Vanderbilt University Baseball
Interview with Tim Corbin, Head Coach of Vanderbilt University Baseball teamToday, we will be hearing from Coach Tim Corbin, head coach of Vanderbilt University Baseball team, who led the Commodores to the College World Series in 2011 for the first time ever in the school’s history. What we would like to learn today, Coach Corbin, is what it takes to get a team ready, committed and disciplined enough to achieve that kind of goal. Will you start off by helping us understand your background and what led you to Vanderbilt?
I started coaching at Presbyterian College. It was 1987, after I finished my graduate work at Ohio State. At the time I was a dorm director at the College, 24 years old, and asked by the football coach who was also the Athletic Director, to start a baseball program. I started the program from scratch–there was no field, no players, and no format. I probably look back at that situation as being my learning environment.I don’t know if I can really point to any mentors that I had growing up in high school or even in college in terms of coaches. I had four different baseball coaches in college but wasn’t really attached to anyone that could lead me in the direction of coaching and teaching per say, but I always looked at other coaches from afar and tried to analyze them as best as I could. This program (Presbyterian) needed everything. I had to develop my own concepts and the experience taught me everything that is involved in a baseball program from buying a baseball, to putting grass down on the field, to inserting poles into the ground for a backstop, building my own screens, building my own machines and borrowing from everyone because we had no budget. We had no recruiting budget, we had no scholarships and my car was my mode of travel to recruit. I think back on that, Margaret, as being the proving ground for me as a coach and set my foundation for what I am doing today.
Why did you decide to coach and what compelled you to believe that you would excel in the coaching field?
When I was in the seventh grade I started a street hockey league in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Basically I recruited the kids in the neighborhood, bought the t-shirts and put everyone on teams and just kind of orchestrated this street hockey league. It was done in our driveway and I scheduled the games for the kids. I knew at that point that I wanted to direct, or coach or teach in some type of fashion. I think if you asked my mom and dad how I got my coaching career started they would probably point back to my adolescence and say, “he was always one of those kids who was organizing, putting things in order, getting kids in the neighborhood to play. Everything was scheduled and on task.” I don’t even know if I had a knack for it but it was just something that I enjoyed. How I got to that mode of thinking I have no idea. To be honest with you, mom wasn’t in sports, and dad was traveling all the time so I am not sure why I chose to do it. I just always knew I was going to be a coach even when I was playing college baseball because I realized there was not a career for me as a professional player, regardless of how much I was dreaming about it.
You mentioned that you studied other coaches to learn techniques or to get ideas and concepts. Are there any coaches that you would like to mention that really formed or shaped your approach to the game?
Growing up, John Winken, who was the Baseball Coach at the University of Maine, was the Coach from the Northeast that had made it to the college world series several times. I was following them quite extensively to the point that I wanted to walk on there and play baseball. I called the coach personally. He said that he didn’t have a walk on opportunity for me but it didn’t dull my thinking on him nor his program. I continued to follow them, even when I was in college. I would go over there and watch them work out and see what they were doing and watch them from afar. I think the other coach that I enjoyed watching was Bill Bowes. He was the football coach at the University of New Hampshire. He had winning teams back then. Those were the two teams in close proximity of where I was growing up that I attached myself to.
This year your team had a major breakthrough! Congratulations! In my experience, breakthroughs are usually the result of a clear vision and a well executed game plan, combined with a great deal of tenacity. So tell us about the journey to this breakthrough: How did it come about? What are some of the key factors that contributed to the success? How did you feel about it?
I think that the key to success of where we are right now and how we got to Omaha stems from an event that happened back to 2003. I mentioned this to the kids last fall. I was trying to explain to them how I thought that they were in the position to win a National Championship. I think it stems from a home run that was hit by this young man named Worth Scott in 2003 that sent us to the SEC tournament. Why that was so big was that Vanderbilt had not been to the SEC Tournament in 11 years. Why that moment was so big is that it gave our program a ton of confidence and propelled us to a Super Regional the next year. Why that was big was when we went to that Super Regional in 2004, just our second year in the program, it gave us a major lift in recruiting. Because of the recruiting it propelled us two, three, four years forward into the situation that we were in last year. I think the reason we were in that situation last year is because we put together a lot of very nice freshman, sophomore players that played a lot early in their career and we felt we could take this group of guys and develop a championship team with them. Then from there, we really tried to continue that type of thought process. Once we got a good group of kids together, we came back year, by year, by year improving both mentally and physically. We talk a lot about rehearsing victory and in a way each year was a rehearsal for the next. Once we knocked down one door, we went for the next one. The door to Omaha had been opened long ago; we just finally blew through it.
I know I have asked you this question before but are you disappointed with the outcome? Are you disappointed that you didn’t walk away with the National Championship?
No, not at all. When we sat in the classroom before we went to Omaha (and Riley would attest to this) I told them one thing; “You do not need to win the National Championship in order for this group of people to be coined a legacy team.” At the beginning of the year I think we always set out to be a group of guys that could turn into a legacy team. For me, a legacy team is one where they take the events of the last 12 months and they think of those events in such a way that they shape their entire lives. As I told them, I think the things that we had accomplished were far reaching outside of 54 wins and a SEC Division Championship. I think the things that we had achieved included tremendous academic standing as a team, and becoming a cohesive team with no issues socially or competitively within the group. Each kid was fully invested in the group and our group just continued to get stronger as the year progressed. The strength was so significant that they stayed tremendously consistent, without experiencing peaks and valleys throughout the year, regardless of whether we are talking about their workout habits, how they achieved off the field or what they were doing socially. There were no hiccups or blips. If you look back at the season there was only one time that we lost two games in a row. Those things just don’t happen to a group of people and that was just remarkable. I wanted to relieve them by telling them that before they went out to Omaha that they didn’t have to win a National Championship in order for us to get everything out of this season that we wanted. In my opinion we got everything out of this season that we wanted, and it was more than just going to Omaha. You get very emotional talking about this group because of their “servanthood”, their selfless behavior, their spirit for one another, the spirit for the school, how they represented themselves and how they represented their families. I just think that beyond winning a National Championship they did everything they could to look back at this situation and say “that may be one of the greatest teams I’ll ever be on”. Because of that, they set a very high standard and the kids that are coming back into our program will say “yes, that was the standard and now we wanted to go a step beyond”. That is the kind of thing that I look forward to.
Many successful people experience failure along the way. Many of us don’t achieve our goal the first time we try and it sounds like your team had that same situation yet you don’t let those setbacks discourage you from believing that you can accomplish that goal. Did you and team encounter any major obstacles along the way this year? If you did, how did you deal with them?
You know that is funny, we didn’t encounter a lot of obstacles during the course of the year and maybe it was how we set up the season back in August or September. I think we confronted potential obstacles before they confronted us. The first one, Margaret, was the talent component of the team. When you have a very talented group you know that there will be a lot of things that can come in between individuals and the team. We had so many people drafted, All Americans returning, and some very skilled people. I think the biggest challenge is trying to take a group of people and integrate them into the whole. Especially male athletes, because they are a little bit self centered. Being self centered is a good thing from that fact that you have to be self centered, selfish and driven in order to be a very successful player. That is a truism for a lot of players. What you have to do is take that selfish part and intertwine it into the team. That internal strength and confidence could either be a hindrance to what we want to do or it could be productive, enabling us to be stronger as a group. For us, it became very productive. I think the kids were driven; they were focused on their own personal game but they managed it in a way that was healthy for us all to move forward. The consistency of the group got to the point that every day was very enjoyable. The two prior years, the door shut too early with losses at Regionals in Louisville, followed by a loss at Super Regionals with Florida State the following year. Those two events were also key motivators in helping our team get to where we were this year.
I was talking with some colleagues last night about the issue of whether or not some things are innate, born in us, or whether we can develop them. I am curious about this idea that you take super star athletes that have excelled individually their whole life and put them together on a team of stars and say team first, self second. Is that something that is innate in this group of boys—to be able to put team above self–or is that something that they were taught?
I think it is twofold. Everyone has that in their system, especially these kids. These kids come from good families and they are driven, or they wouldn’t be here. Academically, they can be focused and their internal motor drives them toward success individually. The part that has to be taught is how you can take each individual, with their strengths, and bring them into one group, especially knowing there are 35 of them but only about a third of them are going to have an opportunity to show their skill on the field at any one time. The other part of that is making sure the kids that don’t get to play on a day to day basis feel like their function is worthy, that they have some self worth and what they do is just as important as anyone else on the team. I think that is the puzzle that a coach has to work through when he is trying to put a team together. It isn’t very different in some ways than the military. You take people from all different experiences, backgrounds and skill levels, and throw them into one group of people—whether that is the Army or the Navy for example—and mesh them into one core group working towards one goal. It is the part of college athletics that can take the most time if you let it go and leave it to chance; chances are it could take your team over. I think through good leadership, you can teach that. The desire or willingness to do it is often innate. We teach it and talk about it every day. We get the kids to move in that direction where they think, ok, it is important for us to drop some of the things that we want to do and ingrain ourselves into the team. It is a very difficult thing to do in order to get it just the way you want it and in order for a team to be very successful like this one was.
As I have watched the program over the last three years, it seems that you do a very good job of recruiting people who have that innate ability, that come from the good families, the ones that you have confidence in to be great kids off the field as well as on the field. Given that, have you ever had to cull people out of the program because they weren’t able to be a team player?
Yes, that has happened before. I learned a lesson back in my last year at Presbyterian College before I went to Clemson. I had a young man who was a returning All American and came back his junior year. His junior year was filled with a lot of troubles, so much so that after the year was over I basically had to tell him that I couldn’t have him back. I told him that I wanted him back to finish his education but he wasn’t going to be a part of the baseball team. He came back that summer and wanted to speak to me. He comes in my office and speaks to me about trying to get back on the team. I spent almost two hours with him and he convinced me to give him another chance. He came out the next fall and did a 180 in terms of his attitude and performance, not so much his skill level as that wasn’t the issue. He changed his academic and social approach. In fact, he turned his life around so much that right before we left for fall break his teammates voted him as a unanimous captain. The sad part of the story is I never got to tell him. He left for fall break and was killed in a car accident. This situation has been my foundation for communicating with kids and also the ability to have patience with kids and give them second chances. I understand that kids can fall down fool’s hill but, if they are helped up, they can make adjustments. The kids that you have to let go for the betterment of the team, are the kids that you helped up one too many times and you see your program goals just don’t fit their style or personality. That happens occasionally; I don’t ever want to see that happen to someone, but it does. Over time we have a certain standard for the kids that go here– for how they act and for how they perform is very high. If someone doesn’t perform at that level, they really stand out. And if they stand out, you see that it might not be the best fit for them.
Last question, after achieving this kind of breakthrough, what do you shoot for next?
Next year’s team will be a different team than last year. It will have its own personality. It is like children; they are each different. This particular team will be a different child and have its own personality. That is good. It will have its own path. It will be as successful as it wants to be. I think the thing that is left for us is to try to get back to the College World Series again, try to win a National Championship, try to become that team that does everything at a high level. I think the experience we just had as a group will help us. It will give us visual pictures and feelings of what is possible when 35 people and a support staff jump in the middle of something and hold hands and won’t let go for an entire year. There are a lot of great things that can happen so I am looking forward to doing that with this group. I don’t know what the expectations will be of us. I tell the kids “expectations of others never matter; our expectation within our own group is what matters most. We are going to achieve exactly what we think and what we see we are going to achieve.” If we don’t see it, or talk about it and move toward it, then nothing is going to be achieved with this group. I look forward to moving a step forward from what we did this last year.
I appreciate your time today. It has been amazing to watch you take this team from three years ago to the Champions they were last year. It was such a pleasure to accompany them on that ride.
Tim Corbin is the head baseball coach at Vanderbilt University, located in Nashville, Tennessee.
In his nine years at Vanderbilt, Corbin has taken the Commodores from the perennial Southeastern Conference doormat to (at one point) the number one ranked team in the country. In his first five years, Corbin amassed a 198-108 record with the Commodores. Before coming to Vanderbilt, Corbin served as an assistant coach at Clemson University for nine years, where he coached ACC player of the year T. Groves, and as head coach at Presbyterian College for six years. At Presbyterian, Corbin help direct a program that was dormant for several years. He compiled a 106-138 record with the Blue Hose, which was transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II. The Blue Hose made three consecutive appearances in the South Atlantic playoffs (1991-93), and Corbin earned South Atlantic Coach of the Year honors in 1990.
Corbin also served as manager for the USA Baseball National Team in the summer 2006. He led the team to a 28-2-1 record that culminated with a gold medal finish at the FISU (International University Sports Federation) World University Championship in Havana, Cuba. The .919 winning percentage was the highest ever for a national team and it garnered special recognition by the United States Olympic Committee in September. Additionally, Corbin managed three of his Commodore players on this team: David Price, Pedro Alvarez, and Casey Weathers.
Since arriving at Vanderbilt, Corbin has shown remarkable loyalty to the school, rejecting coaching offers from the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, Auburn, LSU, and most recently the University of Oregon, who hoped he might be the right fit to resurrect their baseball program, dormant since the 1981 season.