Self-proclaimed 'regular guy' Tim Corbin has transformed an average baseball program into a national superpower.by William Williams
photo by John Russell
Every Sunday morning, Tim Corbin and his wife Maggie slide into their regular booth at a Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, where they sip iced tea, read the newspaper and dine on waffles, eggs and hash browns. If it weren’t for a string of people stopping by to pat him on the shoulder and say, “Morning, Coach” or “Good game, Coach,” Corbin wouldn’t stand out at all. His kind eyes and unassuming demeanor serve as a clever camouflage for a self-described “ordinary guy” – albeit one who does extraordinary things.
Vanderbilt’s plainspoken head baseball coach, the product of a working-class New England community, has built Commodore baseball into one of the strongest programs in the country in just five seasons. Playing against type, Corbin is generally even-keeled, navigating the season sans sideline tantrums, dirt kicking or toe-to-toe screaming matches with umpires. Without histrionics or hyperbole, he manages not only to win games, but also the hearts, trust and loyalty of players, fans and just about everyone else he meets.
For Corbin, it’s about more than winning – it’s also about relationships. He has regular progress meetings with his players to be sure they are on track, not only with the sport, but also in their academic and personal lives.
Ryan Flaherty, a junior shortstop from Portland, Maine, says Corbin uses the spoken word more effectively than any of the 11 other coaches with which he has worked.
“He has such a clear way of coming across,” Flaherty said. “And you want to play well for him because you know how much he cares for you.”
In Corbin’s wallet is a reminder of how much he cares. He keeps a tattered news clipping – the obituary of a former player who died in a car crash years ago.
“I was scheduled to meet with him to tell him how great he was doing, how he’d really turned things around personally and academically,” Corbin said. “But I cancelled because I had some things to do on the field. He died before I could tell him how proud I was of his progress. I carry the obituary as a reminder to never miss an opportunity to invest in the people in your life.”
Corbin grew up in Wolfeboro, N.H., a lakeside resort town with a population of about 5,000. Though most of his peers were not going on to college, his parents insisted that he pursue a degree. He earned a bachelor of arts in physical education from Ohio Wesleyan in 1984, where he was a four-year letterman in baseball. He also completed a master’s in athletic administration from Ohio State.
In one of his first post-college jobs, he recruited talent for the cash-strapped baseball program at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. Without a travel budget, he often opted to sleep in his car rather than miss a performance by a potential baseball star.
“Truck stops were a good friend of mine,” he said.
During his six seasons there, he revived the school’s ailing baseball program, taking it from NAIA to NCAA Division II status.
Word got out about the scrappy coach who ate, slept and breathed baseball, and soon, Corbin began getting job offers. He accepted an assistant coaching position at Clemson where he stayed for nine seasons, during which the team captured two Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season titles, made nine appearances in the NCAA tournament and reached the College World Series four times.
That success drew the eye of the college athletics community, including Vanderbilt’s administrators, who hoped to bring Corbin’s winning formula to Nashville. When Corbin interviewed for Vanderbilt’s head coach position in 2002, the then-Clemson assistant coach decided to forego the use of play charts and recommendation letters. Rather, he simply spoke from the heart, convincing his interviewers that he was prepared for a head coaching job in the SEC.
“I don’t know if I had any strategy,” Corbin said. “I was a little naïve about the process. I had interviewed at smaller schools and at Fresno State. I (just) tried to be myself.”
That approach paid off, according to David Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for university affairs, general counsel and secretary of the university.
“Corbin had a great record as an assistant coach at Clemson; they had a really good program,” Williams said. “I think when you look back at how he had gotten involved in college baseball, how he had sacrificed so much, it was clear he was a person who was very dedicated not only to baseball but to his players and his profession.”
Since his hiring, Corbin has guided the baseball team not only to greater heights each year, but to the Commodores’ best season in history in 2007: a No. 1 national ranking, as well as winning the regular-season and SEC tournament for the first time in school history.
“He is very straightforward – what you see is what you get,” Williams said. “The kids love him because they believe in him. They know he is honest and always going to do what is best for them.”
National acclaim came when Commodore pitcher David Price ended last season as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first pick – and the No. 1 overall pick – in the MLB draft, sweeping every national player-of-the-year honor. To top it off, the Southeastern Conference named Corbin the 2007 Coach of the Year.
“Coach Corbin molds his players into smaller versions of himself, intensity-wise and in their passion for the game,” Price told the Vanderbilt View. “He has done a lot for me, and my time at Vanderbilt helped prepare me not only for professional baseball, but also for life outside of it.”
Vanderbilt baseball now commands the attention of the nation, since Corbin has transformed a team that had not earned a spot in the SEC tournament in a decade, nor visited the NCAA tournament in almost a quarter-century, into the darling of the SEC.
But Corbin isn’t one to sit back and rest on his laurels. In fact, for the 46-year-old coach, baseball is an occupation that has no off-season. He is a much-sought-after speaker, making appearances everywhere from the local Kiwanis Club to corporate settings to high schools, addressing audiences with as much fervor as Vanderbilt’s most-devoted admissions officers and development associates.
“The team’s success led to my opportunity to speak to the community,” Corbin said. “People want to hear the body of work. I use what we’ve done as a way to speak about the university’s success and not just baseball.”
If baseball is a religion, then Tim Corbin is its tireless evangelist. Though each talk is tailored to his audience, a recurring theme is the importance of elevating the Vanderbilt baseball program to national prominence. If Vanderbilt’s medical, law, engineering and business programs can achieve national acclaim, he reasons, not to mention the women’s and men’s basketball teams, then why not its baseball program?
“I watched Tim give a speech (regarding Vanderbilt’s endowment campaign for athletic scholarships) at the Southeastern Conference offices in Birmingham during a Vanderbilt fundraising event in 2004,” said John Ingram, a 10-year member of the Board of Trust and chairman of the board’s Athletics Committee. “What comes through in Tim’s speaking is the passion.”
Though he is almost as popular for his inspirational talks as he is for his wins, Corbin is the last to sing his own praises.
“Many of the best public speakers have often fallen onto hard times or have had great times,” Corbin said. “I’ve had neither. I have not been blessed with lots of wins or championships. And I haven’t been (stricken) by tragedy.”
Corbin wants to win. But he also is determined to mold Commodore baseball into a self-sustaining well-recognized commodity that generates fan support and media respect.
“I’m not sure how familiar people are with our program,” Corbin said. “If you talk about Vanderbilt’s best-known schools, programs and departments, it’s well known those are strong. I want the baseball program to be a symbol of that, a tradition of young men consistent in what they do. Vanderbilt baseball can become part of the front porch of the university.”
Corbin’s biggest fan base may be of the pint-sized variety. Hundreds of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds sign up for his baseball skills camps each summer. Corbin asks that the participants wear their names on the fronts of their ball caps so that he can address them by their respective monikers.
“You can make up a nickname, and they love that,” he said. “It’s a small thing but something they’ll remember.” He also encourages the campers to stop by the dugout whenever they come to a Vanderbilt home game and say hello.
Such ordinary kindnesses are important to Corbin, whose camp not only teaches the youngsters the finer points of the game, but also provides a detailed lesson on the appropriate way to hold one’s cap while the national anthem is being played.
“Tim exudes credibility and sincerity,” Ingram said. “It’s a combination that’s infectious. You want to listen.”
“With Tim, you know he is sincere and honest about what he is saying,” Williams said. “It would be great if we had politicians that talked like Tim Corbin.”
For more information on Vanderbilt athletics, visit http://vucommodores.cstv.com/.
Although William Williams has never embraced America’s pastime, his father has rooted for the Chicago Cubs since the early 1940s.
additional photography by Neil Brake