Some of us get the pleasure of coming to work each day. That's a good thing. For Tony Vitello, it's the way he feels about arriving at Baum Stadium as part of a staff with Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn and pitching coach Dave Jorn.
Vitello is the highly regarded third-year recruiting coordinator and hitting coach for the Arkansas baseball team. He's coached for 15 years, counting his graduate assistant days at Missouri, his alma mater. But that pales in comparison to Van Horn and Jorn. Counting their days as a player or coach in pro ball, they've combined for 66 years in baseball after college.
Van Horn has been to six College World Series as a head coach, four at Arkansas. Jorn has been to six as an assistant, four under Van Horn and two with Norm DeBriyn. Of course, the Hogs ended up in Omaha last year to give Vitello his first CWS ring in his second year with the Hogs. There was an interesting twist to the CWS for Vitello, since TCU, with many of the players he recruited, was also in Omaha, for the second straight season.
Vitello, while helping a reporter preparing for the Hawgs Illustrated Baseball Preview, lit up when I asked him to explain what it's like to be around Van Horn and Jorn. Obviously, Vitello has aspirations of being a head coach. He can't think of a better place to achieve that goal than where's at now.
It's always been clear that Vitello would coach. Greg Vitello, his father, is a Hall of Fame coach, now retired from St. Louis DeSmet High School where he won championships in baseball and soccer. He's working with a pair of Hall of Fame types in Van Horn and Jorn. Picking Jorn's mind is a daily thing.
“It's a learning experience every day,” Vitello said. “I don't think our relationship could be any better as far as recruiting goes, we see eye to eye. I think we like to go about things the same way when we are at the field and we have a kid on campus.”
Most think of Jorn as just a pitching coach. He's way more than that. Many give credit to Jorn for helping correct some mechanical flaws that got Andrew Benintendi going ahead of his storied sophomore year.
“As far as being out there on the field, he's a field general,” Vitello said. “It's not just working with the pitchers, it's really working with the entire team and pointing out things during a game. They are all things I'm way too inexperienced to know. So I sit back and learn and listen.
“Every now and then I'll pipe up and we may even have a friendly debate that might get heated because I've got the Italian blood going and he's got the vast knowledge of baseball and confidence in that knowledge. But overall I'd define it as learning experience.”
It's more than just baseball.
“Learning the way baseball and life are tied together is something Coach Jorn is really good at sharing,” Vitello said. “Coach Jorn has a PhD in life and I'm trying to get my Bachelors.”
Vitello said the special nature of Van Horn's gifts as a head coach are simplicity. Make no mistake about it, he said, “I came here to try to become a head coach. Learning from Coach Van Horn is a big reason I'm here.”
It's easy to see the trickle down effect Van Horn has through every area of the program.
“You see in every entity, everything spills down from the top,” Vitello said. “With him in specific, I've got buddies that are pretty knowledgable of baseball that tell me I work for the best head coach in college baseball. To compare guys is tough, but he's arguably the best in the country.
“I would define it personally, he's got to be one of the best to work for in the country. I tell recruits all the time, if he's that easy to work for, he's got to be that easy to play for.
“The only thing you have to be in line with is the standards that are around here. That's not just his standards, but it's the fans, Jeff Long's, the tradition that's been here. As long as you are in line with those standards, he couldn't be a better guy to work for or play for.
“Ultimately, what I've learned from Coach Van Horn is how simple he keeps things. Everyone has read the KISS method and he preaches it, simple is better. That's not so easy once the fire gets going. He's extremely good at doing that and hammering home the things that are important, then letting the things that are not roll off his back, or teach others how to let them roll off.”
I asked about the journey last year when pitching was off. There were not a lot of strike throwers to be found in a 15-15 start. What did Vitello learn then?
“I have hitters sit in my office and ask me about the future,” Vitello said. “Last year early in the season, I told them one thing is always the same, at some point, Coach Jorn will have those pitchers throwing strikes. It took a little longer last year, but ultimately that's what happened. It was just the makeup of the staff last year.
“Then, the overall makeup of the team, you know one thing with Coach Van Horn, our team is going to compete every day. Those other SEC coaches don't mind telling you when we go on the road, I don't think we are a whole lot of fun to play. Now are we the best team in the conference, who knows on any given year. But I don't think they look forward to playing our team because at the very least we are going to fight them tooth and nail until the final out of the game.
“That's how (Van Horn's) teams were at Nebraska when I was at Missouri. We knew we were getting into a cage match where chairs and other foreign objects might be used, anything possible to get a win so to speak.”
About that time I ran into Jorn. What about that PhD in life that Vitello mentioned?
“I don't have it yet,” Jorn said. “Still working on it. Nobody knows everything and you are never right all of the time.”
Ah, a nugget from a sage pitching coach. No, make that from a field general.