SCHNEIDER: Tim Corbin has turned Vandy into the gold standard of college baseball

Vanderbilt was once an afterthought in the college baseball landscape. Now, the National Champions are atop the sport.

Across the table in an Omaha pizza joint, two former Commodore baseball players spoke about their days in Nashville.

“In the colder games in early February, we didn’t have any heating,” said one player from the Class of 2000. “We used to drag these giant space heaters into the dugout. We didn’t have the budget to use them the whole game, so we had a choice of getting heat for the first half or the second half. We always chose the first, thinking our adrenaline would carry us through.”

“It’s just really hard to believe that Vanderbilt is here,” added the other.

That 2000 Vanderbilt team went 5-24 in SEC play and 21-33 overall. For those Commodores, that was a typical season. In the 22 years before Tim Corbin arrived on campus, Vanderbilt didn’t finish .500 in conference play once.

Since then, the man they call “Corbs” has created a program that ranks right up there with Alabama Football and Kentucky Basketball, a program that is the face of college baseball, and a program that understands what it means to be great. His team cemented that last night with an 8-2 victory over Michigan in the deciding Game Three of the College World Series Finals in Omaha.

“My coach, Tim Corbin, he’s Nick Saban,” said Kumar Rocker, Vanderbilt’s freshman phenom who had been named the College World Series Most Outstanding Player just minutes before.

Comparisons to the Alabama head coach are far from uncommon at this point. It’s an improbable ascension to the top for a university of just 6800 undergraduate students and for a coach who started his career sleeping in his car on recruiting trips.

“Tim Corbin is the best head coach in America, no matter what sport,” said Michigan head coach Erik Bakich.

It isn’t hyperbole from Bakich, who coached alongside Corbin at Vanderbilt for seven years. In a sport where the best team can lose on any given day, where failing 70% of the time is the sign of a great player, Tim Corbin’s team is always right there at the end. They are the picture of consistency.

This is Vanderbilt’s 14th consecutive year in the NCAA Tournament, the second longest active streak in college baseball. It’s the school’s fourth trip to the College World Series since 2011, third Finals trip, and second National Championship, making them the only team to have won twice in that span.

Before Corbin got there, this was a team that had reached the NCAA Tournament just three times in its history, and the College World Series exactly zero times. Four years under Larry Schmittou in the early 1970s was the only extended span of success in the past half-century. Before the turn of the 21st century, if you told someone that Vanderbilt be a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the gold standard of the sport, they would have laughed in your face. Now, that sentiment is echoed from those in the opposite dugout.

“Vanderbilt is the program you grew up watching, just studying everything they did,” said Joe Donovan, Michigan’s sophomore catcher. “Seeing it up close, you are even more impressed. You think, okay, that’s it. That’s who we want to be. That’s why they have that trophy tonight and it’s not their first one.”

Donovan is right. Michigan is a program that wants to be like Vanderbilt, and if its run in Omaha proved anything, it’s not that far off. Bakich has molded his team in a very Vanderbilt-manner, with stellar pitching, offensive depth, and a loose, have-fun attitude. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they ran into the real copy, and this version of it might be the best college baseball has ever seen.

The 2019 Vanderbilt Commodores won at every level, capturing an SEC regular season title, an SEC Tournament title, and a College World Series title. They defeated every conference opponent they faced, winning eight of ten series, scoring nearly nine runs per game in the process. Their 100 home runs ranked first in all of college baseball. Their 765 strikeouts are an NCAA record. Their 59 wins are an SEC record, and are the most by a team since 1989.

That’s all in the now. Look to the future and the story of this team will likely continue to grow.

13 Vanderbilt players were selected in the 2019 MLB Draft earlier this month, including JJ Bleday, who was drafted fourth overall by the Miami Marlins. The next two years project Austin Martin as a top-three pick in 2020 and Rocker as the number one pick in 2021. Given the success Vanderbilt has had in the Corbin era in producing Major League talent, it’s fair to forecast greater success from this crop of players.

JJ Bleday salutes the crowd after an 8-2 victory to win the College World Series.

It’s Corbin’s shining moment in an already outstanding career at the helm of the program he helped build. This team is his finest work.

The top-ranked team before the season started and the highest ranked team heading into Omaha, Vanderbilt has had a target on its back all year. 2001 was the last time the favorite won the College World Series. Corbin has never worried about that. He’s instilled a level of humility in his team that exudes regardless of their level of success.

“We never talked about championships, we didn’t talk about winning the SEC, we didn’t talk about winning a regional,” said Corbin. “We just stayed very localized in their thinking, and I attribute that to the older kids. That situation callused their brain, and because they did that, it allowed them to get closer to maturity than maybe if that didn’t happen.”

That humility and maturity manifests itself in the little things for the Commodores. They make sure to push in their chairs when they finish press conferences. They stand in a perfect line, without fail, for the National Anthem. If one player wears high socks, they all wear high socks.

This team’s mentality is on doing things the right way. The championships come with it. That’s a credit to Corbin and the way he’s run his program. That’s the gold standard.

Today, his team comes home to Hawkins Field to celebrate its National Championship, at the home Tim Corbin built when he started at Vanderbilt back in 2003.

He’ll look out from his desk inside the left field wall at the beautiful facilities befit of an Alabama-level program. It’s a far cry from a university using portable space heaters for a few innings at a time during games.

Credit that to the best head coach in America.