Full Steam Ahead: Vanderbilt Has Become College Baseball's Gold Standard
From his spacious office just behind the monstrous left field fence at Hawkins Field, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin has the perfect perch from which to consider his program’s direction. Last fall, following the Commodores’ second national championship in six years and with a new decade about to dawn, was an opportune time to consider the future in Nashville.
At Vanderbilt, the refrain is typically their slogan, “Anchor down.” But around Hawkins Field, “Full steam ahead” has been more appropriate for the Commodores during Corbin’s first 17 years at the program’s helm.
Corbin’s office is still relatively new. He has occupied it for two years and it sits atop an impressive, expansive player development facility that cost $12 million. It was the latest development at Hawkins Field, which itself opened in 2002, just months before Corbin took over the program. Built within the footprint of McGugin Field, which served as the Commodores’ home for 76 years, over the last two decades its seating capacity has doubled as it has grown out of the shadow of its neighbors, Vanderbilt Stadium, the football team’s home, and Memorial Gymnasium.
Everything about Vanderbilt baseball has undergone a similar change under Corbin. The program, which had only made the NCAA Tournament three times before his arrival, has become one of the sport’s gold standards and now boasts a pair of national titles. It is a recruiting juggernaut, regularly drawing premium high school players from across the country to Nashville. The program’s success stretches beyond the diamond. Vanderbilt has become one of the most diverse teams in the country at a time when college baseball is strikingly homogeneous. Corbin has found a way to push the envelope in nearly every direction for the betterment of his players.
None of that is by accident. From his perch above Hawkins Field, Corbin is always looking for ways to improve the program in all aspects.
“For me, it’s very singular in nature,” he said. “I don’t have anything else that I really think about. Thankfully, my wife and I, outside of the girls, this is all we think about.”
So, what’s next at Vanderbilt?
On the field, expect more of the same over the next decade. Third baseman Austin Martin and righthander Kumar Rocker could be the No. 1 picks in the next two drafts. This year, that duo leads a team that is the preseason No. 1. The Commodores landed the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation, the record sixth time they have brought a No. 1 class to campus. Their 2020 class ranked No. 2 on signing day.
Off the field, big ideas are racing through Corbin’s mind. College baseball’s biggest legislative priorities—increasing the number of scholarships and full-time coaching positions—are at the forefront of his thoughts. He wants to improve the game’s diversity, to find new ways for baseball to benefit the players, the universities and the communities at large.
“If we’re not improving, we’re not moving the needle for college baseball either,” he said. “College baseball improves when programs improve and bring the right type of attention to the program and the right type of attention to the growth within the program. I see our program as a way to benefit diversity, benefit the kids, benefit education, benefit the community in so many different ways.”
In short, Corbin is going to keep pushing the envelope. At 58, having built an elite program at a small private school devoid of tradition in the mighty Southeastern Conference and won two national titles, it might be natural to start looking for the finish line.
Corbin, however, doesn’t sound like someone entering the final stage of his career. How long does he think he’ll keep coaching?
“I think until I’m dead,” he said. “If I fall through the ground, then that’s it, I guess.”
Striking a more serious tone, Corbin said as long as he’s still in tune with his players, in shape mentally and physically and curious, he intends to keep coaching.
So, he’s far from slowing down. If anything, Corbin is accelerating.
“Sometimes I feel like I just started,” he said. “I really do. Like this is my first year on the job. I could personally critique myself that way too. If we’re not getting better, then I don’t need to be doing this.”
It will be hard for Vanderbilt to improve on its 2019 season. The Commodores went 59-12 to lead the nation in wins and set an SEC single-season record. Only one team this century won more games than they did—Florida State in 2002—and no national champion since Wichita State in 1989 had won as many games as they did. It truly was a remarkable team that will go down in history as one of the best.
That, however, is all in the past. Corbin understands that every season is unique, and every team must separate itself from all that has come before. That’s easier said than done, but within a week of the season ending last year, Corbin was already planning how he would foster that attitude in the 2020 Commodores. Everyone in the program deliberately has turned the page from last season, ready to start a new chapter.
There’s a different view outside the locker room walls. Vanderbilt has a target on its back as the reigning national champion. It is what every team in the country is chasing and, as a result, it’s going to get everyone’s best shot all year long.
But the Commodores are used to that as well. After nearly 15 years of having been one of the country’s elite programs and morphing into college baseball’s version of Duke men’s basketball, Vanderbilt is used to being circled on opponents’ schedules.
“The perspective of others outside of your group is, ‘That’s the team or that’s the school that won the national championship,’ whether it has anything to do with those players or not,” Corbin said. “There’s a lot that comes with that, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with it, luggage that you carry—that you don’t know you’re carrying, but you’re carrying it.
“It’s the rubble that’s left behind from years past.”
Vanderbilt will contend with that rubble in 2020. There is again a wealth of talent in Nashville starting with Preseason All-Americans Martin, Rocker and closer Tyler Brown. Catcher Ty Duvall and second baseman Harrison Ray are back as everyday players in their senior years and lefthander Jake Eder and righthander Mason Hickman return to key roles on the pitching staff.
Vanderbilt Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
In the big picture, Vanderbilt is operating at an extremely high level right now, but it will go into 2021 as an inexperienced team.
But there is also a newness to this team. The Commodores must replace a wealth of experience from a team that featured SEC Player of the Year JJ Bleday and six impactful seniors. This is an annual exercise at Vanderbilt, where large draft classes are naturally followed by elite recruiting classes full of players ready to take their places.
Integrating the newcomers into the team as quickly as possible is a crucial step to keeping Vanderbilt running like a well-oiled machine. Corbin likens the team to a fraternity and the older players take it upon themselves to help the freshmen get acclimated.
“We just try to embrace the freshmen as quickly as we can, get to know them as quickly as we can,” Martin said. “It allows them to be a lot more comfortable on the field. As quick as they can get comfortable on the field, the better they can perform and that’s only going to help the team.”
This year’s newcomers are led by righthander Jack Leiter, the New Jersey native and son of former big league all-star Al Leiter. He was the highest ranked player for the 2019 draft who did not sign. Leiter came to Nashville in a similar situation as Rocker did a year ago. Rocker said he worked with Leiter this fall to help ease his adjustment to college.
“I’m in his ear a lot,” Rocker said. “As of right now, he’s very quiet. Gets the job done, gets his work done and gets out, which is exactly what I did last year.”
Next year, Leiter will pass on those same lessons to the next class of freshmen. It’s exactly the kind of player-led culture coaches value so highly. And it should perpetuate itself years into the future, helping to keep Vanderbilt among the nation’s elite.
In the short term, that culture has Vanderbilt ready for what promises to be a challenging 2020 season. No team has repeated as national champions since South Carolina in 2010 and 2011. Corbin knows exactly how hard it is to repeat, having fallen just short of the mark against Virginia in the 2015 CWS finals.
From the outside, Vanderbilt is certain to be viewed through the lens of the 2019 season. But as he looks through the left field wall at Hawkins Field, Corbin has a different view of success for the 2020 Commodores.
“At the end of the year if we can look back and see that was a team that wrote its own chapter, it did its own thing, it separated itself in a unique way from the year before and then it developed its own personality—team personality—then I’ll be happy with that,” Corbin said.