OMAHA, Neb. — Ray Tanner was 44 years old and in his 15th season as a head coach when he sat down in 2002 for his first College World Series press conference. Back then, the eight participating head coaches were seated at one long table to address questions from the media in the bowels of Rosenblatt Stadium.
Tanner was among the new breed of coaches in the group, along with Georgia Techs Danny Hall, Dave Van Horn of Nebraska (now at Arkansas) and Paul Mainieri of Notre Dame (now at LSU).
As Tanner peered down the row, he said he was humbled to be on the same stage with longtime veterans and college baseball coaching legends Wayne Graham of Rice, Mark Marquess of Stanford and Augie Garrido of Texas.
I was the guy at the end of the dais. I was the newcomer, Tanner said. Augie, come on, and Wayne Graham and all those veteran guys who had experienced all those wins. It was somewhat awe inspiring.
A lot of years we measured ourselves against LSU or Texas or Southern Cal, thats how you were measured. If you could compete against those guys, you had a pretty good program.
Eleven years later and Tanner is 55 years old and in his 26th season as a head coach. He has moved to the other end of the table. He is the Wayne Graham, Mark Marquess and Augie Garrido of college baseball.
Tanner and his USC baseball program are the models for all other coaches and all other programs.
The pre-College World Series press conferences are staged differently now. The four coaches from each bracket participate in separate meetings with the media. So, Tanner appeared on the same dais Thursday at TD Ameritrade Park with Florida coach Kevin OSullivan, Van Horn of Arkansas and Scott Stricklin of Kent State.
This time it was Stricklins turn to be in awe.
Ray Tanner is one of the icons of college baseball, said Stricklin, who was the newcomer in the bunch, having brought Kent State to Omaha for the first time in his eighth season at the school.
Dave van Horn and Kevin OSullivan are just outstanding coaches, Stricklin said. It makes you take a step back and realize where you are. When I looked to my left and saw those three guys, it kind of blows you away.
A coach gains that status by taking teams to the NCAA tournament in 13 consecutive seasons as Tanner has done at USC. He earns the respect of his fellow coaches by winning 40 or more games in 13 consecutive seasons, by reaching the College World Series in six of the past 11 seasons, by winning 21 consecutive NCAA tournament games and, of course, by capturing back-to-back national championships.
Tanner said he sometimes has a difficult time explaining how his teams have been so successful. He talks about his change in coaching style, from sometimes applying too much pressure on his players to now making certain they play free and easy. He talks about adapting his coaching style to the changing game, abandoning his love for home runs in favor of hit-and-runs and bunts.
He also talks about the support he has received along the way.
Nothing is guaranteed and nothing is automatic, Tanner said. But when you put enough things together players, coaches, resources, stadium, fans your chances increase. Nothing is guaranteed, but your chances increase of becoming one of those (elite) programs.
Now that he sits atop the college baseball world, Tanner also wants to make certain that he continues to enjoy the ride, and those players who are coming along for the first time need to do the same.
At Thursdays press conference, Tanner recalled arriving at Omahas Eppley Airfield. It was his first trip to Omaha in 2002, having held to his promise of never attending the College World Series until he took a team there.
When he arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn, Tanner went directly to the hotel manager and asked for a ride to Rosenblatt Stadium. It was 9:30 at night, but the manager obliged.
So, I went over there, I had to get in. I had to kind of get there to soak it all in, Tanner said. Thats how sacred it was, and how excited I was. I had to sort of get my bearings with the whole thing.
It was a feeling Tanner said he will never forget. So, in his next five trips, he ordered the bus driver at the airport to take the entire team by the home of the College World Series. Sure enough, on Wednesday, USC touched down at Eppley Airfield and the bus immediately took a tour around the outskirts of TD Ameritrade Park.
The difference from earlier trips is that when Tanner and USC rode around the stadium this year, they did so as the kings of college baseball. They did so no longer as the program that wants to be like others, but rather as the model for all others.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)