Nichols: Vitello's Vols (and their fanbase) seem just fine with being the new 'villains' of college baseball

“It’s time for Tennessee to step up to the fight. I don’t think anybody — including our fan base — are afraid to be the villains.” -Evan Russell
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Earlier this week, I wrote a column about a Tennessee-loving father and son who witnessed a moment full of mutual love and energy. 

When Tony Vitello walked through the bleachers after the Vols' Regional title win over Liberty, he did so to thank people who have shown up time and time again for a program that was once the cellar-dweller of the SEC. 

Never mind that some of those fans can't even get in to see this weekend's Super Regional rematch against LSU because of a ticket-purchasing process right out of 1986. That's another rant for another day. 

Instead, this column is about emotion. Not the love shared between Vitello and his fans last weekend, however heartwarming that may have been.

No, this All-SEC weekend -- and the build up to it -- are about a different feeling for Tennessee.

Warm fuzzies? Doubt it. Postgame embraces? Probably not.

Redemption and celebration by any means possible, even if that means becoming the team -- and affirming the fan base -- that everyone loves to hate? Absolutely.

'Earned the right to be who they are,' especially this year

Let's begin with Drew Gilbert, whose grand salami celebration against Wright State helped stoke the Tennessee-aimed fire that's now burning across the social media world of college baseball. 

Gilbert is a Minnesota native. But this Midwesterner is anything but typical. 

At 5-foot-9, 182 pounds of pure adrenaline, Gilbert possesses a snarling persona that can elicit some pretty "nasty" responses. 

Exhibit A: Friday night's grand slam against Wright State. 

You all remember what happened. But here's a refresher just in case: 

With his team facing a potential 8-5 loss to open the Knoxville Regional, Gilbert smacked a bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning grand slam that may have just now landed in the Tennessee River.

After making contact, the sophomore flipped his bat high into the air, strutted out of the batter's box, stared back toward the Wright State dugout, and flexed his way around the bases before tossing his helmet high into the air and crossing home plate to teammates who were going berserk. 

In short: Gilbert celebrated like he had just accomplished a dream shared by anyone who's ever wanted to play the game of baseball. Because he had.

But you couldn't tell that by scrolling through the comments below this video, as most of them are negative.

The most common denominator? "Act like you've been there before."

Ah, the age-old reminder to remain stoic and impartial, even when you come through in a moment so clutch, so impeccable, that it's almost impossible to keep from cracking a smile, let alone jumping for joy. 

Again, never mind that one of those negative responses came from the Commodores, whose own Isaiah Thomas had a similar reaction after his similarly effective grand slam during the same weekend. But that's another story for another day, too.

Stay calm? After that? Couldn't be Drew Gilbert. And his coach and teammate agreed.

“As far as he hit the ball in that situation? If you can do that, then celebrate it," said Vitello on Wednesday. "These kids have earned the right to be who they are.”

Added Evan Russell, who caught the game-winning out on Sunday: "I remember Drew Gilbert fighting for his spot last year. He was not given anything. These kids, including myself, we work and put in a lot of time to get those moments, and in a lot of those moments, we fail. So whenever we find success... it is pure emotion."

Those statements are true anytime, but they're especially relevant after a 2020 season that ended in cancelation and disappointment.

"You're almost trying to have two great seasons in one," said Vitello of the Vols' 2021 season. "And you can't do that. It's like a pitcher trying to make up for a pitch he threw earlier -- it's just not going to work out."

Still, after navigating the COVID-induced protocols in a new year?

"We've found our rhythm a little bit," Vitello said. "Not only were we winning games prior to finding our rhythm. We then started to play better baseball." 

"When you look back on how that went down last year, the frustration is kind of similar to that week leading up to that Wright State game... When you have success, there's that outpouring of emotion, where it almost means more. It's definitely been a motivating factor."

So excuse the Vols for trying to cram as much joy and fun as possible into this season, especially on a night like Friday. They're just trying to enjoy the moment -- like the fans who have screamed on their behalf.

Mainieri vs. the Legends: the Drama continues

Earlier this year, Tennessee swept Paul Mainieri's LSU team 3-0 via two walk-off hits. The Tigers have been one of college baseball's mainstays in the past, and they visited Lindsey Nelson Stadium at a time when 2021 attendance was limited due to COVID-19 protocols. 

But that didn't stop the jeering, especially from a group called "The Legends of Lindsey Nelson."

I did a deep dive on the group earlier this year, revealing what might go down as one of the most entertaining ideas in UT lore

Essentially, a rag-tag group of Tennessee fraternity brothers decided to go watch baseball one day when they were bored. Their drunken insults -- heard loud and clear in a stadium with a small crowd -- quickly became a calling card, and Mainieri played the victim after the Tigers lost in Knoxville.

“Listen, even though there wasn’t a huge, huge crowd at Tennessee, it was an extremely hostile environment,” Mainieri told a Baton Rouge radio station. “They were nasty. They were being nasty, nasty.”

“The other team was not handling things with a lot of class, quite frankly,” he said.

In that aforementioned column, the Legends returned fire. 

"(Mainieri) did the opposite of what he wanted," said Matt, one of the group's founders. "He tried to shut us down, and he completely did the opposite." 

Added Jack, another founding member: "I think Paul needs to retire."

Ironically, LSU's coach has since announced that resignation, which will take place after this season ends. 

But to avoid an early retirement and make one last return to the College World Series, Mainieri will have to beat a Tennessee team -- and crowd -- that will be firing on all cylinders. 

Such a wrench throws even more drama into what should already be an epic showdown, especially considering UT's sold-out Regional audience.

"If it's anything like last weekend, if you want to call it nasty, make it that again," Vitello said Wednesday. 

The Vols' coach also noted a parallel between Tennessee's team and its fans during a Fox Sports Knoxville appearance this week.

"The thirst to be one of the best baseball fan bases is there," he said. "But it's continually growing right now, kind of like our program and our roster. It's been fun to see the two be congruent."

Indirectly becoming the villains of college baseball

That congruency stretches beyond a desire for relevancy. For Tennessee's players and fans, this week is more about redemption. 

For slander against Drew Gilbert. For Mainieri's comments about a crowd that's no longer limited. For a season that never happened. And for a baseball program -- and fan base -- that just wants some respect.

"A couple years ago, there were teams coming in our place, and they would let us know they were better than us," Russell said. "There was no fear when they came to our place. And not just fear; there was no respect. That definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it's kind of why I'm a little chippy sometimes. 

“It takes a lot to earn respect in this league. If you don't have respect, it does leave you a little frustrated, It's kept a lot of people in this program up at night when we don't have respect from other teams."

Now, though, the Vols are no longer the doormat. They proved that with the series against LSU, and they've affirmed it time and time again this season. 

So, what's next -- especially looking toward this weekend?

"I think the times have changed," Russell said. "We've kind of brought our big brothers along to the playground to take control and help us out in a fight, so it's time for Tennessee to step up to the fight.

"I don't think anybody -- including our fan base -- are afraid to be the villains. I think that's what makes this place special. Starting with our coaching staff and our players, we enjoy getting in a fight. We enjoy the close games, and we enjoy the competition."

That competition will certainly be fierce when the Tigers come back to town. Russell leaped full-on into the fray, too, even before Wednesday's availability.

Yes, that's right -- what you see above is an orange Tennessee state flag, with part of Mainieri's quote across each border. 

We'll bring you more details on that later this week. For now, just know this: it wouldn't be the worst thing for Tennessee to fly that flag above Lindsey Nelson Stadium on Saturday. Almost like a Vol-themed Bat-Signal. 

Because if Tennessee is truly the villain, then it may not be the one Paul Mainieri needs or wants. 

Just the one he deserves -- at least if you ask the masses that await him this weekend.