of their own guys.
Bruce Forester from Texas says, “Well, Tennessee, I hope you’re proud of yourself. You shot yourself in the foot and the whole sports world is laughing at you. You had the talent, but lack the character. Take responsibility for your actions and learn from it.”
Essentially, if there is a fixation, it’s happened in more places than in Arkansas. And anybody looking at Tennessee fan message board (God protect your soul) would see signs of a two-way street here.
Dave Van Horn on Tennessee Baseball
On a recent The Paul Finebaum Show interview, Van Horn was asked about Tennessee’s flameout. Baseball’s different from most sports,” he said. “We play a lot of games. And you play to win every game. Sometimes, during the season, you can’t play people or pitch people that you know that if you could pitch or play them you’d have a lot better chance to win. And you end up losing games to people and understand it.”
He continued: “When you get down to the regionals, Super Regionals, anything can happen in a weekend. I think that’s what happened to Tennessee. I mean, they’re very well coached. They have great players. I think they had an unbelievable amount of pressure on ’em, and Notre Dame went in there with an edge and they swung the bats freely and they hit really well and it just happens. So we’ve been on the other end of that and you don’t want to say it’s just baseball, like you mentioned. But in this sport, it happens.”
Brent Birch on Tony Vitello’s Cocky Crew
As much as everyone loves to hate on Tennessee and are celebrating their season ending before Omaha, more talk should be focused on Notre Dame and the stellar job they did winning that series. Despite being such a name brand, The Fighting Irish don’t have much of a baseball tradition. Their last CWS appearance was in 2002 with Paul Manieri, who later won a national championship at LSU, at the helm. Their only other one before that was in 1957. But Notre Dame took a very experienced team into Knoxville and persevered with all the ups and downs of that three game set.
In regards to Tennessee missing out on Omaha despite a completely dominant regular season…it happens. It happened to the Razorbacks last season. It happened to UCLA in 2019. Vandy in 2013 and so on. There is definitely a curse on the national #1 seed as none have won the national championship since Miami did it in 1999. That was the first year of the current format.
The difference between Tennessee baseball team and all those other squads was the blatant chutzpah the Vols exhibited all season. The team, from the coaching staff to the players, was polarizing from the get go and that even carries over into last season when understudy Tony Vitello decided to scream at Dave Van Horn from behind a mask no less). Vitello is a fiery competitor but one has to believe he let his team get away from him and what’s important. You can play the game of baseball and have a lot of fun within the bounds of respecting the game, your opponent and so on. The Vols crossed that line in 2022 and Vitello allowed it. I mean flipping off your opponent as you run the bases… seriously?
I am all for baseball not being this staunch, tradition-ridden sport that can make it unwatchable at times. And I am a lifelong, ardent “baseball guy”. I’m not sure there is a set in stone right way to play the game as that can take on a lot of different amalgamations but there is definitely a clear-cut wrong way. Tennessee pushed it too far in 2022 and the game of college baseball is better off that their sideshow wasn’t put on display for the world to see in Omaha. Which is a shame because they had a very, very good baseball team. All the pieces to win it all…until they didn’t.
I just hope I don’t go see my buddies’ 11 and 12 year old kids play this summer emulating what the Vols displayed this season.
Whether it was karma or the “baseball gods” frowning on Tennessee in the super regionals…who’s to say? But the pressure of the moment when you have that big, huge target on your back is immense. Last season the Hogs weren’t able to handle it and I am confident Dave Van Horn learned something from how last season ended that will serve him and the Razorbacks well in the future. Likely playing a role in this year’s run to Omaha.
If Tony Vitello wants to stick around in this sport and be respected, he may consider going into learning mode as well.
See our latest on Arkansas vs Stanford here: