KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In June 2017, the University of Tennessee hired Tony Vitello as head baseball coach. The 38-year-old had no head coaching experience and became the youngest head baseball coach in the SEC.
In just over four seasons, he is now the third-winningest coach in program history, and the Vols are ranked among the top-10 programs in the country.
The native of St. Louis won National Coach of the Year in 2021 after leading his team to a College World Series. It marked one of the most successful seasons for Tennessee baseball in decades.
Coach Vitello credits his success at Tennessee to three things: his work ethic, his father and his loyalty.
Ahead of Tennessee opening SEC play against South Carolina on Friday, WBIR reporter Madison Hock sat down, one-on-one, with Tony Vitello and visited his high school in St. Louis with his father, Greg, to learn the passion and drive behind the Vols leader.
"The average human, whether it be outside of athletics, or inside of athletics, is going to take shortcuts," Vitello said. "You're in a minority if you are one of those guys, so even if you're the least skilled if you know the signs — you show up early, you stay late — they are probably going to want to keep you around ... I think, because I was so inexperienced when I first got hired and then also kind of what I learned from my dad, it was ingrained in me to just go all out."
Vitello's dad, Greg, is a hall-of-fame head coach in St. Louis, Missouri. He coached baseball and soccer at De Smet Jesuit High School.
"We got up at 6 o'clock in the morning. We were on the road by 6:20 a.m.," he said. "Tony would sit in my office, and I would go out and work on the baseball field."
Greg Vitello coached high school baseball by himself for around 30 years.
"Tony was my assistant coach, whether he wanted to be or not. And he was very candid. I mean, he's got friends on the team. But when a guy can say about his peers, 'I really don't think that guy can get it done dad, and maybe we ought to go this direction,' that's where the coaching thing started," he said. "I think he saw what it takes to do this job. That there weren't any shortcuts."
Tony Vitello was heavily influenced by his family. He has three older sisters: Christine, Katie and Kara. According to Greg and Tony, his mother, Kathy, was the glue and backbone of the family.
"It takes a very unique and special individual to be a coach's wife. We have a couple of great examples on our staff here as well," Tony said. "My mom always knew the right things to say at the right time. She handled the balance very, very well. She was intense at times too ... I got a bar of soap in my mouth once or twice. There were four women in the house, and me, so I was out-numbered."
He said he thought his sisters had the same competitive spirit. He called Kara one of their most loyal fans and said his entire household helped prepare him for his coaching career.
Greg and Tony would spend hours together at the baseball field, and that's when Tony's love for coaching really began.
"I remember a conversation with my dad in the basement, that was not fun," Tony Vitello said. "It was about conversations he had with his dad. I played a little more arrogant than I did hard, or played the way that he was looking for me to play in a particular little league game. He had high standards, and I think any great coach does. It was a very aggressive and firm conversation. But you know, he was not happy with the way I acted on the field. And I made the adjustments the next time out, I can tell you that."
Tony Vitello later led the Vols to their first College World Series since 2005. Following the 2021 season, the University of Tennessee signed Vitello to a contract extension through June 2026. Vitello said there was no doubt Tennessee was the place for him in the present and future.
He said his loyalty to the university, his players and his staff played a huge part in choosing to stay at Tennessee.
"Tennessee is a place that gave me my first opportunity when a lot of others wouldn't," Vitello said. "Tennessee fans came out and created a love affair with this program that helped boost the program in ways that you really can't put on paper. And then also, the people I work with. We're staying together no matter where we go and it's fun to come to work every day."
Vitello said he hopes to leave a legacy and impact on Tennessee baseball that is defined by hard work and resiliency.
"Those kids played hard," said Vitello. "That's the most important thing. It wasn't being a superstar or getting hits or winning trophies. It was 'play hard.' And so I hope our kids do that on the field. And then off the field, they continue to talk about the guys that were in this program. Off the field were gentlemen and on the field, they were the villains."