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Vols Baseball embodies our culture of excellence

This essay first appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Friday, June 3.

A year ago, this community fell in love with a gutsy baseball team with a penchant for walk-off home runs, rambunctious celebrations, and reminding others how to find joy amid uncertainty.

The team’s success wasn’t exactly surprising, but it wasn’t a given, either. Throughout that season, our players taught me and so many others the value of wanting something so badly that you’re willing to take big swings to get it – even if you know things might not end the way you want.

If last season offered a lesson in hope, this one is a master class in courage.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team so unafraid of big moments and undaunted by the weight of expectation.

Coach Tony Vitello’s Vols lead the nation in home runs, slugging percentage, ERA, and — most importantly — wins. They’ve already notched some impressive records, including the most home runs in program history, their first No. 1 ranking and their first No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Our team is great – historically so – and proud of it. Our players have their eyes set on a national championship, and while they celebrate their achievements along the way, they never lose sight of the bigger dream.

This team resists the normal human tendency to hedge our ambitions – to protect ourselves from the disappointment of falling short.

But in holding back our expectations, we risk holding back our effort. There is a vulnerability in putting your dreams into words and those words into action. The risk of heartache is greater when you put everything on the line.

When I watch this baseball team – this unabashedly great baseball team – I am reminded of how much we all have to gain when we summon the courage to put everything on the line.

It’s about the trophies and banners, yes. But it’s also about hard work, guts, and determination. It’s about the bond we forge when we experience joy—and even heartache – together.

Last season, the baseball team thrilled fans with their play, but they also inspired hope in a community still emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic. They generated excitement and created momentum that has extended to other programs.

Across our athletics department, we are building a culture where excellence is an expectation. Where the will to win is about the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself.

This year, four Vols teams won SEC championships: women’s soccer, women’s swimming, men’s basketball and baseball. The women’s basketball team returned to the Sweet 16 for the first time in six years. The men’s tennis team advanced to the Final Four last week and 19 of our student-athletes are headed to NCAA track and field championships next week.

Tennessee is currently ranked at No. 14 in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings – the award given to the best showing across all athletic teams and programs. And when baseball rose to No. 1 this season, UT joined Texas as the only Division I program to achieve a top ranking in the five major ticketed sports: football, men’s and women’s basketball, softball, and baseball.

This culture does not stop with athletics.

This culture of excellence and pride in our achievement belongs to the entire university. We have top programs in nuclear engineering, supply chain, accounting, theatre, printmaking, information sciences. Our students arrive from all over the country to be Volunteers and graduate with a commitment to lighting the way for others.

We have some of the top faculty in the world – Fulbrights, Sloan Fellows, WT Grant Foundation award winners. In March, one of our longtime engineering professors received the Turing Award – known as the Nobel Prize for computer science.

Our capabilities in critical fields like advanced materials and manufacturing, artificial intelligence, aerospace engineering, and more are unmatched.

UT is a great university with top-tier students and faculty, research, and athletics programs. This is our moment. Our dreams are within our reach.

We cannot hold back our ambitions or our effort. It’s on all of us to summon the courage to be great. In our laboratories, in our classrooms, and on the field of play.

As we cheer on this great team, let’s continue to draw inspiration from their courage and remind ourselves of all we have to gain when we take the big swings.