Tennessee baseball coach Tony Vitello should know better than to cross his former boss, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn.
After all, Van Horn is known for his intense nature, especially on the diamond. Vitello made a major mistake when he apparently took a jab at Van Horn following Arkansas’ 3-2 road win Sunday afternoon which kept the No. 1 Hogs perfect in series this season.
That should have been the main story.
Instead, Vitello, who served on Van Horn’s staff from 2014-17 said something in frustration as the two coaching staffs met following the game. For around three minutes, Vitello, looking for all the world like a tablecloth clad in a Vols checkered face covering, and Van Horn talked.
It didn’t take long for the veteran Razorbacks baseball coach to express his displeasure. Since most of Vitello’s face wasn’t visible on television, it appeared that he was just taking the tongue lashing. Soon assistants from each staff got between the two coaches and herded them off to their respective clubhouses.
Van Horn was as riled as Hogs fans have seen him in a while. If this is how treats a former staffer on whom he’d lavished praise just a few days before, I’d hate to see what he’d say to an opponent he dislikes.
Afterward, Vitello admitted he had “brought up some off-the-field stuff.”
“Probably poor timing on my choice,” he added during a postgame Zoom meeting with media members.
Yeah, a really bad idea, especially when the conversation seemed to going well initially according to Vitello.
“He had some things to say, thought we did a good job and it was an excellent series and all that,” Vitello said.
So let me get this straight, Tony, your former boss complements your team after you go toe-to-toe with his team, which is ranked No. 1 in the country, and you choose that moment to get something off your chest?
Or are you just that emotionally unstable that you can’t hide the frustrations of a loss?
It seems clear Van Horn’s intentions were pure as the two men met initially.
When Van Horn began his coaching career, two staffs, even if friendly, may not have exchanged pleasantries after a game. Times have changed. Players and coaches alike in all sports seem to have embraced the “once the game is over we can be friends” mantra.
Sometimes, that’s refreshing. It means we both give it our best shots, and after the game we can shake hands and visit if we want without it looking like we are fraternizing.
That definitely appeared what Van Horn set out to do — to give his former protégée a little credit and give him the proverbial pat on the butt and leave it at that.
However, something triggered Van Horn’s “old school” side, and the conversation took a decidedly different turn.
After the game, Van Horn seemed a little bit surprised and miffed the media wanted to talk about the exchange immediately. The Arkansas baseball skipper was maybe hoping to answer a few questions about his team’s gritty win and the continued dominance of relief pitcher Kevin Kopps.
Still, Dave Van Horn took the high road.
“Tony is a really good guy, and he is a really good coach,” Van Horn said. “It could have been something that was going on during game. It could have been about recruiting. It could be about a lot of things. You could probably pick one of (those) or all three.”
“That is between me and Tony.”
Note that probably a few minutes before that Van Horn was lit like Mount St. Helens, but he put on his poker face during the Zoom call like a pro’s pro. Some coaches may not have been able to contain themselves, let alone compliment another guy who seems likely to have picked a verbal fight.
Instead, Van Horn cooly got his point across to Vitello, and then protected his former assistant by not divulging what stupidly inflammatory comment he made.
And let’s just suppose for an instant, Van Horn has wronged Vitello – broke one of the many of baseball’s unwritten rules during the series or stabbed him in the back on the recruiting trail, etc.
If that was the case, did Vitello really think he would win that battle in the post-game hand shake? Not a good place to take on one of the most respected and legendary coaches in college baseball.
Perception is reality, and what most think is Vitello got what he deserved. He certainly didn’t say anything to the contrary. If Van Horn did do something improper maybe Vitello should have mentioned that in the presser.
Either it wasn’t as a big a deal as he made it look like, or he was just plain scared.
The other negative of the encounter was how Vitello’s players reacted. Vitello didn’t set a very good example, and it didn’t take long for Vols senior outfielder Evan Russell to get involved yelling and gesturing at the Arkansas coaches.
If you noticed, Arkansas players kept their distance. I’m pretty sure Van Horn has a policy that goes something like this: “If someone needs to be yelled at [like an umpire, etc.], I’ll do it.” That’s pretty standard among veteran coaches.
Apparently, Russell didn’t get that memo. In the process, he looked bad and made his coach look worse.
Both coaches said the right things after the confrontation, but there will be a microscope on them during future meetings. Hopefully, Tony Vitello has learned his lesson.
More Dave Van Horn vs Tony Vitello
Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin weighed in on the Dave Van Horn-Tony Vitello fracas.
Based on his discussions with insiders and reading between the lines of what Van Horn and Vitello publicly said, he thinks a bit part if was Vitello criticizing Van Horn’s “old school” coaching on the recruiting trail.
“He’s not a cool players coach, like I am,” Irwin speculates that Vitello would tell a recruit.
“You can’t necessarily go to him and talk to him about anything you want. Whereas I’m cool. You can just come in and say anything you want.”
As Irwin reasons, after the game Vitello said something to the effect of: “‘Well, congratulations beating us with players that I recruited.’ He might been referring to Kevin Kopps, because Vitello probably had more to do with Kopps coming to Arkansas than anybody.”
“So he’s kind of giving a little dig there.”
“‘You beat us with guys I recruited,'” Irwin thinks Vitello said. “‘Good luck trying to do that in the future, because I’m not going to be recruiting for you in the future.'”
“Then Dave Van Horn, who’s had enough of this, starts bringing out all this other stuff and then they get into a big argument.”
“‘Why are you telling people this? Can you not just recruit straight up on your own? You have to badmouth me to recruit?'”
Irwin, interestingly, blames himself and other Arkansas baseball media for lobbing too many softball questions in the lead up to the Tennessee-Arkansas series.
That is, when asking vague questions like “What does Tony Vitello mean to you?” Van Horn answered with the nice-guy generalities you’d expect.
Going forward, Irwins thinks media could ask the coaches tougher questions about battles on the recruiting trail or other issues to go along with the Kumbaya stuff.
“And you might create a little bit more accurate presentation going into this thing, instead of trying to make these guys talk about how wonderful they think each other is.”
Irwin digs into the issue even more in the below video: