Nichols: Viral video proves Tennessee fans, Tony Vitello make one heartwarming pair

After years of “rallying around the wrong guy,” it seems Tennessee fans have at least found one right fit in Tony Vitello. And the moment that proves that connection? Well, it’s one Andrew Waters — and his dad — will always remember.
Author:
Updated:
Original:


In sociology, the Greek term “dyad” refers to a group of two people who are linked together.

This type of relationship isn’t exclusive to one category.

All that matters is the strength that emerges from the amount of time spent with one another, as well as the emotional intensity within the relationship.

This format can often be unstable because both people must cooperate to make it work. If one party fails to hold up his or her end of the bargain, the group would collapse.

Previous examples include romantic relationships, sibling ties, or peer interactions.

Now, sociologists may have a new relationship category to examine.

And they’ll need a trip to Lindsey Nelson Stadium to do it.

Regret to redemption

As soon as the ball left Drew Gilbert’s bat on Friday night, Andrew Waters felt a pang of regret.

A native of Hendersonville, the 20-year-old UT student had bought tickets for Tennessee’s Regional opener against Wright State.

But the incoming junior stayed home instead, as he had meant to share the tickets with his father who “wasn’t feeling well.”

“It didn’t feel right to go without him,” Waters texted.

Still, when Gilbert smashed a game-winning grand slam into space, lifting the Vols past the Raiders in a 9-8 win?

“I couldn’t stop thinking of what it would’ve been like to be at LNS.”

That feeling didn’t stay long.

Waters, who claims he “never had a choice” in teams given his family’s orange-blooded background, wasn’t missing another big moment. And neither was his father.

So, after Tennessee’s win over Liberty on Saturday, Waters and his parents made their way up I-40 before Sunday night’s Regional final.

In Waters’ words, they weren’t “missing a potential clincher.”

And they didn’t.

Amidst a sold-out, orange-clad crowd of almost 4,000 people, the Waters family watched Tennessee douse the Flames 3-1 to advance to the program’s first Super Regional in 16 years.

The Waters family at Tennessee’s Regional final against Liberty on Sunday. (Andrew Waters/Submitted)

The Waters family at Tennessee’s Regional final against Liberty on Sunday. (Andrew Waters/Submitted)

“Our generation has seen a lot of struggles, a lot of failures, a lot of big games lost with our heads hanging down walking out,” Waters said. “So just that feeling of that packed stadium, getting what they all wanted… it was incredible.”

And being there with his dad, then sharing a hug after watching history unfold?

“It sent chill bumps down my spine.”

Altogether, the clincher gave Waters “one of the happiest walks back to the car since I can remember.”

But the happiness didn’t just stem from the win.

Instead, as Evan Russell gathered the final out in his glove and sprinted toward his teammates to celebrate, Waters’ night to remember was just beginning.

Vitello brings ‘refreshing’ energy

As the Vols bear-hugged and migrated together, fans in the Waters’ section broke out in an increasingly familiar chant: “Tony! Tony! Tony!”

Suddenly, Vitello emerged from the dugout. But he wasn’t headed toward his admirers — at least, not yet.

Instead, the Vols’ coach broke into a jog toward his team, which had since gathered in right field. Then, he started moving faster. And faster. And faster.

“He starts picking up speed,” Waters said, “and I’m like, ‘What is he about to do?’”

Vitello gave his answer soon enough, flipping into the team meeting in a self-proclaimed “spastic tumble.”

“I don’t think we can call it a flip,” he said on Sunday. “That exhilaration is the best I can do to describe it.”

As mentioned in Sunday’s recap, the specifics of “flip vs. tumble” don’t matter. What does matter?

That Vitello “has had such a youthful energy to do things like that,” Waters said. “That man does not move, does not even look like a 42-year-old. It’s very refreshing after having a series of very serious coaches that performed poorly, to have a coach that is performing as great as we’ve seen in a long time.”

“He’s not afraid to let the umpire have it, he’s not afraid to celebrate with his boys,” Waters continued. “His energy is really exciting to the whole fan base.”

And Vitello has reciprocated the feeling.

“When I got the job, I grew up watching Pat Summitt and watching Phillip Fulmer’s football team,” Vitello said Sunday. “I grew up in St. Louis, but I knew what the Tennessee fan base was about."

Vitello advocated for those fans on Sunday, urging the Vols’ administration to bring in more seats for next weekend’s Super Regional against LSU.

“There’s still gaps in there we could fill (with temporarily bleachers) next week,” he said. “I know it’ll cost money, but that’s what I want. I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying that.”

Odds are good that Vitello won’t. Not after the turnaround he’s engineered from his June 7, 2017, contract signing to waking up as a regional champion exactly four years later.

If Tennessee does take issue with Vitello’s plea, then it will have to deal with a fan base that may love its baseball coach even more this week than it did on Sunday.

Why?

Not just because of the win, or Vitello’s flip, or even what the coach has built so far. 

But because of one quick postgame jaunt  that may turn out to become his greatest victory yet.

‘Watching a Superhero’

Following his team meeting, Tennessee’s coach made a beeline from the right field turf to the right field stands. As he got closer, one thought entered Waters’ mind: “‘Is he coming up here? I think he is!’

“Sure enough, they let him through,” Waters said. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

What followed is the video seen below. As Vitello climbed into the stands to thank the fan base he grew up admiring, Waters tugged out his phone.

“How often does a coach do that,” he said, “going up in the bleachers and riling up fans? It was a moment I knew I had to capture.”

Waters’ drive to get the sequence on film went back to a lesson from his dad, for whom he had missed Friday’s grand slam. And with the intertwined effect, mashing the Vols’ win and Vitello close-up into one  magical night?

“It was already a special moment because it’s been so long since we’ve been this good since any sport,” Waters said. “It just took the experience, took him to the next level in my eyes. It was almost like watching a superhero walk down the street.”

The moment has since gone viral, as Vitello’s high-fives and thanks were met with two screeching syllables from Waters: “TO-NYYYYYYYY!”

“I couldn’t quite reach him, so I had to do something,” Waters said. “He had made everybody in that stadium so proud to be a Volunteer.”

‘On the brink’ to Omaha

But does that combination of pride and energy translate to a place among Tennessee legends like Pat Summitt and Robert Neyland, even without a title?

“I think he’s on the brink,” Waters said. “If they win next week and go to Omaha, put him in for sure.”

Then, the Tennessee student reevaluated — not from the perspective of championships and trophies, but from a fan comparing UT’s reinvigorated mindset to the heartache he’s seen so often.

“I would probably say (Vitello) already is (in the top tier),” Waters said, “just sitting here thinking about… the lack of coaching we’ve already had in the previous years.”

One ‘lacking’ name that came to mind: Butch Jones.

“When it came down to it, (Butch) was ‘us vs. them,’” Waters said. “He kind of drew a line in the sand.”

By contrast, Vitello hopped over that line on Sunday when he crossed into the bleachers.

And that brings us back to “dyad.”

Sure, Tennessee fans’ relationship with Vitello is between a group of people and one coach, as opposed to the traditional dynamic between two individuals. But this relationship still checks all the boxes.

Time spent together? See fans’ attendance through the games that have allowed full capacity — or, more specifically, the 11,898 people that crammed into Lindsey Nelson for Tennessee’s three Regional games.

Emotional intensity? Check Vitello’s front-flip/tumble, or the impact registered when he fist-pumped his way through the crowd.

Like other dyadic relationships, Tennessee fans’ love for Vitello — and vice versa — can be unstable if both parties don’t cooperate.

One side must win. The other must show up.

But if Waters’ video is any indication, this budding relationship is only beginning.

Will it end with a ring? We’ll soon find out.