Baseball title caps Vanderbilt’s greatest athletics season

Vanderbilt athletics can now boast of two national championships in school history -- one for women's bowling (2007) and one for men's baseball (2014).

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — David Williams remembers arriving here from Ohio State in 2000 to become Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor, general counsel and secretary.

He knew the school’s colors (black and gold), but very little he saw suggested it. Instead, there was an abundance of orange and white being worn by fans of SEC rival Tennessee, which was just two years removed from winning the BCS national championship in football.

"No disrespect to my friends up in Knoxville, but when I moved down here in 2000, I was going around (Nashville) and I kept seeing nothing but orange," said Williams, who has had Vanderbilt athletics under his wing since 2003 before becoming nothing but full-time athletics director in 2012.

"I remember saying to my wife," he added, "Did we make a wrong turn and end up in Knoxville instead of Nashville? Vanderbilt is Nashville’s team. And I hope people take notice of this."

Surely, they are now.

Once an athletic department led by the bell cows of men’s and women’s basketball and not much else, Vanderbilt has accomplished perhaps its greatest athletic school year ever.

It started with the football team going to an unprecedented third straight bowl game and culminated with the baseball club winning the national championship.

The College World Series victory over Virginia (best-of-3) stands as Vanderbilt’s second national championship in school history — with the coming in 2007, when the Vandy’s women’s bowling team took home the gold.

"We have worked really, really hard to basically be respected and to win championships and do these things in athletics and at the same time maintain that great reputation as an academic institution," Williams said. "So, to be the smallest university in the SEC, the only private university with its academic standards, and then go out and say, ‘Hey, we are national champions in baseball. We have gone to three consecutive bowl games in football.’

"It says you really can do it with the real sort of aspect of student-athletes. That’s what makes me so happy about it. We have a cadre of coaches led by (baseball coach) Tim Corbin who do it the right way."

The continued emergence of Vanderbilt athletics coincides with the commitment from the top. Former Vandy president Gordon Gee created a national stir in 2003 when he eliminated the organized athletic department and consolidated it under the school’s Division of Student Life.

What was perceived as a de-commitment to athletics turned out to be anything but. By the time Gee was hired to run Ohio State in 2007, the athletics program was making unprecedented strides.

New chancellor Nicholas Zeppos continued the momentum, while also making sure the Commodores could compete in all SEC sports. (Vandy was one of the conference’s founding programs in 1932.)

"It’s really, really a great thing for the university," said Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings of the baseball national championship. "Our administration (has been) doing the things that need to be done to give our coaches opportunities to win championships."

That’s particularly true with the 2003 hiring of Corbin, a Clemson assistant considered one of the up-and-coming college coaches at the time. In his second season, the Commodores made it all the way to a NCAA tournament Super Regional for the first time ever.

Then again, if not for the building and subsequent expansion of Hawkins Field, the baseball stadium that replaced the worst facility in the SEC, Corbin would have never arrived — or later stayed — in the first place.

The baseball facilities, now considered some of the best in the nation, laid the foundation for Corbin to recruit some of the top-notch prep talent.

Former Commodores include Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner; Pittsburgh Pirates all-star third baseman Pedro Alvarez; Oakland A’s pitcher Sonny Gray, one of Major League Baseball’s top rookies; and Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Minor, a solid starter for several seasons.

Three years ago, junior pitcher Tyler Beede enrolled at Vanderbilt after turning down $2.2 million to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays, who had drafted him in the first round and No. 22 overall out of high school.

Earlier this month, Beede improved his draft stock by being selected by the San Francisco Giants (No. 14 overall), but will also now turn pro with a national championship ring in tow.

In 2013, the Commodores spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation and entered the NCAA tourney as the No. 2 overall seed. But they lost at home in the Super Regional to Louisville to be denied a second CWS visit in three seasons.

"This wasn’t our best Vanderbilt team," Corbin said. "Toughest? Maybe so, because they grew into that team character trait that is so difficult to come by. But there are so many oddities in baseball that provide you pain and provide you ecstasy. And (Wednesday) night, we were just fortunate to be on the right side of things."

One of the first people to call Williams to offer congratulations the morning after the national championship game was Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, whose own department has claimed multiple national titles in multiple sports.

"He said, ‘You really don’t even understand the feeling yet,’" Williams said. "And for a guy like Jeremy, who’s been running Florida’s program for I don’t know how many years, over 20 years, and has a number of national championships in a number of sports there, still for him to get excited for us on our first men’s national championship and our first major national championship, yeah, it’s something that is really hard to explain.

"You can only feel it. And you don’t understand what to feel until it is actually there. And it’s not over. You’re still feeling it over and over and over. So, it’s sort of surreal."

Certainly, Vanderbilt baseball winning a national championship has been a long time coming. After all, the school started its athletics department in 1886 with the advent of baseball. But these days, the Same Old Vanderbilt line — the sarcastic phrase used once used to describe Commodores athletics — simply doesn’t apply.

"You have had dreams before where they are so real," Corbin said, "and then you wake up. And this one is like, ‘Don’t wake me up. Can it still be true?’ It’s just a great moment."

Soon after Penn State hired football coach James Franklin at the end of a second straight nine-win season, Vanderbilt hired Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason.

That’s a level of hire which wouldn’t have happened before the team posted three straight winning campaigns, including being ranked in back-to-back season-ending Top 25s (first time ever).

In its last 20 games, Vanderbilt football is 16-4. Only Alabama (18-2) has a better record over that stretch among SEC teams. Last fall, Vanderbilt opened a new $31 million indoor football facility and is researching the possibility of building a new football stadium to replace Vanderbilt Stadium, the league’s smallest with very few amenities.

That’s how the 2013-14 school year for Vanderbilt athletics began. It culminated last week with a nation watching Vanderbilt win the baseball national championship over Virginia.

"You go through this process in college athletics," Williams said, "and the last event for a (school) year is the College World Series final series. All the other sports have ended."

Then, Williams related a conversation with Virginia athletics director Craig Littlepage, who Williams described as a good friend and esteemed associate.

"I told him before the game," Williams said, "Craig, we’re the last two standing, Vanderbilt and Virginia. We’re the last two ADs standing. These are the last two head coaches standing. The last two sets of players standing out of the whole year. And at the end of it, it’s just us."

Just what the impact of the national championship will be long term is still to come. But as of now, Vanderbilt athletics has emerged as a major player in all sports in the SEC.

"I don’t think we will feel the magnitude of this until some time passes," said Joe Fisher, the Voice of the Commodores and a Nashville native. "I don’t think there is any way we will be able to know that, and we probably won’t for quite some time.

"It’s probably one of those things we’ll have to look back and say, ‘Oh, wow, this happened because of the championship. This all led to this kind of stir and this kid of momentum.’"