As the 24th head coach of the Tennessee baseball program accompanied his staff into the first-base dugout at Lindsey Nelson Stadium to meet with the media, Dave Serrano did so with a limp. Well, it would have been if he could walk.
Serrano was wheeled in sporting a thick cast over a broken right ankle that required two plates. He suffered the injury after a cough that knocked him out thanks to a condition that Serrano has.
Perhaps he simply saw Tennessee's 7-23 record in the Southeastern Conference last season.
Offensively, the 2011 Volunteers hit 27 home runs (just seven more than Vanderbilt first baseman Aaron Westlake). On the mound, they had a combined earned run average of 5.28 and opponents carried a batting average of .296.
Suffice it say, it's as long a trip from Knoxville to Omaha, Neb., right now as it's ever been and the team bus driver would need a GPS to merely get to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC tournament.
However, the SEC is not a breeding ground for equanimous fans. Big Orange Country wants victories in droves and bragging rights over rivals, which do not include Canisius, Alabama A&M or Milwaukee.
"I don't think the fan base is going to be any more patient than we will be," Serrano said. "We as a coaching staff are used to winning. I am very proud to say the programs I have been in have never not been successful whether as a player, as a coach or as an assistant coach. So, any expectations that's put upon this program will never be higher than we have on ourselves. We know the challenges that are out there but we plan to look every challenge right in the eye and accept every challenge."
These are the words of a 46-year-old man who is one of only 11 coaches to guide two different programs – Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine – to the College World Series. In all, he's been to Omaha seven times.
Serrano's staff is clearly an extension of himself and the group comes to Knoxville with as much chemistry as any newly-completed staff around. His mates echo his sentiments with no apparent coaching or uniform quotes.
"The expectations and pressure – that comes with the territory," recruiting coordinator and hitting coach Bill Mosiello said. "Every job we've ever had there's been pressure. We're here because it's the SEC. We love the SEC. We love the pressure. We love everything about it. Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not.
"It's a great challenge. We can't wait to do it. We've got our work cut out for us. Thank goodness we've got the right group to do it."
Infielders coach and third base coach Greg Bergeron: "Coming from Cal State Fullerton, there's pretty big pressure there. The one thing we've always said as a coaching staff is I don't think anybody or anyone is going to put more pressure on us than we will as a coaching staff. We know what our expectations are. Ours may be a little bit more realistic than the fan base, but we know what we want out of our team. We know what we think we should get out of them.
"Obviously there's pressure but if you're a coach that wants to do things the right way, there's always going to be more pressure on you. Going to this conference, yeah we know it's the best conference in the country, but as coaches, we're used to winning. We don't want that to stop. We also know there may be some growing pains along the way, but we're not going to concede the fact that, ‘OK, the first two years we might not be very good.' That's not our plan."
Volunteer assistant Gregg Wallis was the last piece added to the puzzle. He played for Serrano at UC Irvine from 2002 to 2005. As a four-time Big West Conference Scholar-Athlete, he knows a good thing when he sees it and the task at Tennessee is not insurmountable.
"It's going to be a step process," said Wallis, who will be on the road recruiting since Serrano is physically unable to with the injury. "We're going to take it step by step and right now our focus is going to be to get to know the players and not even focus about winning yet. It's just about getting to know the players and creating an atmosphere where players can perform. I think the winning will take care of itself if we are able to get to the players."
Three of the final four teams standing at the College World Series – national champion South Carolina, runner-up Florida and Vanderbilt ¬– were not only from the SEC but also in the SEC East Division with the Vols. Those three juggernauts owned a combined record this year of 162-45.
"I think it's the best and that's one of the things that lured me here to East Tennessee is I want to be part of the best and this is the best sports conference in the nation," said Serrano, whose career record a solid 150 games over .500 (289-139-1). "Like I said, we welcome that challenge and hope to accept it. My hope is people look at the University of Tennessee and have just as much respect for us as we do for them."
Rome wasn't built in a day, filling Lindsey Nelson Stadium won't happen overnight, and taking down programs that are setting conference records for total number of draftees isn't simple.
"We understand and we talked about how we're going to have to have some patience," said Mosiello, who has three sons with the youngest being 4-year-old Helton. "In a ballgame we talk about going pitch-to-pitch. As a staff we're going minute-by-minute. So, I'm not going to ever give in and say, ‘If we just finish with this record it's OK.' I'm not going to concede anything. We're going to go out and play the game and see what happens. I'm not going to short-change these players."
Anybody want to bet against this group?