A showdown between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at the College World Series with a national championship on the line would have all the emotions of their rivalry bubbling up like a family brawl.
The schools separated by 194 miles are on opposite sides of the CWS brackets, so a championship matchup is possible. It also makes it easier for coaches to shower each other with compliments about what it means in the state for both to heading to Omaha, Nebraska.
“It creates energy inside of this state for 8, 9, 10, 11 year old that looks up and see Tennessee on TV, Vanderbilt on TV, and it inspires kids to want to play, and that’s all that matters,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.
His Commodores are the reigning national champs, and Corbin said he’s happy the Tennessee Volunteers are among the three Southeastern Conference teams in Omaha. Corbin said he knew after his Commodores took the lone series between the teams 2-1 in April that the Vols would reach Omaha.
Corbin said that’s why he looks past the rivalry between the programs.
“Tony’s done such a good job with his team,” Corbin said. “When we played them, I think I made mention to, might’ve been the players but certainly the coaches how that’s going to end up being an Omaha team. You could just feel it. They were very aggressive, tenacious. They played hard.”
Corbin said because a team is good enough to be in Omaha doesn’t mean they get there. Just look at No. 1 national seed Arkansas.
“It’s a tough, tough deal, and we all recognize the difficulty of getting to Omaha,” Corbin said.
It’s easy for Corbin to be gracious. This is his fifth trip taking Vanderbilt to the College World Series. His Commodores not only won the championship in 2019, they won their first national title in 2014.
This is the first time for Vitello bringing a team to Omaha as the head coach, and he’s only in his fourth season at Tennessee, including a 15-2 start in 2020 wiped out by the pandemic.
Vitello said Thursday he only wishes Corbin had told him April 18 to improve his mood after a 10-4 loss to Vanderbilt in Knoxville. Vitello said that series helped his Vols get better, and he sees only positives about both teams reaching the College World Series because of what it means for the entire state.
The population boom in Nashville, where Vanderbilt is located, has been helping improve baseball with new facilities being built in Tennessee. Vitello sees Tennessee and Vanderbilt reaching the College World Series together as the next step creating more interest.
“To me, this should be another spark for yet another flame that the communities that we’re all surrounded by and bleeding all the way down into west Tennessee and closer to Memphis. It should spark even another age group or maybe another wave of improvement in the baseball in our state,” Vitello said.
Tennessee has been doing its part to fan the attention the Vols are receiving. Peyton Manning, the five-time NFL MVP who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, taught Vitello the proper way to say “Omaha” in a video shared Tuesday on social media.
“He’s hosted ‘Saturday Night Live,’ for gosh sakes, and I got no idea what I’m doing,” Vitello said. “And I know anything that Peyton’s in is going to get attention.”
Vanderbilt, the No. 4 national seed with a 45-15 record, begins play Saturday night against Arizona. No. 3 national seed Tennessee (50-16) plays Virginia on Sunday afternoon. The Commodores and Vols won’t see each other until next season unless each advances out of the double-elimination brackets to the final series.
Vitello pointed out Tennessee is the only state with two teams in the College World Series this year.
“It’s something I think should be celebrated,” Vitello said.
There will be celebration — if one of them can bring the state another national title.