Photo by Danny Parker

The 'ceiling' of Tennessee baseball

All any program can ask is for a new head coach to take their program to its potential. Tennessee will soon have a new leader to attempt to do just that. But just what does the ceiling of Vols baseball look like?

It is no secret that Tennessee baseball has fallen on hard times in the last decade. Director of athletics John Currie will take his turn swinging for a home-run hire in the coming days.

What realistic expectations are there for the new Vols skipper?

Before answering that question we need to take a look back on the history of Tennessee baseball.

It's a program that has followed the same path as a number of other aspects of Tennessee athletics as the hardballers enjoyed a stellar decade in the 1990s. Baseball, football and women's basketball all enjoyed the time period with championships but haven't accomplished those feats in recent history.

While Tennessee football and women's basketball rank at or near the top in most historic measures of success in the Southeastern Conference, baseball simply doesn't have that kind of tradition of winning.

Since 1948 the Vols have had 10 different head coaches in baseball. Only three of those have carried winning records and only one with a winning percentage over .600.

Rod Delmonico spent 18 years as the head man and was at the helm for the glory days of the '90s where his squads won three SEC championships and went to the 1995 College World Series.

As that decade came to a close the stability of the program began to show problems. In 1998 the Vols went 11-17 in the SEC and followed that up with back-to-back years of 10-20 and 10-18 marks in the league. However, Delmonico righted the ship by taking his program back to Omaha in 2001 and 2005.

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Those last two College World Series teams were the last two to post a winning record in the SEC. In fact, Delmonico was only able to do that seven times in his 18 years on Rocky Top.

The state of the SEC is significantly different than it was in the early-to-mid 90s where Tennessee won three straight Eastern Division crowns.  

The SEC has won seven CWS titles since 1995 while only winning three previously.

Expansion also has made an impact on the strength of the SEC. South Carolina owns two of those national championships and has been to Omaha six times since joining the SEC. Arkansas earned its way to the CWS in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2015. Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012 and has made trips to NCAA regionals every season since. 

Two traditional weak programs in the SEC — Kentucky and Vanderbilt — have enjoyed unprecedented success in the last decade. Vanderbilt has gone to a NCAA regional all but one season since 2004, winning the university's first national championship in any male sport in 2014. Kentucky had only two NCAA trips before 2006 but have gone to five since. 

Simply put the SEC is a much tougher league to win now than ever. 

With success and growing popularity in SEC baseball comes facility upgrades. 

With Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M amongst others having stadiums that closely resemble Double-A minor league stadiums, Tennessee has fallen behind the Joneses. However is should be noted that Florida and Vanderbilt both have established themselves as national powers without the luxury of such facilities. 

It might take a well-educated mathematician to understand the economics behind baseball scholarships. It is in this area that is the most glaring issue hampering Tennessee baseball. 

Division I baseball teams are limited by the NCAA to 11.7 scholarships. Those athletic scholarships can be split between 27 players on a roster of 35 with the remaining eight players not receiving any athletic countable aid. 

It is outside of the countable athletic aid where recruiting in the SEC is an uneven playing field. Some programs enjoy a more advantageous opportunity for combining such outside aid.  

In a recruiting world where the player oftentimes chooses the biggest percentage scholarship offer, how those packages are put together is a significant piece of the puzzle while fighting for a prospect. 

Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas A&M all seem to have similar profiles for awarding non-countable aid to all of their students. While all these schools do offer scholarships based on academic merit, those requirements are relatively high in GPA and/or ACT score and relatively low in monetary amounts of a few thousands dollars. This group does not enjoy discounts of out-of-state tuition like others in the SEC. 

Alabama and Auburn are of the few schools in the league that do not have any state lottery to subsidize their students. 

Florida and Georgia both have strong programs within their state to fund all students. The Bright Futures program in the Sunshine State offers students aid when they meet a certain criteria. The Gators take full advantage of their talent-rich state as only four players from their roster aren't from Florida. 

LSU has a structure in place that allows prospects to get significant awards, especially if they are out of state with a good academic profile.

Arkansas offers a target area that allows their baseball recruiting to focus on bordering states that get significant deductions in out-of-state tuition. The Razorbacks clearly take advantage as 75 percent of their roster is instate or within that area set by the school.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs have 11 junior-college players on their roster which is the most in the SEC and the scholarship structure in Starkville is a big reason for that. They get sizable breaks in tuition for good students that transfer from junior colleges. 

South Carolina enjoys the HOPE scholarship like a number of other schools in the SEC but they also provide some need-based aid. 

Vanderbilt is the school in the SEC that has the best availability of aid for its students. It is one of only 13 Division I schools that meets the full financial need of every student. In layman's terms, if a student doesn't have the ability to pay, then the school picks up the difference. 

So what does all this mean?

It means the SEC is tougher than it was during the Big Orange glory days of the 90s. 

It means the recruiting hurdles that Tennessee faces today is much different than before.

So it is going to be a significant uphill climb for the new skipper of the Volunteers to get back to those levels of success on the diamond.

If the greatest period in the history of Tennessee baseball could only muster winning seasons in the SEC in 7 of 18 years when the league wasn't as dominant, it isn't realistic to expect more now.

If John Currie can hire a coach a that can have a winning SEC record anywhere close to half the time, takes his team to an NCAA regional in those winning years, catches lightning in a bottle once in a decade on his way to Omaha and keeps his players successful in the classroom, he will have hit a grand slam with this hire.

History says to expect a higher ceiling that includes making Tennessee baseball a national power just isn't realistic. Especially with the current landscape of the SEC.

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