OMAHA, Neb. – Having gotten to know Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin a little the last few years, it’s become clear that emotional swings aren’t a regular part of his personal repertoire.
Stoic is a good word to describe the New Hampshire native who has carved a very nice baseball niche in Nashville. Steady and reflective are a couple of others.
On Friday, with his team’s magical 2011 season freshly ended, Corbin showed a different side. A more raw element that rises to the surface when something so good arrives at the finish line so abruptly.
The Commodores’ 6-4 loss to Florida in the College World Series semifinal round slammed the door on a breakthrough season when Vandy matched the Gators and reigning national champion South Carolina blow-for-blow all SEC season long and then finally found a way to shed the “never been to the College World Series” stigma that had become the elephant in the locker room.
Make no mistake: The Commodores arrived this season and they did so in grand style.
With a roster featuring 12 Major League Baseball draft picks and a new wave of players whose phones will buzz with that call of a lifetime someday soon, Corbin’s team left no questions about being an elite program this season.
Problem is, Vandy wound up being the third-best team in the SEC East, and the sting of that fact was evident Friday.
For most of the Commodores’ shorter-than-usual postgame press conference Friday, Corbin stared at a wall to his right whenever a question wasn’t directed at him. His facial expression looked the same as always, but it didn’t take Colombo (in honor of the late Peter Falk) to figure out Corbin was in some emotional pain.
Toward the end of the session, Corbin was asked about looking ahead, about thinking what this 2011 climb to prominence might mean to Vandy moving forward, but he reversed direction.
“I’m not thinking about forward, right now,” Corbin said, showing some of that raw emotion as he spoke.
“Actually I'm thinking about backwards. Because when you have to sit maybe 2-3 hours from now and reflect on what you've done with a group of kids, you have to think about what you've accomplished. You can't think forward right now. Right now I want to take my phone and computer and dump them in the Tennessee River and just spend some time with these guys, because this is the toughest moment a coach, coaches, players can go through.”
Tough because Corbin – despite that tough-to-crumble Northeastern veneer – cares. He cares about his baseball program, he cares about the game being played in a certain way and he cares about a band of baseball brothers who shattered the old Vandy mold of perceived underachievement and formed a new one.
Understand that being successful at a place like Vanderbilt – rebuilding a struggling program and sustaining success – isn’t the same as at most other places. The academic demands are exponentially magnified because the university expects its student-athletes to emphasize the first part of that title much more than the second.
It’s not unprecedented that a school with a great academic tradition generate success in baseball. Stanford and coaching legend Mark Marquess are the standard-bearers in the modern era, and programs like Rice and Tulane have proven that you can win and demand a heck of a lot out of baseball players in the classroom.
The difference with Vanderbilt accomplishing what it did in 2011 – with the last several years as a steady buildup – is that the success came in the SEC. Not only are Corbin and his coaches getting the most out of players who have to balance their time on the diamond with strenuous class work, they’re doing so in the toughest baseball league in the country. A league where for 10 weekends a year, the baseball is tough-as-nails because of the intensity intertwined.
And now Vandy has broken through to the most elite level. Not the very top, of course. That’s reserved for the national champion.
But Corbin made no bones about how he feels about the players who formed the core of this program for this memorable season and beyond.
“This particular team will be like no other we've had at the university, in my opinion, in terms of their selfless behavior and the way they exhibited themselves in the classroom and on the field,” Corbin said.
Which makes the final page of the final chapter so hard to come to grips with.
Like every season before and every season that will follow, Corbin knows there are always beginnings and endings. Everything in between is where the memories are carved out.
But when a college baseball season stretches into late June and winds up in Omaha, the end is that much harder to cope with unless your team is the one that finishes the CWS in that middle-of-the-diamond mosh pit.
That fact showed on Corbin’s face and in his voice Friday as reality started to latch onto his emotional foundation.
“You know, I've always said it’s a car that's going 100 miles an hour and slams on the brakes,” Corbin said.
“Tomorrow they're all gone. That part stinks. That's not fun. That's not fun at all. I just hate to see it come to an end, but it does and life moves on.”
And for Vanderbilt, a program moves on with a cherished – and for now bittersweet—memory of the 2011 season.