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USC's Ray Tanner Interviewed By Columbia's Free Times

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A Home at Last

Tanner Quietly Laying Claim to Best Coach in School History

BY RON AIKEN

Through 11 seasons, USC baseball coach Ray Tanner has become the most successful coach in Gamecock history. With two Southeastern Conference titles and a tournament title, he has more conference championships than any coach in the big three sports (baseball, football and basketball) in the modern era. He has been to the College World Series three times, finishing as the national runner-up in 2002. Each visit, Tanner’s Gamecocks were the final SEC team standing, and over the past eight years USC is 388-155, the fourth highest win total in the nation.

Also over that time, Tanner is 147-92 in the country’s premiere baseball conference, the best record of any league team over that span. Throw in four SEC East titles, eight consecutive NCAA appearances (including seven Super Regional appearances) and it’s no great stretch to say that Tanner might just be the best college baseball coach in the nation.

With his 2008 Gamecocks once again ranked among the country’s best (No. 2 in one poll, No. 3 in another) and practice now under way in preparation for their season-opener on Feb. 22 against East Carolina, Free Times sat down with Ray Tanner and talked about fatherhood, his charitable foundation, a new stadium under construction, the College World Series and the highs and lows of his already remarkable career.

Free Times: When you came to Columbia for the 1997 season, you spent nearly 100 percent of your waking hours on baseball. Now, beginning your 12th season at USC, you’re married to Karen Donald Tanner and have two daughters, Bridgette Grace and Margaret Pearl, and a son, Joseph Luke. How has family life affected you as a coach?

Ray Tanner: I don’t think there’s any question it’s had a big impact. There’s no question it takes the edge off of dealing with adversity in your career. I think it all comes back to perspective. In general, I think most coaches are somewhat guilty of tunnel vision. My tunnel has expanded, and to be quite honest with you, I was single for a long time. I guess when you get right down to it, about half of my coaching career was single, 10 years married, four with children. I’ve definitely made a bigger tunnel.

I was as guilty as anyone of being too intense. Occasionally I’ll run into coaches that I don’t think have made their tunnel large enough because I’ve been there and can see it in somebody else. It’s made me a better coach — that family, that foundation. There are a lot of factors that allow me a greater perspective, [the idea] that life doesn’t revolve around winning or losing games. I like to win games as much as I ever did, but there was so much misery associated when things didn’t go well, not necessarily with a loss, but with anything. Coaches, by nature, we’re impatient. A lot of times we overreact, and I like to think I’m a lot better than I was. I feel like I’m a better coach and am in better touch with my players.

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FT: Speaking of a foundation, how did the Ray Tanner Foundation come about?

RT: Karen and I had always really felt that we should be immersed in the community. Not because I coach or because she was at Columbia College or it was the right thing to do professionally, but in that we always wanted to do it. This is where you live, it’s part of your world. Karen, years ago, said we could do more if we establish our own foundation. I always thought that people who started foundations had enormous resources either personally or through contacts, like a major college football or basketball coach. But Karen said, “You can do it. It doesn’t have to be an $8 billion foundation.”

Her vision was right on track. We established it and it’s done really well. We’re not going to lead the country in overall giving, but our foundation really is designed to 100 percent give back. We don’t have a staff; we have one person who gets a stipend for accounting purposes. That’s it. We’re geared toward the Midlands, and we try to give back between $30,000 and $50,000 a year and help organizations and associations that need it.

FT: Is the positive feedback you get from that almost as meaningful, if not more so, than a win on the field?

RT: It is extremely gratifying. I think the reason it’s so good to be a part of the foundation — and my name’s on it, but I’m just a part of it — is that it’s about friends, it’s about the faithful Gamecock people and supporters, the citizens of Columbia. I don’t give all the money; it’s everybody that takes part in the foundation. And when you’re about to do something that helps the community, nobody pulls against you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Clemson fan or went to Georgia, it isn’t about Ray Tanner and the Gamecocks, it’s about a foundation trying to help people. Everybody is happy to help; it’s about as unanimous a gratification as you can get.

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Ray Tanner begins his final season at Sarge Frye Field this year. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

FT: You were at N.C. State from the fall of 1976 until the summer of 1996. How difficult was it to leave Raleigh for Columbia?

RT: Pulling up roots after 20 years wasn’t an easy thing to do. Now Karen had been an undergraduate here at Carolina, and I knew about this school and the passion of the fans. The SEC was an attraction, and [former athletics director] Mike McGee came after me. Of course, going back to [former N.C. State] coach [sam] Esposito, he said I’d been in one place a long time and it might be the right thing to do to make a change. I was happy at N.C. State. When I talk to young people about jobs, if you can leave the job you’re in when you’re happy, it makes going to the other job a lot better. Going into my 12th year, I feel like I’ve been here 20 years I’m so comfortable. I love it here. We live in town, in fact we live in the same house we moved into 12 years ago, a block off Devine Street. We live in Columbia, we don’t live in the suburbs or a gated community somewhere. That’s just who we are.

FT: I know you keep up with former players like Trey Dyson from Spring Valley, who has done some radio work for you guys. Can you talk about, as you were building your first teams here, what kind of sell you had to do to get those players who would go on to achieve the level of success USC fans have grown used to?

RT: Trey’s done great work on the radio and is a banker here in town, too. He was also one of those guys who really helped build the program. Trey and Kip Bouknight, those guys had heard the goals, heard the vision, but they had to accept it. And I think with Trey, this was his school and he wanted us to be successful. He never had a doubt that he would make an impact. His passion and enthusiasm were as good as anyone I ever coached. When you talk about ownership in a program, what’s good for the whole, not just the individual, that was Trey Dyson.

Kip Bouknight, I remember recruiting him in high school. He wanted to be good, he just didn’t know if we were going to have enough pieces in place. I convinced him that he was a key piece of that. Kip loves this school, but he was a hard sell. He didn’t want to be part of a rebuilding situation.

FT: And of course, you had guys like former pitchers Scott Barber and Peter Bauer around him, which didn’t hurt.

RT: Right, that’s a pretty good group. And I don’t use the word “rebuilding.” I don’t believe in that. You either accept the talent you have before you or you don’t. You don’t rebuild; when one season ends you get ready for the next. If anything, you reload. Does that mean you’re going to be good year after year after year? Not necessarily. But I think if you take on the mentality of rebuilding, then you’re accepting that you’re not going to be as good as you were the year before. I don’t agree with that approach and I don’t allow my players to think like that. Our expectations are the same whether people know who the shortstop is or they don’t.

FT: Speaking of an edge in the postseason, I think back to 2002 and the two wins over Clemson in Omaha that put you in the title game against Texas. To my mind, those wins have to be considered the biggest wins over Clemson by any USC team in any sport, ever.

RT: I don’t think there’s any question our togetherness gave us an edge. After really getting stifled by that lefty from Georgia Tech — who was from Omaha, making it like a Hollywood script for him — we put that one aside and realized we’re still here and we battled back through the loser’s bracket. We rallied to get Nebraska then got Georgia Tech again before getting Clemson twice. It’s hard to explain. Clemson was very good; they had Michael Johnson and Jeff Baker and Khalil Greene. If you just line up, you think you’re probably not quite as good as them.

But you talk about our players, guys like Steve Thomas who for two years I told him he couldn’t play here, he’s in the middle of it, and Dyson and Steven Bondurant, that’s the synergy of it, where the sum is greater than all of its parts. I think our team was better than maybe we should have been because of those people. Kip wasn’t pitching in Omaha when we were there, but his attitude was. Dyson was the same way, and of course he was the one who hit that home run to beat them and get to the championship game. It was a special group of people who made their mark on this program that lasts to this day. When we talk about the new stadium, it’s because of those guys and the mark they made; they’re the reason and the interest they created.

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continued....

FT: On the outside looking in, that’s what seems to be special about your success, that it’s been done the right way and you have so many people who have played coming back to be a part of it.

RT: It’s just the way it should be. We’ve had some success in this program. It’s not because of me. I’m the coach, and a lot of times coaches get the criticism and the credit. That goes with the territory, and a lot of times we deserve the criticism. But I’ve never been a coach where, after a game, you think, “I’m the man!” This is not a head-to-head sport. When Tiger Woods wins, he didn’t get any help. As a coach, I’ll help with organization, try to put the people in the right spots, have accountability, dedication and commitment. But it’s all about the players. I can be in charge of the program, but without good players, not much is going to happen.

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FT: Earlier in your career you ran a lot, stole bases and played small ball with outstanding pitching. Now you’ve moved into more of a long-ball team of late. Do you consciously adapt your approach to maximize your talent?

RT: I think that’s part of it, because I don’t have an ego. People ask me, “How do you teach hitting?” Well, I look at the hitter, try to figure out his strengths and weaknesses and where he’s going to be most successful in the program. If it’s hitting home runs, I’ll throw out the two-strike approach and let him take three great cuts. People can say, well, if anything we have a reputation for hitting home runs, but we went to Omaha in 2003 without a closer. I believe you take your personnel and plug them in to make your team successful.

I believe that as a coach, I’m probably not going to make a difference in but about eight or 10 games or so by the way I manage. It comes down to if your players are prepared and good enough. I think it gets blown out of proportion too much that somehow the success is because of coaches. It’s the players, and all those intangibles that go into them taking ownership of a program.

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Tanner’s Gamecocks are ranked No. 2 by Collegiate Baseball

and No. 3 by USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

FT: Are those intangibles something you look forward to when you’re recruiting players?

RT: Absolutely, and more so now than ever. One thing I’ve always said: You may make a mistake in evaluating talent, but don’t make a mistake on character. And sometimes you can still do that because you don’t have enough time to really get to know somebody. But you try not to. I’ve always been of the mind that you take the intangible guy; he’ll be better in the long run. I’ll take intangibles and character over talent every day because it equals out in the long run. You may lose a game or so here and there because of talent, but you’re going to win some games they were counted out of, too, because of character and desire.

FT: Back when you lost by one run in the Super Regionals with great teams two years in a row, did you ever get impatient for success?

RT: It was 2000 when we had the 56-10 team that won the SEC at 25-5. That might have been the best team I ever coached and we lost to Louisiana-Lafayette here. In 2001 we’re right there again and we lost to Stanford 3-2 in the championship game out there. Those were blows. You know, personally it hurt. But I believe when you do things the right way, it all evens out. In coaching, you know there will be peaks and valleys, and you wait for the peaks. After Stanford, all of a sudden I was thinking, “There’s no peaks.” The program had been good, but the peak wasn’t there. I took a blow. That was very painful for me personally, but painful for the people around me, too.

Then I remember sitting there in 2002 when we’re down four runs in the ninth to Miami and we rally to win. That’s when I thought things do even out. But going into that ninth inning, we were staring three straight Super Regional championship game losses in the face. I’m glad the result worked out the way it did, otherwise I’d have jumped out on those railroad tracks.

And then in 2003, we were not a great team but we went right back to the World Series and again in 2004, I was like, OK, we’re all right, and we’ve been pretty consistent since then. We don’t go to the World Series every year, but we’ve sort of been right there every year. The thing I’m probably most proud of in this program over the years is the consistency. We’ve had great consistency. You just can’t be, in my opinion, in a BCS bowl game every year or the Final Four. It’s very difficult to be in the College World Series, and what we focus on is the consistency, being a threat. And we have been a threat.

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FT: Can you describe the impact fans have on the program?

RT: Our fans have made a difference with their passion. I don’t care what sport it is, I don’t think a program can be as good as it needs to be without fans in the seats, and people have supported our baseball program. I’ve had many coaches come into Sarge Frye and say, “You know what? You may not have the best facilities in the country, but I would take what you have.” And that’s because of the fans. It makes a big difference. When we beat Miami in 2002, the atmosphere was electric. I don’t know if it was Sarge or the fans, but I feel like our fans got those runs in for us.

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Tanner has always enjoyed a terrific relationship with local

and national media. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

FT: Do you have any idea just how beloved you are by USC fans?

RT: Well, I’ve been treated great here. Dr. McGee was great to me, Eric Hyman’s been great to me, [former USC president] Dr. [John] Palms was great to me, Dr. [Andrew] Sorensen has been great to me; I’ve been very blessed. I also realize that there are very few steps between the outhouse and the penthouse. If our program doesn’t do well, I won’t be as beloved as maybe I have been. That’s part of the territory. Part of what motivates me, besides the passion, is fear. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t want to fail, and I think I guard against that a lot of times. I know a lot of people don’t say things like that, but the fear of failure is a big part of my motivation.

Being a coach in a program like this is very special. Sometimes people will see a job opening and ask if that’s something that interests me, and I say no because this is one of the best jobs in the country. I think you can count on one hand the number of programs that I think rival ours. And building this stadium, you talk about the university support, the city of Columbia as a place to live, the fan passion for athletics and baseball especially — how many jobs are better than the one I have?

FT: The new baseball stadium is almost here, finally. Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel now with it?

RT: We should be ready by next February for sure, and could be practicing there in the fall. Initially, when the stadium plan was entered and approved, soon thereafter I probably was a little impatient. But what helped me was that I lived the process. I went to the meetings; I wasn’t just some coach wondering what’s happening. Even though the meetings might have been about HVAC issues or power lines, I went even when I wasn’t sure what all was being discussed. But I lived it, and when delays came up I understood them. You see how that process works.

I don’t have an ego, and I know that this stadium isn’t about me. It’s for the players now and that have come before, for the city and for the University of South Carolina. It hasn’t driven me crazy. A lot of people think it did, but it didn’t. And anything worth having is worth waiting for. I know when it opens I’ll have goose bumps just like I did my first game at Sarge Frye and last year. History and tradition mean a lot to me. So when you talk about Blake Taylor, Yaron Peters, Garris Gonce, Kip Bouknight, Landon Powell, those guys are why you do what you do.

You take Yaron Peters, he had 27 at-bats as a junior and his senior year he becomes the SEC Player of the Year, just had a monster season and was drafted by the Atlanta Braves. I remember on his way out the door, he came in and sat right there on that couch and said, “Coach, I want to thank you for making me a man.” I sat back and said, “I can’t take credit for that. You did that.” And he said, “No coach. You did that. You put me in a spot, you took a chance, you didn’t give up on me.” In this day and age of instant gratification, he took the old-school approach and worked hard, worked his way to where he had that big senior year. That meant a lot. Ultimately, it’s about your people, and because of that this is a special, special place.

STADIUM UPDATE

USC head coach Ray Tanner says the stadium will certainly be completed in time for the 2009 season-opener, and most likely will be available for fall baseball practice this year.

“I’m over there all the time; I’ve got my own hardhat,” Tanner says. “They all know me pretty well over there, and I know they’re eager to get it done the right way.”

Already nearing completion is the player’s locker room behind home plate, which will feature a tunnel from which USC’s players will emerge. The concession stand and visitor’s dugout are also under way.

Contract Construction of Columbia won the contract for the stadium with a bid of $24.7 million.

Free Times - Columbia's Free Alternative Weekly

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I agree Tanner is a great coach, and maybe he'll be the best one day, but I wouldn't put him in the league with Skip Bertman and Ron Polk just yet. Not meaning to sound like a flame, but hell with all that Bertman did at LSU, and Ron wrote the book on Baseball literally. There is not a MLB player out there that can speak english that hasn't had to read his Baseball Playbook. It is the bible for baseball. Good luck to ya'll this year, I think this is the year that the SEC could possibly put 3 or 4 teams in the World Series. The SEC will be stacked and it will be tough for anyone in the league this year.

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