How Vanderbilt Became the Titan of College Baseball

“My coach, Tim Corbin, he’s Nick Saban,” said Kumar Rocker, the Vanderbilt freshman ace who’d just been named the College World Series Most Outstanding Player.

“Tim Corbin and the Vandy baseball team is the hottest brand in Nashville,” said Derek Mason, head coach of the Vanderbilt football team.

“Tim Corbin is the best head coach in America, no matter what sport you’re talking about,” said Erik Bakich, head coach of a Michigan team built in Vanderbilt’s image but which fell short when matched.

Comparisons to Duke and Mike Krzyzewski at the close of the ESPN telecast. Comparisons to Tom Osborne and his legendary Nebraska football machine by a local Cornhusker State columnist. Predictions of a decade ahead, like the decade about to close, when Vanderbilt will continue to be the sport’s preseason favorite, as it was when this season began 4½ months ago.

All hail the Vanderbilt Commodores, the no-way-y’all-saw-this-coming captains of college baseball’s burgeoning new age.

On Wednesday night, Vanderbilt won the decisive Game 3 of the 2019 College World Series, defeating upstart Michigan 8-2 on a night when the team accumulated a mountain of milestones nearly as big as its postgame dogpile celebration on the field.

Vanderbilt enjoys the moment after winning the College World Series finals. Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos/Getty Images
Vanderbilt enjoys the moment after winning the College World Series finals. Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos/Getty Images

The self-labeled Vandy Boys became the first two-time CWS champions in the nine-year history of TD Ameritrade Park. They are the only team to make three CWS finals appearances in that stadium and have made the eight-team CWS field four times since 2011, after making zero appearances all of the seasons before that. The Commodores set an SEC single-season record with 59 wins, two weeks ago they tied the SEC record with 13 players taken in a single Major League Baseball draft, and that came on the heels of sweeping both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles.

“I talk to people who played college baseball not so long ago, and they can’t believe that Vanderbilt baseball is what it is now,” outfielder and slugger JJ Bleday said Wednesday night, as teammates posed for photos with family members, and coaches’ children made “snow” angels in the baseline dirt. “But for my generation, this is what Vanderbilt baseball is. This is where people want to be. Where they want to play. I don’t know what it was back in the day. I just know what it is now. This is a two-time national championship program.”

A program that was so irrelevant for so long that its most famous coaches were a sportswriter (Grantland Rice), a controversial philosopher (Herbert Charles Sanborn) and a bunch of gray-haired men who were either cup-of-coffee big leaguers or football and basketball coaches who also happened to coach baseball on the side, including Alabama legend Wallace Wade. During the 20th century, the Commodores made the NCAA tournament field three times. Ever.

In this century, they have been to the postseason 15 times. Since 2004, they have missed it only once.

Vanderbilt hasn’t merely raised its baseball standards, it has become the standard for the entirety of a sport that suddenly feels as if it is crossing over into uncharted territory. This year’s CWS field was an eight-pack of classic programs that have never won a title (Arkansas, Florida State, Mississippi State), longtime absentees finally finding a road map back to Omaha (Michigan, back for the first time since 1984; Auburn, first trip since 1997), and three teams who have become CWS regulars (Louisville, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt), but only in recent times. All but one of their 13 combined berths have been earned over the past eight years.

There was no LSU, Miami or Texas. There wasn’t a single representative from the states of Arizona or California, long the pipelines and foundations with which the College World Series was built. Florida State’s Mike Martin retired last week. Stanford’s Mark Marquess retired two years ago. Texas and Cal State Fullerton legend Augie Garrido is gone.

Philip Clarke, center, and Ethan Paul, right, helped Vanderbilt open its lead in the third inning. AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Philip Clarke, center, and Ethan Paul, right, helped Vanderbilt open its lead in the third inning. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

The game of college baseball feels as if it’s pushing over the Missouri River like the pioneers who founded the city of Omaha 165 years ago. And the man who is leading it into the new frontier is Corbin.

“Coach Corbs is a tone-setting guy,” explained senior shortstop Ethan Paul, who finished his collegiate career with a 2-for-3 night that included an RBI and a run scored. “You go to work every day and you are climbing a ladder. If you don’t get where you need to be, you figure out why and get there the next time.”

“That’s really it,” agreed Vanderbilt strength coach Chris Ham, who joined the team in 2007 — Corbin’s fifth season on the job — that was anchored by three first team All-Americans, including future MLB All-Star David Price. “There was so much pressure on that team and we lost to [Michigan] in the regionals. Three years later, we get to the super regional, but we lose. The next year we get to Omaha but finish third. Three years later we win it all. The climb to here tonight was very similar.”

That’s building a program.

“What you strive for first is to make people believe,” Corbin said, his heels touching the edge of a pitching mound dotted with black and gold confetti. “Once people begin to believe that, hey, we can win here, then you have a chance to build something. Not just something to enjoy for a year or two. Something that will last.”

No one appreciates that construction project more than the 2019 College World Series runner-up. As Vanderbilt celebrated, Michigan’s coaches and players suppressed their sadness by first watching the victors celebrate and then heaping praise on the team that had just beaten them.

Under coach Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt baseball has dominated Omaha since 2011. ESPN
Under coach Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt baseball has dominated Omaha since 2011. ESPN

Vandy is the program that Michigan is unapologetically modeled after, a cold-weather Big Ten school that just made it further than any of their ilk has in decades. Bakich served as an assistant coach under Corbin for seven years, right at the outset of Vanderbilt’s rise to relevance, leaving in 2009 and taking over in Ann Arbor in 2013. Even apart, they are in constant communication. Bakich’s admiration for Corbin is well-documented. Throughout the three-game CWS title series, his players added their voices to the chorus.

“Vanderbilt is the program you grew up watching, just studying everything they did, from practice to game strategy to building a roster,” said Michigan sophomore catcher Joe Donovan, speaking words at which college baseball players just a generation ago would have laughed. “Seeing it up close, you are even more impressed. You think, OK, that’s it. That’s who we want to be. That’s why they have that trophy tonight and it’s not their first one.”

Added Bakich: “I have learned so much from Tim and still do. But maybe the biggest lesson is that the building never stops. Just because you make it to Omaha, that’s not the finish line. Winning here is. And then when you win one championship, you start working toward the next one. That’s not just a college baseball team, that’s a college baseball program.”

As Bakich said it, his friend and mentor wrapped up his celebration on the sport’s most hallowed ground. Promised land from which his team was once banished, but now occupies so often they should have to pay Omaha property taxes.

Tim Corbin, leader of the Vanderbilt Commodores, not just a college baseball program, but the college baseball program, turned to a handful of his underclassmen and smiled.

“Meet you guys right back here one year from tonight?”

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Author: Ryan McGee