Elevator ball

Rod Delmonico's firing as head baseball coach at the University of Tennessee hardly qualifies as a surprise. His job security had been a heated topic of debate several times during the past five years.

Certainly, Delmonico's 18-year tenure at UT was punctuated by dramatic highs and lows. Just 18 months ago I chronicled these in a Rocky Top News article entitled "Elevator Ball."

Delmonico guided Tennessee to three College World Series appearances in the past 13 years, advancing to Omaha in 1995, 2002 and 2005. He posted three consecutive losing records in SEC play prior to the '02 appearance, however, with more losing records in 2003 and 2004. Following the '05 CWS visit, he went 11-18 in SEC play in 2006 and 13-15 in 2007.

Noting that the SEC routinely places five or six teams in the national top 20, Delmonico maintained that UT's baseball program should be judged on its post-season performance, rather than its conference performance.

"It's about getting to a regional," he said. "Then you're just five wins from Omaha.... My goal each year is to get us in a regional and put us in position to win in post-season."

Delmonico's Vols qualified for NCAA Regionals in 2002, 2004 and 2005. The '02 team went 5-1 in regional play and 2-2 in the College World Series. The '04 team went 1-2 in regional play. The '05 team went 5-2 and also advanced to the CWS. Tennessee was not invited to participate in regional play in 2006 or 2007, perhaps sealing Delmonico's doom.

The coach regularly suggested there were three reasons for his program's relative inconsistency.

One factor, as already noted, is the SEC's excellence in baseball. Another factor is weather. Among the 12 SEC programs, only Kentucky is farther north than Tennessee. As a result, the Vols are forced to hold more of their preseason practices indoors than most of their league opponents. Or, as Delmonico put it: "Weather doesn't factor in for football, but it does for baseball."

Another problem cited by the deposed coach was UT's commitment to baseball, financial and otherwise.

"Right now we're 11th (among the 12 SEC schools) in budget and we're 11th in facilities," he said in our earlier interview. "We've got to make an adjustment there. When you talk about ballpark, atmosphere and all that, there are 10 other SEC stadiums that are better than us. Our football stadium is one of the top two in the conference. But when you compare baseball stadiums, we're 11th."

Lindsey Nelson Stadium was considered state of the art when it was built in 1993. Fourteen years later, it's one of the SEC's lesser venues.

"We built our stadium in 1993, and it was outdated in '96," Delmonico said. "In three years we fell behind. When we built it in 1993 we were in the top five in the conference and No. 14 in the country. Now we're not even in the top 30 on the East Coast."

Delmonico always felt that if the UT administration would provide the funds to build a first-rate stadium, the baseball program could maintain a more consistent level of success.

"Nebraska built a $19-million baseball facility six years ago," he told me in that fall of 2005 interview. "Since they built it, they've been to Omaha three times."

A national search for Delmonico's successor has begun. Perhaps the new coach will have a bigger budget and better facilities than the man he's replacing. And maybe – just maybe – "Elevator Ball" will become a thing of the past.

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