Dores facing new challenges, focused on future goals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This much we know about Tim Corbin: He doesn't need much time to turn a dormant baseball program into a national contender, and he believes deeply in finishing what he started.

Who says there's no such thing as loyalty anymore in college athletics? Clearly, they haven't met Corbin.

"Your emotions lean in certain directions sometimes just because you think the grass is greener somewhere else," Corbin said. "But then when realism kicks in, you realize it's not."

Corbin, the refreshingly down-to-earth, plain-talking architect of Vanderbilt's transformation into a college baseball powerhouse, has deflected overtures from Auburn, LSU and most recently Oregon since coming to Nashville in 2003.

He's the guy on every athletic director in America's short list and one of the most respected baseball minds and developers of talent in the game.

By his second year at Vanderbilt, he had the Commodores in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 24 years. They spent most of last season at No. 1 in the polls and became the first team since Alabama in 1996 to sweep both the SEC regular-season championship and tournament championship.

Corbin has had 20 players drafted over the last three years, including eight in 2007. Among those was pitcher David Price, the top overall pick in last year's draft.

Vanderbilt baseball has never been a hotter item.

But now in his sixth season, Corbin may face his most difficult coaching challenge.

The Commodores (21-10, 5-6 SEC) have been the antithesis of last season's record-setting team that mowed through the regular season and finished with 54 wins before being upset at home by Michigan in the NCAA regionals.

This season's team has been hit with key injuries and not been able to generate much consistency. The Commodores were swept at Mississippi last weekend, the first time they've been swept in an SEC series since losing three to Alabama in 2006.

"We're still a long way from identifying who we are," Corbin said. "I said earlier that I didn't know what kind of identity we had, and I probably still feel that way because when we've hit, we haven't pitched. When we've pitched, we haven't hit. When we've done both, we haven't played real good defense. We've got kids who are capable. They've done it before at a high level. It's in there. It's just a matter of finding it."

The good news is that star third baseman Pedro Alvarez is back after missing 23 games with a broken bone in his right hand. Alvarez had a pair of home runs against Ole Miss, but starting second baseman Alex Feinberg took a 92 mph fastball to the face in the opener against the Rebels. He underwent surgery for a broken jaw and is out for two weeks. Feinberg was having his best season and was fourth in the SEC in hitting (.400) and third in on-base percentage (.521)

Even though Vanderbilt is currently last in the Eastern Division standings, only three games separate the Commodores and first-place Georgia. Four of the six teams in the division have at least five SEC losses.

Corbin has seen this conference beat up on each other long enough to know it's no time to panic, but the Commodores probably need to make their move this weekend at Mississippi State if they're going to make another run at the league crown.

"You never feel too good, and you never feel too bad," Corbin said. "You're always somewhere in the middle. I feel like a guy in a chair that's on two legs and could either fall all the way over or land back on four legs again.

"In this conference, if you can finish right around .500, you probably have a great opportunity to move on and play in the postseason."

The disappointing flameout in last season's postseason is motivation enough for this club to get back there and play its best baseball when it counts. It still stings for the Commodores that they were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and didn't even make it out of the regional round.

Then again, maybe it will work the other way around this time.

"This may sound weird, but I don't know how much you learn when you win all the time," Corbin said. "There's something to be said about what we're going through right now. Things aren't easy. We're struggling. There's no part of the game we're really doing well. Last year, we just kind of sailed through the season until the very end, and then when we got to the end, we lost.

"You thought, 'Wow, what a great year. We won a lot of ballgames.' But I think sometimes when you go through some tough times, you critique a little bit harder and kind of see your flaws. If you're winning all the time, you have a tendency to look at the scoreboard and not critique as much. You don't identify your flaws, and your flaws get you in the end. I just think, if anything, we learned how to win a little bit, and we learned we were capable of being a team that could end up in Omaha. It just didn't happen."

Through it all, Corbin has learned how much he enjoys living in Nashville and coaching at Vanderbilt. His only real hobby is baseball.

Well, baseball and country music.

"There aren't many places in America where you can wake up every morning and say this is one of the best places in the country to live," Corbin said.

He'll almost assuredly have more chances to go elsewhere. He's that much in demand.

But this is his program, the one he built and the one he wants to see get a shot at college baseball's top prize.

"When you're a part of something and you built it, you want to see it through to the end," Corbin said. "There have been some opportunities. But the reason I have opportunities is because of the success of the team. It's because of the success of the program. I look at where we are as a program, and I look at myself and I look at my coaches and see how much we've gained in the last six years on a lot of levels, and I'm thankful for it."

On the trip back from the LSU interview a couple of years ago, Corbin's wife, Maggie, turned to him and said, "Tim, would you really like to see someone else coaching the kids that we recruited as a coaching staff and see it moved to a higher level without us there?'

Corbin didn't respond. He didn't need to.

"I didn't say anything back to her," he recounted. "But in my mind, I was thinking, 'No, that's not right. No, I don't want to do that. We started something as a coaching staff, and we want to finish it.' "

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.