Dave Serrano was more than 175 miles away from the school he first helped coach to a College World Series appearance, but that was close enough for him.
He was in the neighborhood.
It was years back, well before the former Cal State Fullerton coach was introduced Thursday as Tennessee’s new baseball coach, and he was in Nashville to speak at a national coaches convention. Flanked by his wife, Tracy, Serrano wrapped up his speech, rented a car and drove back to the place he’d never “mentally” left behind.
The relatively newlyweds toured Neyland Stadium, Thompson-Boling Arena and then-freshly renovated Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Later, Serrano introduced Tracy, born and raised in Southern California, to some of his old friends before eating dinner at Calhoun’s on the River.
“You like to boast about something you think is special,” Serrano said. “I had nothing to do with all of this, but I wanted her to see that firsthand.”
Tracy saw it again, and Serrano’s three sons — Kyle, Zachary and Parker — saw it for the first time at the wee hours of Thursday morning. The family’s flight was delayed so much by Wednesday’s storms that it didn’t land until 1:30 a.m.
Serrano took one last detour before they checked in for the night, stopping at Lindsey Nelson Stadium to walk his family across the infield.
“That’s the little kid in me,” said Serrano, who equated the moment to the 2004 national championship he won as an assistant at Fullerton. “That’s how proud I am to show my family where we’re gonna spend our life.”
Twelve hours later, before a standing-room only crowd in the MVP Room of that same stadium, Serrano told story after story to explain why a California native coaching at a California school — which also happens to be one of college baseball’s storied programs — wanted so desperately to return to a stuck-in-neutral baseball school where he’d only spent two years of his life.
His answer came with ease.
“I never left this place. That’s the honest truth,” Serrano, 46, said. “I’ve been living out in Southern California watching Tee Martin lead the Vols to a national championship; watching the highs and lows of the basketball program; watching the highs of Lady Vols basketball; watching the rise of the softball program.
“I left physically but I’ve always been here emotionally.”
Serrano, who said he hoped this would be his third and final Division I head coaching job, will make $450,000 annually over the next five years, according to the basic terms of his agreement. At Cal State Fullerton, where he had spent the previous four years, Serrano was making close to $300,000 per year.
Serrano said it “looks like” Greg Bergeron, who served as Serrano’s top assistant at both Fullerton and UC Irvine, will follow him to Knoxville, but he wanted to give him a chance to see the campus and meet his future bosses first.
If Bergeron has half the experience Serrano said he had as an assistant under Rod Delmonico 1995-96 — two of the program’s best years in recent history — the deal will be done before Bergeron flies back to get his stuff.
“This is Tennessee. This is a special place,” said Serrano, who read from notes scribbled on the back of a lineup card while addressing the gathered reporters, UT employees, coaches and boosters.
“This is a great day in my career.”
Serrano, unprompted, rattled off the exact date he left Tennessee — Aug. 28, 1996 — to take an assistant coaching position under his mentor, George Horton, at Fullerton. The move provided a trip home and a fresh start for Serrano, who was going through a divorce at the time.
He met Tracy, then a wedding planner, three years later. It wasn’t long before she realized what Serrano repeated with emphasis at Thursday’s press conference — part of him was still in Knoxville.
“I could see the passion in his voice and his face would light up when he talked about it,” said Tracy, who dabbed tears out of her eyes throughout her husband’s press conference Thursday. “I just really believed that he would end up back here and finish his career here.”
Serrano interviewed for the post once before, in 2007 when the Vols eventually hired Todd Raleigh, whose firing last month opened the door for Serrano to put his name in the running for a second and final time. But there was some legitimate concern that this time wasn’t meant to be, either. Serrano was trying to take the Titans to yet another College World Series at the same time UT, which still had former men’s athletic director Mike Hamilton locked in at the top, was scurrying to find Raleigh’s replacement.
It would have been Serrano’s eighth trip to the College World Series, fourth as a head coach. Instead, after an unexpected first-round upset, Serrano spent the next two weeks “dreaming about” a return to UT.
The end result certainly made up for a disappointing finish to the 2011 season.
“This moment I’m feeling right now,” he said, “I feel like I am in the College World Series.”