Like Family: How a coach became an integral part of a community and the lives of his players, told through the eyes of his wife
Tim and Maggie Corbin had seen about everything college baseball had to offer by the summer of 2002. The new Vanderbilt head coach had just been an assistant at Clemson, where playing before sell-out crowds and annual trips to the College World Series were the norm.
The Corbins also did their homework on Vanderbilt. It would be a culture shock. While Clemson had been to the NCAA Tournament in each of Corbin’s nine years there, Vanderbilt’s last trip had been 23 years ago. The 2003 season would likely extend the string one more year, since the roster was full of players who went 7-21 in the Southeastern Conference the previous season.
Maggie knew how hard her husband took losing at Clemson. “He would sleep in his office, or should I say, not , but stay in his office,” Maggie recalled. Therefore, her first purchase as a Nashvillian was a couch for Tim’s office, so that he could at least deal with what was to come with modest comfort.
So the Corbins were as ready for this as anyone could be, but what happened next still caught them off-guard.
“The very first game I came to was an afternoon game, I think it was East Tennessee State… and I actually thought I had the wrong time, because no one was here but, like, maybe 10 people. And I just remember thinking, ‘I got the wrong time,’” Maggie recalls. “And then Tim looked at me and waved at me, and I said, ‘I got the wrong time.’ And he goes, ‘No, it’s starting in a few minutes.’
“And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did we do? Why did we come here?’”
Maggie also knew not to put too much stock into first impressions. When she met Tim, who at the time was the head coach at a small school just launching a baseball program, it was hardly love at first sight.
“Ugh. Oh, I thought he was just a little bit crazy, a little bit of a hothead, and little bit immature,” she recalls.
“But I also felt like he was one of the hardest workers I had ever seen. He was actually building his own baseball field at Presbyterian College, literally with a shovel and marking the lines. In order to raise money for his team, he had his team and himself sell cookies in the town. And so I remember buying canisters of cookies to help him fund his program, and he was the guy that — they didn’t have a recruiting budget — would sleep in his car at a tournament.
“I just thought, ‘Wow! He works harder than anyone I’d ever seen before. He’s a little bit out there.’ But I just thought with his passion and his sense of humor — all good.”
So the two became friends. Maggie also happened to be good friends with Jack Leggett, who had just become the head coach at Clemson and was looking for an assistant. Maggie recommended Tim, and he was hired.
Soon, Maggie’s appreciation for Tim went beyond his coaching abilities. She was a single mother, and he took an interest in her two small children, Hannah and Molly. The friendship would evolve into a marriage.
“He’s just a very fine human being, a very good person, and we dated four years, so yeah, I did know what I was getting into,” Maggie said. “For someone to fall in love with someone else’s children — he fell in love with my daughters — that’s just special, because… a lot of guys don’t want anything to do with you as a single mother with two little ones. That’s not what men typically want to date.”
The girls initially resented Tim for diverting their mother’s attention from them, but they also came around.
“You know… he was very consistent with them, and over time, they just fell in love with him, and he with them, and you know, to this day, they’re so close. They talk probably every day, and even through their teenage years, they were so close to him, and in a way that sometimes, I would be the more disciplinarian mother, and they really could relate to him,” Maggie recalls.
“He’s always had really good, open conversation with them. I’ll always be grateful for that. I really appreciate that about him.”
Maggie’s premonition about that first season was correct: Vanderbilt went 27-28 that year and missed the NCAA Tournament. But there were also signs of progress: VU went 14-16 in the SEC and earned a trip to the SEC Tournament. At Clemson, that kind of year would be a dismal failure. At VU, it was the best conference season since 1996.
Corbin pulled off a near-miracle that next year in Nashville. Not only did the Commodores snap the NCAA Tournament drought, they stunned Virginia in the Charlottesville Regional to become one of the last 16 teams standing. That squad went 45-19, as Corbin squeezed every bit of talent out a roster that included future Major League pitchers Jeremy Sowers and Jensen Lewis, but the roster lacked the offensive firepower and depth to be an elite team.
But Sowers and Lewis turned pro after that year. Corbin was soon rebuilding again, and VU missed the NCAA Tournament in 2005.
However, the 2004 season helped him with recruits who wouldn’t dream of coming to Vandy before. He’d already signed David Price, the left-handed pitcher from Murfreesboro whom everyone in the country, major league teams included, wanted. He then inked the nation’s top recruiting class for 2006, including future major-leaguers Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty.
By 2006, the Commodores were back in a regional. In 2007, they were ranked No. 1 in the polls almost the entire season until Michigan scored a stunning upset, beating VU in the first weekend of NCAA play. Despite the disappointment at the end, Maggie remembers the time fondly.
“Those are great memories. That was an electrictime for Vanderbilt baseball, and it just kind of set the tone,” she says.
By now, Corbin was the hottest coaching commodity in college baseball. He had already turned down a chance to go to Auburn, a much-bigger baseball program than Vandy at the time. Now, LSU, the premier program in college baseball, came calling.
Corbin, undoubtedly, was far bigger than VU baseball. Everyone in the country figured he should .
But would he?
Though Corbin had climbed the mountain for the time being, staying at Vanderbilt came with challenges. Its outrageous tuition made recruiting somewhat difficult since baseball isn’t a full-scholarship sport. Facilities were still lacking. The fan base was still small compared to most SEC schools.
Everything, both in and behind the scenes, made winning big at LSU a virtual guarantee. If Corbin wanted a reminder of how fleeting winning could be at Vandy, he needed only to look behind the outfield fence at his own Hawkins Field and spot the temporary bleachers brought in for the Nashville Regional, since it didn’t have any of its own there.
But what would be a dream offer for most people turned into a private torture for Tim Corbin as he tried to choose.
He missed the big-time atmosphere that he’d grown accustomed to at Clemson, and he longed for that at LSU. But blood is thicker than water, and “blood” had become a lot more than Hannah and Molly, who had now left the nest. The couple without boys started to realize that the 35 men on the roster had become like sons and that Nashville was genuinely home.
“Yes, (LSU) is a bigger stadium, maybe more money, but it’s just that we do feel like this is our big family and the stadium is our home, and it’s hard to walk away and it’s certainly hard to visualize anyone else with Tim’s uniform on, and certainly, to go somewhere else in the SEC and play against our family would be really, really odd,” Maggie says. “But I do think it’s relationships. I think it’s the kind of kid he gets here, and yeah, that would be hard to not be here any more, for sure.”
It’s Corbin’s gift of forming relationships and spotting special qualities in recruits that have helped him sign the nation’s best freshman class the last two seasons. Nowhere is that more evident than in his recruitment of Centennial High’s 5-foot, 6-inch Tony Kemp, who wasn’t one of Corbin’s more decorated recruits. But Corbin formed a relationship with Kemp during his freshman season of high school and saw greatness that others missed. Sure enough, he’d become the 2013 SEC Player of the Year before signing a professional contract with Houston.
Former VU players feel likewise connected to the Corbins. New York Mets outfielder Mike Baxter, according to Maggie, “bought a house right around the corner from Tim and I.” Alvarez, now Pittsburgh’s third baseman, lives in Green Hills. Price and Sonny Gray, who’s quickly risen to AAA with Oakland, also come back to Nashville. Maggie particularly enjoys seeing the players grow up and start families of their own.
“I actually have an account at a jewelry store here, and I buy more wedding gifts than probably anybody, and it’s the best money I spend,” she says.
Tim has an unusually close relationship with Price and Gray. Both were the unofficial team leaders during their careers and had Corbin’s unquestioned trust. The bond with Gray, though, may be one unlike he shares with anyone else. Gray lost his father during his freshman year of high school (the same year Corbin started recruiting him), and Corbin became the closest thing to a father than Gray could have.
“He didn’t set out to fill that void, but I think their relationship was such that Sonny did feel very close and does feel very close to Tim,” Maggie says. “And Tim has been impressed and just has loved Sonny from the very beginning, because he saw how strong Sonny was for his mother and his sisters, and he just really appreciated that about Sonny.”
The two had a special ability to be themselves around each other and yet maintain deep respect. It’s hard to imagine anyone messing with their coach the way Gray did with Corbin as a player, much less as a recruit.
“We went to see Sonny as the lead in the high school musical,” Maggie recalls. “We went to Smyrna and the girls did too, all four of us, and he texted Tim from the stage. … ‘You’re ugly,’ and Tim couldn’t believe he got the text from Sonny, because he was on the stage.
“And so he showed it to me and I immediately said, ‘This kid’s going to be reallygood.’”
Gray was, indeed, really good. As a junior, he went 12-4 with a 2.43 ERA, earning first team All-American honors in 2011. Most importantly, he helped the Commodores break through to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the first time in program history, which to that point was about the only thing missing from the Corbin resumé.
The CWS was supposed to happen four years earlier until one fateful night in June, when Michigan’s unheralded freshman, Alan Oaks, homered off Price, the National Player of the Year, to put a stunning end to Vandy’s postseason run. It proved to be terribly difficult for Price and Corbin. Price knew he would be the first pick of the next week’s MLB Draft and soon make millions, but it didn’t matter at the time. Feeling he’d let Corbin down, he couldn’t compose himself in time to make the post-game press conference.
“We bore that burden until 2011, I think, until we went to Omaha. That was a pain, and I know it’s nothing like a death in the family, but it was second in line to that. … It was a sporting heartbreak that a lot of people in athletics have that sticks with you a long, long time,” Maggie said.
“David sort of erased his [heartache] when he had that playoff game, and we were happy for that,” she continued, speaking of how Price would record the final out that sent Tampa to the MLB World Series just one year later. “But we needed to get to Omaha. We needed to break that, and we did in 2011, and now I don’t even think about 2007 any more. It’s over.”
Those around Tim Corbin could see the weight visibly lifted after 2011. Maggie did, too, as her husband actually started coming home after losses after that season. Even so, losing is still difficult for Tim; it may take hours before he’s ready to talk.
The irony is that there’s pressure at all, given the state of the program before the Corbins got there. Tim is now 465-229 at Vanderbilt, and a remarkable 186-136 in the SEC, which is, most years, the nation’s toughest conference.
But the pressure rises every year. A trip to Omaha is now an expectation. That’s where things get tricky, as Omaha has proven to be elusive. Six years after the initial disappointment, the 2013 team — which went 26-3 in the league, setting a new standard for the most wins in SEC history — was tripped up a step short of Omaha by Louisville in the Nashville Super Regional.
That’s going to spawn a difficult off-season for the Corbins, because when you lose as a family, it’s more personal than professional. But the Corbins consider it part of the territory, even if there’s some injustice in falling short of a standard that would not exist had they not created it.
“The success of the program has created the pressure, but I try not to complain about that, and certainly Tim doesn’t ever complain about that, because the alternative would be no pressure, and that would be, ‘We’re losing, we’re terrible, we didn’t get to the postseason, there are no expectations,’” Maggie says.
“So, it’s kind of a good thing.”
It’s been a good thing for Nashville and Vanderbilt as well.