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Starting Strong: Dave Serrano's First Days

BY DREW EDWARDS
UTSports.com

K
NOXVILLE -- Most folks in East Tennessee were asleep. Most working folks back in Orange County, California, probably were, too.

Around 2 a.m. last Thursday, Dave Serrano wasn't in his bed back in Fullerton. He wasn't snoozing at the McGhee-Tyson airport Hilton, either. His wife and three boys had just arrived on a long-delayed flight from California, but Serrano didn't take them to the hotel.

He loaded them in the car and drove them 15 minutes to the Tennessee campus.

"This is the kid in me," Serrano said, sitting behind his new desk inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium shortly after arriving Thursday morning. "We got out of the airport last night at 1:30. Their (connecting) flight was delayed out of Atlanta because of a storm. I put them in the car, and we were walking the grounds at 2 in the morning.

"I don't take anything for granted. I'm very proud of this. I was proud for them to actually see the inside and know that this is our home now."

A little less than nine hours later, Serrano and his family arrived back at the ballpark -- in the daylight this time -- for an introductory press conference. That introduction and an afternoon filled with more interviews, capped a whirlwind 48 hours that began with a job interview and ended with Serrano becoming the Vols' 24th baseball coach.

First 48
Dave Serrano's first 48 hours in Knoxville didn't feature a lot of downtime. Here's a look at some of what kept Tennessee's new baseball coach busy:

Tuesday, June 14
3:50pmFlight from California via Houston lands in Knoxville
8pmMet with members of baseball search committee until after 10 pm
 
Wednesday, June 15
6:30amWake-up call to prepare for meeting with Chancellor Cheek and Joan Cronan
9:30amTour of campus facilities
NoonOffered job by Joan Cronan
3:15pmSerrano notifies Fullerton players he accepted UT job
3:45pmPress release announces Serrano as UT's 24th head coach
7pmBegins calling current players and recruits
1:30amFamily arrives at McGhee-Tyson Airport
 
Thursday, June 16
11amArrives at Lindsey Nelson Stadium
11:15amReceives keys to office, field
11:20amMeets with media relations to discuss plans for press conference
12:30pmFamily eats lunch in the baseball conference room
1:30pmFamily poses for photos
2pmOfficially introduced as Tennessee's baseball coach
2:45pmConducts addtional interviews in the Vols' dugout with local media
3:05pmGoes live with WNML's John Wilkerson
3:45pmLive interview with 104.5 The Zone in Nashville
4:05pmLive interview with WNOX-FM radio in Knoxville
4:30pmLeaves Lindsey Nelson Stadium to look at houses with his family

A
s Serrano stood behind a podium inside Lindsey Nelson Stadium last Thursday afternoon, his career completed a nice, tidy loop.

Sixteen years ago, he left Knoxville to rejoin his alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, as an assistant coach. Shortly after noon last Wednesday, Serrano accepted an offer to leave Fullerton, where he was 175-73 with a trip to the College World Series in four seasons as head coach, to take over Tennessee's program.

It took 15 baseball seasons to return to Tennessee, but once his plane touched down, the path was pretty direct.

Serrano arrived in Knoxville a little before 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday to interview with members of UT's search committee. The first meeting took place at his hotel at 8:30 that night and lasted around two hours.

Serrano woke up at 6:30 the next morning -- with his body still running on Pacific time -- in advance of a meeting with Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and interim vice chancellor / director of athletics Joan Cronan.

"I probably had a little red in my eyes, and I apologized to them for that, that it was the fatigue and losing hours, but I wasn't making excuses," Serrano said.

Red-eyed or not, Serrano impressed in his early morning meeting.

"I had a very pleasurable meeting with Chancellor Cheek and got to know what he was about... He assured me with all confidence that the new athletic director would be something that I'm proud of. I have all the confidence in the world in his direction to bring in the right guy."

By 9:30 a.m., Serrano was touring campus facilities with assistant media relations director Cameron Harris after having met with UT's academic support staff at the Thornton Center at his hotel.

While Serrano was touring campus, the committee was deliberating. The coach was busy dreaming. During a visit to Neyland Stadium, his thoughts went back to the mid-90's when he was an assistant coach. He remembered gameday and got goosebumps thinking about sharing it with his family, he said.

By noon, Serrano was back at his hotel accepting Cronan's job offer.

"I told them it would be an honor," he said, "and I would be proud to accept the position."

T
wo of the biggest moments in Serrano's career have been followed by silence.

After Cal State Fullerton defeated Texas to claim the 2004 national championship, Serrano soon found himself alone in a hotel room. His son Kyle was out running around with the other Titans batboys. His wife, Tracy, who was working as a wedding planner at the time, was on her way back to California for a job.

Alone with his thoughts, Fullerton's accomplishment washed over him.

"I'll never forget the emotions of, 'Oh my gosh, I was just part of a national championship team,' " Serrano said. "It just hit me."

Early Wednesday afternoon, Serrano had the same feeling. Tracy and the three boys were on a plane from California. The coach was alone again in a hotel room.

"The whirlwind was over of being carted here and there and I realized, I'm the head baseball coach at the University of Tennessee," Serrano said. "It just hit me how honored I was.

"It kind of just goes to show how proud I am to have this job -- I compare it to maybe the greatest moment I've ever had in my professional career, and that's winning the national championship."

That's the goal for Serrano's return to Knoxville. But there's plenty of work to be done to get there. With that in mind, Serrano began calling recruits and current players as soon as he had been approved to do so by UT's compliance staff late Wednesday evening.

"
It kind of just goes to show how proud I am to have this job -- I compare it to maybe the greatest moment I've ever had in my professional career, and that's winning the national championship.
"

His first call went to Diane Betts, whose son Mookie Betts, a shortstop from Nashville and a fifth-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in this year's MLB draft, signed with the Vols this spring. The calls continued through the night and into Wednesday morning.

"I wish I could see them all and look them straight in the face. I think my message will come across a lot clearer that way than on a phone," Serrano said. "But each young man I'm talking to or leaving messages for, I'm just assuring them that their experience under my guidance will be very rewarding and something they'll always cherish. I'm going to take care of them. I'm going to mentor them, and I'm going to coach them up. I told them within time, we'll feel a lot more comfortable with each other."

As for Serrano, he feels plenty comfortable in Knoxville. Standing behind that podium at 2 p.m. last Thursday, he couldn't help but feel the energy and enthusiasm in the MVP Room.

"It's a day that I'll never forget in my coaching career," he said, "and the only better one that I can forsee out in the future is the day that we get this program to Omaha."

J
ust before hopping on the elevator to leave the baseball offices with his family late Thursday afternoon, Serrano was asked if he'd like to keep the prop jersey he posed with during his press conference.

The color was right, but the number wasn't his style. Neither, it turns out, was the name stitched across the shoulders. On his own lineup card, Serrano's not No. 1. And as he revealed during his press conference, it's so important that his team plays for the name on the front of its jersey that it won't have names on the back.

Serrano politely accepted the jersey as a memento, but it's not something he'll hang on his office wall. Even though his path to Tennessee was circuitous, his philosophy hasn't shifted much at all. It's always been about working hard and caring about character.

There's no doubt that Serrano's ultimate destination for the Vols is Omaha and the College World Series. There's also an equal certainty that the route is every bit as important.

"It's not the destination, it's the journey that we're going to go through together," Serrano said. "We have a final destination. But it's how we handle the journey along the way that will probably allow us to get to our destination quicker."

Follow the Vols on Twitter @Vol_Sports and UT Baseball @Vol_Baseball.

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