Playing college baseball is a dream come true for many high schoolers…that sometimes turns into a nightmare for college coaches whose own dream comes with much higher stakes.
It wasn’t a surprise to read last week that the University of Dayton’s Tony Vittorio ‘resigned’ his post as the Flyers’ baseball coach after 18 seasons. It’s too bad from a personal standpoint. Few I’ve ever worked with over the years were better than Tony from a communication standpoint. He was a funny guy who always gave you a story, and he gave you the truth.
The only surprise was that 15 of his 18 seasons had been pretty good years, by Dayton standards. UD wasn’t known as a baseball school before Vittorio took the job, and despite sending three pitchers to the big leagues during his tenure (Craig Stammen, Jerry Blevins, and Mike Hauschild), it wasn’t known as a baseball school while Vittorio was there.
It’s hard to think of how his replacement might change that; because winning baseball programs at schools like Dayton are hard to build – for a couple of reasons.
One, it’s hard to recruit kids when you only have 11.5 scholarships to hand out (in Division I baseball). As a coach you end up parceling out a few thousand here and a few thousand there to most players. Rarely, and I mean rarely, does anyone in college baseball get a full ride.
Second, a few thousand here and there doesn’t go far with a school that costs $50,000 at year to attend, and Dayton, along with schools like Xavier, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and a host of other private schools are in that neighborhood…or higher. Compare that to Wright State, or Bowling Green, or even Ohio State, where the fee is half that, or less. Kids and parents aren’t dumb when it comes to money; they can do the math. 20% of $20,000 leaves a whole lot less to pay out of pocket than 20% of $50,000.
So where Ohio State might get a baseball stud that wants to study business, Dayton gets a business school stud that happens to be a good high school baseball player, as well. I’ve covered the Flyers for three years now and have yet to meet a kid who turned down Ohio State or Michigan baseball money to study engineering at Dayton.
And, while some will make the argument that high-rollers like Vanderbilt and Stanford have excellent baseball traditions – weather has something to do with that. Vanderbilt is a member of the climate friendly Southeastern Conference; and Stanford is a card-carrying member of the PAC-12.
Tony Vittorio didn’t quit last week because he couldn’t coach. He didn’t wear out his welcome because he didn’t know baseball. No, I’ve known him for years and he’s an excellent practitioner, particularly for a school like Dayton who doesn’t get the state’s top hitting and pitching prospects.
Vittorio built his program, and resume’, at Dayton playing ‘small ball’, where instead of having a lineup of .350 hitters…you bunt, steal a base, move up on a ground ball to the right side, and eventually score on a sac fly, a wild pitch, a squeeze bunt, whatever – etc., etc.
He peaked in 2012, when the Flyers’ won 30 games, won the A-10 Conference title, and appeared in the NCAA regional tournament…by playing ‘small ball’.
Prior to that he had some decent years, he had some better years, and some years were like this year…when the Flyers won their final three games against lowly LaSalle to finish 20-35. But to give you an idea – he won 461 games at Dayton, and in the end it wasn’t enough to save his job.
Vittorio’s story is one that parents and high school players should consider when they talk about playing college baseball…at any level. It’s a story I’ve written about in the past, pertinent to the naive that believe that college baseball is as colloquial as the average high school program where you get cookies and goody bag treats to munch on between games of a double-header.
College baseball is about winning. It’s not about building character, it’s not about handshake lines, and it’s not about playing time. That said, if you your son wants to play college baseball, especially at the Division I level, he needs to understand that the way he plays has a lot to do with the future, the lives, and the livelyhood of people like Tony Vittorio…and UC’s Ty Neal, who announced this week that he was stepping down from the Bearcats’ head position. UC, by the way, is presently playing in the American Conference post-season tournament. Neal said his decision was for personal reasons.
College baseball comes with more responsibility than just being a good teammate, a good representative of the school, or being popular. It had been rumored for weeks at Dayton that Vittorio was in a tenuous position, a fact that made players admit regret for the fact of their record. They knew. Had they finished 35-20…Tony Vittorio would probably still be coach.
I think about it often when I hear parents complaining about high school coaches – and lack of playing time, lack of “fairness”, and lack of communication (meaning willing to listen to complaints).
I hear them talk about how ‘Johnny’ is just as good as the next kid, but for some reason he’s not playing.
I hear them say, “If Johnny only got a chance to prove what he could do.”
Well, here’s the bottom line. When if Johnny plays in college he’ll get that chance, at least once. And what he does with it will go a long way towards how much he plays in the future, if he plays at all. That’s how it is where jobs are on the line. Coaches remember how Johnny played…because their own future depends on how Johnny plays.
And unfortunately, at Dayton they remembered last week how a lot of Johnnys had played since 2012. There were injuries, yes. And frankly, there were losses against some teams they probably shouldn’t have played…Maryland and Kentucky.
But I regret that Tony will not be coaching the Flyers next year, while wishing his replacement nothing but the best. Most of all…I wish the players the best of luck. They’re good kids; and no one since Abner Doubleday has been able to explain just how a program eventually turns it around. Except…with better players playing better baseball.
It’s something you should think about if you want to play college baseball!