If you had said that Vanderbilt could become one of the country’s elite college baseball programs when Tim Corbin was hired as its new head coach in 2003, you would’ve been considered overly optimistic at best and delusional at worst.
But that’s exactly what Corbin has done during his time with the Commodores, culminating in a national championship series victory over Virginia last Wednesday night. The baseball team became the first men’s program at Vanderbilt to win a national title in school history.
While the Commodores have been relevant on the national stage for the past several years, there was a time before Corbin arrived that the program was an afterthought not just nationally, but in the SEC as well. The school and its fanbase didn’t really get behind the baseball team before Corbin’s tenure, resulting in poor attendance and subpar facilities.
Prior to 2003, Vanderbilt had made just three NCAA tournaments in its history (with the last coming in 1980), and had never made it to a Super Regional. Quite simply, Corbin inherited a program that had the tradition of perennial failure.
Despite the obstacles he faced, it didn’t take long for him to change the culture in Nashville, leading the Commodores back to the NCAA tournament and to their first Super Regional in 2004, just his second season with the team.
The 2007 season was a banner one for the program, as Vanderbilt won the SEC regular season and tournament championships for the first time in school history. Behind the play of a trio of star players, David Price, Pedro Alvarez, and Casey Weathers (each of whom were first team All-Americans), the Commodores entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
But their dream season ended earlier than anticipated and in extremely heartbreaking fashion when they were ousted in regional play by the Michigan Wolverines. In the 10th inning of their matchup, Michigan’s Alan Oaks, who batted just .188 during the season, hit a go-ahead home run off of Price to ultimately bring an end to the Commodores’ season.
The 2011 and 2013 seasons also looked like they could potentially be the years that Vanderbilt at long last captured a national title, with the Commodores even advancing to the program’s first College World Series in ’11. But Corbin and his team came up short each time. It almost seemed as if Vanderbilt and its fans were doomed to never feel the exhilaration of a national championship.
Corbin and his young squad changed all of that in 2014, even though many saw this year’s team as the foundation for a future national champion, not a contender to get to Omaha this season. That seemed to be an accurate assessment of the team in April, when the Commodores lost consecutive series to two mediocre SEC opponents, Texas A&M and Arkansas, to fall to 8-10 in conference play.
It was after those losses that Vanderbilt started showing the resiliency that became its hallmark during an improbable NCAA tournament run.
After winning 12 of their final 18 games entering the NCAA tournament, Corbin’s Commodores started their trek to Omaha, defeating Xavier and Oregon (twice) to advance to the Super Regional. There, they faced the Stanford Cardinal, taking two out of three from them to get back to Omaha for the second time in school history.
Vanderbilt dispatched Louisville and UC Irvine before dropping a game to Texas, setting up a do-or-die matchup against the Longhorns. In the rematch, the Commodores were victorious in extra innings, thanks to Tyler Campbell, who made just one start during the regular season. Cambell took over at third base for Xavier Turner, who was suspended for undisclosed NCAA violations, and quickly became a household name among college baseball fans when he hit a walk-off single in the 10th inning to send his team to the College World Series final.
Vanderbilt split the first two games of the final series with the Virginia Cavaliers, setting up a decisive third game for the title. It was in that game that Commodores center fielder John Norwood would etch his name in both Vanderbilt and College World Series lore.
With the game tied 2-2 in the 8th inning, Norwood turned on a Nick Howard fastball to give Vanderbilt a 3-2 lead on the team’s first home run since May 16. When Adam Ravenelle retired Virginia’s final three batters in the final frame, the Commodores had captured the school’s first men’s national championship and second overall (women’s bowling won the national title in 2007).
The run to Omaha by Corbin’s team was like something out of a Hollywood movie, with unheralded players becoming stars and the Commodores fighting off elimination on three separate occasions.
With only two seniors on this year’s roster, Vanderbilt will almost certainly be the favorite to repeat as national champions heading into 2015. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but this team seems to have the necessary character and resolve to pull of the remarkable feat.
Whether or not they will be able to repeat is a question best saved for a better day, because some Vanderbilt fans have been waiting their entire lives to celebrate and cherish this very moment. More celebrations may be on the way for them, as the future looks very bright for the Commodores. After all, now that the first national championship is out of the way, the sky’s the limit for Tim Corbin and the Vanderbilt Commodores.