State of the Hogs: Legendary Coach

Greg Vitello knows Arkansas baseball has the ultimate role player in its new hitting coach, his son, Tony Vitello.

Greg Vitello sat in the second row of the grandstands, just a few seats away from the dugout during the opening weekend of the Arkansas baseball season. He couldn't help but hear fans near him discuss the new hitting coach.

What they said about Tony Vitello wasn't repeated. But a few innings later when one of those elderly season ticket holders inquired about his interest in the game, Greg pointed to the third base coaching box and said, "That's my son."

Sometimes it's fun to be a fly on the wall, sometimes not. But if there was ever someone who could handle it, it would be Greg Vitello. He coached his son in soccer and baseball at St. Louis DeSmet High School where he's been patrolling the sidelines (and the biology class room) for 47 years.

If ever there was a legend in high school sports, it's Greg Vitello. He has over 1,000 victories (763 in soccer), including five state soccer titles and one state baseball title. He was in the first class of inductees in 2012 when the Missouri High School Coaches Associated created a Hall of Fame.

Vitello has coached some true stars in both sports. In soccer, Vitello products include current LA Galaxy president Chris Klein and LA assistant coach Pat Noonan. Klein and Noonan combined for 37 caps with the national squad. Chicago Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller played for Vitello in baseball. He has a World Series ring with the Red Sox, the year after he won the American League batting title.

That's the tip of the iceberg, but Greg Vitello said in a phone interview Wednesday that "one of my biggest thrills in my career was coaching my son. I tell other coaches that have a chance to coach their son, don't pass it up. It was wonderful."

It was a thrill to watch him coach at Arkansas on that opening weekend sweep against Appalachian State. It was a thrill to watch the Razorbacks put into practice the Vitello doctrine, working a pitcher for walks and hit batsman.

"I loved the Sunday game, an 8-3 victory with just three hits," Greg Vitello said. "I told Dave Van Horn and Tony after the game, ‘That's good coaching.' I would see a one-out walk and think, ‘He's going to score. Put it in the book.' I enjoyed the weekend.

"I have been to some schools, but what Arkansas has right now is very special. I was impressed with everything all across the campus. Everything was first class. The softball stadium was first class. The new baseball indoor facility is going to be first class.

Tony Vitello had told his father about the facilities and wasn't surprised at the reaction. He was also pleased to hear about the in-stands experience.

"I had him some seats, but he didn't stay in them," Tony said. "He moved down close. He told me the fans were great and understood baseball. He said it was like St. Louis in that they appreciate their baseball here at Arkansas.

"If you play the game the right way, they love you in St. Louis, same here. He felt that from sitting with the season ticket holders. There is a suite that comes out from the coaches offices, but he didn't stay there."

It was a good feeling all the way around on campus for Greg Vitello.

"I had been to (Baum Stadium) years ago when Missouri was playing in a regional there," he said. "It was nice then, but it's fantastic now. They have added so much."

Tony Vitello played soccer, basketball and baseball at DeSmet in a non-stop school year.

"Baseball was always his first love," Greg said. "He was good in soccer, but he probably played just because his buddies played and he had been around it. Some people said he'd be really good at one, if he would give up the others. But that wasn't Tony. I think he had a wonderful time playing all three.

"I called Tony the ultimate role player. Really, no one wants to be that anymore. I've had players who weren't the stars come in to say they were going somewhere else to be the star. I told parents, ‘It's going to be someplace else, then another someplace else. Do your kid a favor and make him stick it out.'"

Tony Vitello's career at Missouri included a couple of years as the "closer" at shortstop. It's a story both dad and son are proud to tell. The Tigers used shortstop Ryan Stegall as their closer and Vitello would come off the bench to play shortstop for the last two innings, often three times a weekend.

"Tony would stay warm by sprinting down the third base line," Greg said. "He'd be the first one out of the dugout between innings. He would be prepared for the task."

Tony said, "Once I started coaching, I'd have scouts come up to me and tell me they remember that, my routine to stay in the game between innings. My teammates did joke that I was the closer. That was my time. I warmed up like a mad man. Those last two innings were my reward. My number one goal, make sure I was prepared."

There was great preparation under his father at DeSmet. There were all of those practices as a kid, in all sports. There was watching Klein star for his dad on the soccer field, a great role model.

"I was a little kid sitting on the bench watching Klein," Tony said. "He did everything the right way. He bought in completely to my dad, a great example.

"Then, when I was a senior in soccer, here came Noonan, a younger kid, starting as a freshman. We took him under our wings. He bought in, too."

Tony said playing for his father was great.

"The only way it could have gone better is if I'd kept my temper better," Tony laughed. "What I enjoyed about playing for my father, I always knew right where I stood. I think that's what the great coaches do. I dang sure always knew what he thought about me. I think Coach Van Horn is the same way. I think players appreciate that."

It's not always easy.

"There are down sides," Greg said. "I always tried to treat him the same, but it's tough sometimes to make sure you are not being too hard. It evolves.

"I think Tony handled it well. He was a solid player in all three sports, but first he was a good student. He took direction. He knew he was the son of the coach and was going to be judged by his teammates and by the parents."

There was more than practice time together at school. Tony had to rise early to make the trip to school at 6 o'clock.

"His father is a little psychotic as far as preparation detail," Greg said. "I do know that other kids got a little more sleep. There were a lot of mornings he slept in the car a couple of hours before class, or after practice."

Mostly, he took advantage of the extra time for extra shooting in the gym, or weight lifting, or soccer drills.

"I do remember being in my office an hour before school and I could hear the ‘ping, ping, ping' in the batting cage," Greg said. "Tony would be down there with some of the other boys."

Tony had a moment like that Tuesday as he was leaving his office at 8:45 p.m.

"Everything was pitch black," Vitello said. "Out from the batting cage came Andrew Benintendi, Clark Eagan and Michael Bernal. It means two things. They get a little better with their skill. But I think it's just as important with team camaraderie. It helps you win those 8-3 games with only three hits. It's like when you invest in a marriage, it makes you want to fight for it tooth and nail. So for me, last night was a similar experience as my dad hearing those bats ping."

It's clear that chemistry is important with Tony Vitello.

"I think we have unselfish kids," Tony said. "I think that has an impact on the game. We have balance and a nice blend between pitching, defense and hitting."

The ultimate role player is developing some nice roles.

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