Finally, Tim Corbin was in the middle of the party.
As Vanderbilt players celebrated the program's first national championship on the makeshift dais on the field at TD Ameritrade Park, they hefted Corbin onto their shoulders. He looked around at the scene, his face a picture of fatherly pride while he fought back tears. It was an unfamiliar spot for Corbin, who usually watches on-field celebrations from the dugout when his Commodores win regionals, super regionals or other big games.
“It's the best feeling in the world. It's the parent just watching your kids open the Christmas gift," Corbin said after watching his team celebrate a trip to the CWS Finals a few days earlier. “You don't hustle under the tree and start opening yours with them. I don't want to be in that mess; I just want to watch it. I think that's the part that coaches get. That's the gratification of watching your kids celebrate moments like that and just being able to take it in, and I just enjoy it."
Corbin can't help but view his team as a father would view his children. He often speaks of the family atmosphere surrounding the Vanderbilt program, and his players have bought in to his vision. It's a major reason Vanderbilt has become a model program, and a big reason Corbin is Baseball America's 2014 College Coach of the Year.
“The Vanderbilt way. First off, it's a brotherhood," Vandy second baseman Dansby Swanson said before the CWS Finals. “It's a family. It's faith in one another. It's loving the guy to your left, right, no matter what. And on the field it's trying to be the best at everything. Coming every day to work to get better, good pitching, good defense, good hitting, timely hitting. It's the whole package. And we pride ourselves on loving each other and always being there and just creating that type of family atmosphere."
After Swanson was announced as Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series, Corbin wrapped him in a huge bear hug before he climbed the dais to accept his award. Both were overcome by emotion.
“You know, he's like my second dad," Swanson said moments later. “He's the greatest guy, and to win something like this for him, as a team, you can't even control your emotions with it, really. I mean, I've already cried twice hugging him. I love him to death, and I know every other player does, and we respect him. I think he's the best coach in college baseball. He's a leader, he's a mentor, and he lives out his life the way he preaches. And that means a lot."
Fifteen years ago, a Finals matchup between Virginia and Vanderbilt would have been inconceivable. But over the last decade, it seemed inevitable the two would eventually reach the pinnacle of college baseball.
When Vanderbilt hired Corbin to take over its baseball program after the 2002 season, the Commodores had been to just three regionals, and none since 1980. They had never sniffed Omaha. Vandy has made 10 regionals since 2004, winning five of them. The 'Dores broke through to Omaha for the first time in 2011.
The turning point came in 2003, Corbin's first year. The Commodores hadn't reached the Southeastern Conference tournament in 12 years. Heading into the season, they talked about wanting to win their last game at Tennessee. Heading into that series, they needed a sweep to make the tournament, while the Volunteers needed to win just once.
|COACH OF THE YEAR WINNERS
(asterisk denotes national champion)
|1981||Ron Fraser, Miami|
|1982||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1983||Barry Shollenberger, Alabama|
|1984||*Augie Garrido, Cal State Fullerton|
|1985||Ron Polk, Mississippi State|
|1986||Skip Bertman, Louisiana State|
|Dave Snow, Loyola Marymount|
|1987||*Mark Marquess, Stanford|
|1988||Jim Brock, Arizona State|
|1989||Dave Snow, Long Beach State|
|1990||*Steve Webber, Georgia|
|1991||Jim Hendry, Creighton|
|1992||*Andy Lopez, Pepperdine|
|1993||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1994||Jim Morris, Miami|
|1995||Rod Delmonico, Tennessee|
|1996||*Skip Bertman, Louisiana State|
|1997||Jim Wells, Alabama|
|1998||Pat Murphy, Arizona State|
|1999||Wayne Graham, Rice|
|2000||Ray Tanner, South Carolina|
|2001||Dave Van Horn, Nebraska|
|2002||*Augie Garrido, Texas|
|2003||George Horton, Cal State Fullerton|
|2004||David Perno, Georgia|
|2005||Rick Jones, Tulane|
|2006||*Pat Casey, Oregon State|
|2007||Dave Serrano, UC Irvine|
|2008||Mike Fox, North Carolina|
|2009||*Paul Mainieri, Louisiana State|
|2010||*Ray Tanner, South Carolina|
|2011||Kevin O'Sullivan, Florida|
|2012||Mike Martin, Florida State|
|2013||*John Savage, UCLA|
|2014||*Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt|
“We won Friday night, we won Saturday, and we were losing by two runs in the bottom of the ninth Sunday," Corbin recalled. “This kid named Worth Scott—who was hitting .176 at the time who I was considering pinch-hitting for with a runner on first base, we had gotten the lead down to one run—comes up, and off of Luke Hochevar hits a ball over the right-field fence to win the game, and they celebrated at home plate like we had talked about. I do think that was the kickoff moment. It got our program going. It was the one moment that everyone who was tied with Vanderbilt baseball knew that, 'OK, these guys can do something. It can move forward.'"
College baseball coaches aren't like major league managers, whose job is to get the most out of talent procured for them by other men. College coaches are CEOs and program builders. They must hire the right assistants, recruit the right players, maintain relationships with alumni and supporters and administrators, teach fundamental and advanced baseball skills, and foster nurturing environments to allow the impressionable young men in their charge to mature. The family atmosphere Corbin has created in Nashville has kept prominent alumni like David Price and Pedro Alvarez close to the program, and kept more extremely talented players flooding in.
Corbin is a model program builder, universally respected by his peers and even by the often-critical scouts and front-office officials who work in pro ball. He has made the perfect hires for his coaching staff, working with one star assistant after another, from Erik Bakich and Derek Johnson to Josh Holliday, Travis Jewett and Scott Brown.
Corbin has built it all the right way, and his program has made the jump from admirable to truly elite, without ever sacrificing its core values. It is a family, and that is how it will remain under Corbin.
“My first day here, I looked back at last year, and I knew that I got into something very, very special," Vandy righthander Carson Fulmer said. “I look at all my teammates as brothers. I look at coach, our pitching coach, I look at them as father figures. Words can't describe this experience . . . It is something that we've always dreamed of doing as a team, and we finally accomplished it."