Lovers of Tennessee baseball had begun to forget what the grass smelled like at Rosenblatt Stadium. They no longer set aside weeks of potential vacation time following the Volunteers in the NCAA Tournament.
Dave Serrano moved cross-country to grab the reins of the program in July 2011 with firm goals to be the travel agent for Big Orange Country with deep postseason runs just 2-3 recruiting classes away.
Almost six full years later, Tennessee still has hills to climb. It hasn’t won a postseason game in 3,651 days…and counting. And that’s what has Serrano upset.
The Vols don’t have NCAA investigators in town. Crosscheckers and scouting directors started plugging Knoxville into their GPS devices again. They’re setting milestones with APR numbers north of 970. Freshmen pitchers are in place to be the cornerstone of a turnaround.
All that’s fantastic. But what Serrano wanted to do was see additional seating needed at Lindsey Nelson Stadium with Vols lovers clamoring to catch a glimpse of big-time baseball with outs being counted down and a berth in the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park on the line.
Tennessee lost its seventh Southeastern Conference game in a row Saturday, falling 8-2 as visiting Missouri completed its three-game sweep of the Vols. Serrano did everything in his power to get departing players and seniors at-bats and mound time. After the final out, he stepped aside, receiving a solid applause from those in attendance.
As many things as Serrano and staff members such as Larry Simcox and Aric Thomas did right during their time in Knoxville, it was the inability to get over the hump in SEC action that truly cost them. They knew about the SEC powerhouses in place before they even answered any phone calls about a job wearing an orange cap. Most years it’s undoubtedly the premier league in the nation.
The six seasons under Serrano combined, Tennessee went 55-120 in the SEC. Not included in those totals is an 0-3 mark in three different SEC tournament experiences. In all three contests, the victors won one-run games in either the eighth or ninth innings.
The most desirable trait of the head baseball coach in Knoxville isn’t the ability to scout talent or outrecruit rivals or market the program. To Serrano, it’s about getting Volunteers to accept, believe and know that they can continue winning when the weekend series in the SEC get underway.
“I’ve always felt that we have fallen short in regards to our belief that we can win in the SEC, and I’ve seen that many a times,” Serrano told InsideTennessee. “We went 20-4 in non-conference games — 20-4. It doesn’t make sense. You go 20-4 and you go 7-21 in conference. Those don’t coincide with each other. So there’s something that’s missing when we get to SEC games.
“I think it’s a belief. I think it’s a belief that you can win in the SEC. We just never had that, we never had that. I think that’s the first task is finding players that are going to believe they can win. I believe there are some guys remaining that, as they continue to mature and grow, they’re going to start getting that feeling.”
Those young Volunteers may do just as Serrano suggested. Or, they may bounce for a year of junior-college baseball and then potentially onto the MLB Draft. Whether they stay or not, Serrano’s successor is going to need an influx of talent if Tennessee is going to compete.
It’s going to be hard. When your in-state nemesis can offer full-ride scholarships without having to use 0.01 percent of a baseball scholarship or a National Letter of Intent, that drains the pool of talent within the state’s borders considerably. Whoever puts on the Power T cap next will know that gorilla is waiting around the corner before he holds his press conference to lay out plans to lead the Vols back to Omaha.
Serrano paused and provided details of what he’d whisper in his own ear if he could go back to 2011 and offer himself advice.
“Don’t let the little things slip because this conference is all about the little things,” Serrano told IT.
“Over the course of six years, we made some recruiting decisions that might not have worked out for us. Really that’s what it comes down to. It comes down to recruiting and the players that you have in the program. I said this the other night: I didn’t all of a sudden become unintelligent of coaching baseball. But sometimes I feel we fell a little short on the athletes, the depth of our team. That’s what I would change in regards to if I started over. I’d make different philosophy changes in recruiting.”
The door is closed on the Serrano era in Knoxville. Soon he’ll be back in a dugout calling pitches, putting his arm around young men to slow their thinking and helping a program put Ws in the column. No matter what he does from here, he says, not being able to see his visions of glory on Rocky Top achieved will stay with him.
“It’s been six very good years of living here in the city of Knoxville and running this program — that’s for me personally,” Serrano said. “Professionally, it wasn’t as good as I anticipated. But sometimes in life, you don’t always get what you want in life and what you put into it. That’s the only regrets that I have is that I didn’t bring a winner to this community.
"I feel there are so many people that have been so good to me. I said earlier — my thank you to everyone — I wish my thank you was College World Series appearances, (NCAA) regional appearances and wins. That’s how I wish I could thank everyone. But my thank you is how I’ve handled myself, how our team has handled itself with pride and dignity and class. That’s something we can control. I can’t control wins all the time but it’s been a great ride, it’s been a great ride. It’s been a tough ride though, too. I’ve been a spoiled, spoiled coach my whole life. I’ve won a lot as an assistant coach and a head coach. I’ve won a lot of games. And I never knew what it’d feel like to be what I feel right now for six years.
“I’ll get off the mat, I promise, and I’ve said this very confidently: I’ll get off the mat and I’ll be successful again. The part that will still sting me one day is that it wasn’t here at the University of Tennessee. That’s the part that will sting because I love this place.”