- Brian Bennett, College Football
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Few college baseball programs have had more talent with no College World Series appearances the past several years than Vanderbilt. So when the Commodores finally earned their way to Omaha this past weekend with a super regional sweep of Oregon State, it came as a relief.
That's one way of looking at it, in the short view. A longer view would suggest that this team has been on a steady climb, and the distance it has traveled in just a decade is pretty remarkable.
What's clear is that Vanderbilt chartered a direct course for this moment as soon as coach Tim Corbin took over before the 2003 season. Now, Corbin gets to compete on his sport's biggest stage as the Commodores (52-10) open play Saturday against North Carolina. "The College World Series in a lot of ways validates your program," Corbin said. "We just hadn't punched that ticket yet."
The Commodores had gotten close, going to two super regionals before this season and taking the No. 1 national seed into the 2007 tournament before losing in the regional final. Although those years brought some disappointments, the program remained light-years ahead of what it once was.
Before Corbin arrived, Vanderbilt hadn't even made the SEC tournament since 1996. Its facilities were so rundown that the old stadium "press box" consisted of a couple of metal folding tables on top of the third-base dugout. Pity the poor reporters and their laptops if it rained.
"We weren't 12th in the SEC in facilities," said Rod Williamson, the school's longtime communications director. "We were probably 15th, behind a few abandoned places. We had nothing, no tradition at all. He got the baton a lap or two behind and had to catch up."
Corbin, who was part of a winning staff at Clemson, quickly made up ground. His first season wasn't easy -- the team had only six pitchers, and the stands were so empty at newly opened Hawkins Field that all the fans there were allowed to come into the press box on cold days.
The Commodores went into the final series that season against a top-25 Tennessee squad needing to win all three games just to qualify for the SEC tournament. They won the first two, then clinched the postseason spot when a player hitting .176 on the season belted the winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.
"More than anything, that moment catapulted our program forward," Corbin said. "It did more for us than any other event in nine years. It gave us confidence."
The next season, Vanderbilt advanced to its first super regional. Since that first year, the team has averaged more than 43 wins per season. Corbin has the gift of being both a straight shooter and a visionary, someone who can convince you that success is coming without using a lot of flowery language to do so.
That's one way he has been able to collect so much talent in Nashville despite working at the SEC's only private school. Because baseball is an equivalency sport, many out-of-state recruits have to foot tuition bills that can run more than more than $30,000 per year not counting books and room and board. Yet Corbin has attracted players from coast to coast, including current major leaguers like David Price, Mike Minor and Pedro Alvarez; he has had 61 players drafted in nine years, including an SEC-record 12 selections this season.
The value of Vanderbilt's education also can help, as some players would rather finish their degrees than leave after their third year of school. Pitcher Taylor Hill and first baseman Aaron Westlake, who hit three home runs in the super regional clincher Saturday night, both came back for their fourth years this season. Reliever Mark Lamm, a sixth-round pick who overcame elbow surgery earlier in his career, is a fifth-year senior.
Corbin's players learn the value of attention to detail. He demands that the locker room and clubhouse areas are kept nearly spotless, for example, and he coaches the team on the exact way to stand motionless during the national anthem (backs straight, look at the flag, toes pointed out with heels together). At the same time, he preaches big-picture goals. He told this year's team in August that it would get to Omaha, and he even had the players practice their super regional dog-pile celebration back in December.
"We always talk about having double vision," Lamm said. "We want to stay in the moment and take care of things today. But we're looking down the road, too."
Vandy still needed to get over the hump and actually play its way into Omaha, and Corbin finally had the team to do it this year. He said he noticed something different right away about this group, which attacked every offseason workout like an elimination game. The players stayed so focused that they lost only one nonconference game and suffered just one two-game losing streak all season. Despite having those 12 draft picks, Corbin said there were never any distractions.
"That's really rare," he said. "It didn't leak into the locker room. There was no parental involvement, no adviser involvement. It never got in the way of what we were trying to do."
The Commodores were on a mission to get to the College World Series, and they breezed through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. They didn't drop a game and won by an average of nearly eight runs per contest. Now the team that has been so close and so talented the past few years will get its turn in the spotlight.
"I think it will propel the program even more," Lamm said. "People have heard about Vanderbilt and seen what Coach Corbin has done over the past nine years, but they haven't necessarily seen us on the national level."
That day is finally here. Or in another view, its arrival is amazing.
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.
Vanderbilt's journey to Omaha hasn't been easy. The Commodores built their program from nothing, and now they're reaping the rewards of their first CWS appearance.