Several hours after the South Carolina baseball team took its triumphant ride down Main Street during the city’s victory parade to celebrate the program’s first national championship, coach Ray Tanner sat down in his Carolina Stadium office with The State and talked about the season, which concluded with an amazing 11-1 run in NCAA postseason play.
Q: What is this national title going to mean for South Carolina’s program?
A: I’ve felt for a pretty good while that we’ve been nationally competitive. Being the last team playing and winning the last game in the national championship puts us in a special category. We’ve recruited well, but it certainly elevates our recruiting. It’s a very special time for us, but we have been a nationally prominent program, so we’re not a program that’s going from obscurity all of a sudden to the top. We’ve been a consistent program that has now reached the pinnacle. It’s going to have a tremendous influence for years to come in so many ways. Everything is positive.
Q: Now that you have this stamp of credibility, along with this new ballpark, how does it help you sell your program to players?
A: Sometimes in recruiting, you talk about potential and you talk about possibilities, but you can also now talk about how these things can become reality because they have become reality. Hopefully, it can happen again. Now, we’re very realistic, but it is possible.
Q: There were so many incredible moments while you won six (College World Series) games in a row, with seemingly a different hero every night. Was there ever one moment when you went, ‘I just can’t believe it. That was one of the most special things I’ve ever seen’?
A: There are a number of situations that kind of pop up to me, but there was one that was kind of eerie. I’m very much into the game when I’m in the dugout. I’m very much pitch-to-pitch. I try to appear to be very calm and collected on the outside, but that’s not real.
A lot of times in the dugout, I talk to Coach (Mark) Calvi. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn’t. But he’s a sounding board. We had a three-run lead against UCLA (in Game 1), and we had the bases loaded (in the third inning). We get the fly ball, and it’s too short, and they overthrow the plate, and (Christian) Walker gets thrown out (at the plate attempting to advance). So we go to no runs, two outs, second and third after the bases being loaded. Now, a three-run lead, after you’ve made that play, is not a very big lead early in the game.
Coach Calvi and I are standing together, and I said, ‘That didn’t work out very well.’ He said, ‘No, it didn’t.’ And I said, ‘But the way we’re going, (Bobby) Haney will drive in those other two.’ And sure enough he did.
Coach Calvi looked at me and just shook this head. You go through periods where your line drives get caught and your bloops don’t fall and your ground balls can’t find a hole, and then you go through times where you just kind of feel like something is going to happen. I felt like we were playing very well, pitching extremely well, and we were in a position for good things to happen. We kept showing that. There was Jackie’s survival hit (against Oklahoma), Brady’s ball up the middle (also against Oklahoma), Matt Price out of the bullpen, Michael Roth’s complete game (against Clemson). We started to define a team that has destiny because we were doing things that we were capable of but hadn’t done on a regular basis.
But Haney’s hit was one of the defining moments for me.
Q: Was winning the College World Series all you thought it would be?
I go back to 2002 when I made my first trip there. There is so much buildup in our world of college coaching and baseball to get to the College World Series in Omaha. It’s the ultimate. So when I first went there, I wondered, ‘Is it going to be what I dreamed it to be? Am I going to be disappointed?’ And I wasn’t. It was everything I thought it would be and again in ’03 and ’04.
Certainly, it was in the back of my mind as we were going through the Regionals and Super Regionals. ‘Can we get to Rosenblatt in the final season? Wouldn’t that be neat? Wouldn’t that be special?’
Then we get there, and in the opening ceremonies, Coach (Mike) Martin of Florida State is sitting close to me on the third base side, and it’s a beautiful night with the fireworks. I kept thinking, ‘What an honor to be in the final chapter.’ Then I dreamed a little bit about getting to the finals. What if we were to win it in the last year? How neat. The stadium is packed; it’s buzzing. And it came to pass.
We were adopted in the championship series. We became the favorite of Omaha. We had a pretty large contingent of fans show up, but we pretty much got adopted by the people of Omaha, and it was so special. It was everything I dreamed it would be.
The College World Series at Rosenblatt is history, and it will be for a long time. We’ll be a part of that. The new stadium will not have a history for a long, long time so what we did is everything I thought it would be. I still have to pinch myself. It was a storybook ending.
Q: What do you make of the outpouring of fan support since you got back?
A: We just had that ceremony and the parade, and we did some autographs before it started. We had all those people at the State House grounds. It was incredible.
We get hustled out of there, and we’re on the bus coming back over here (to the stadium). I’m sitting next to Parker Bangs and Kyle Enders, and it was the first time in days where you caught your breath for a minute. Nobody is on the phone; nobody is signing autographs. It’s just Parker and Kyle, and I said, ‘Did you guys ever think it would be like this?’ And they said, ‘No, we knew our fans were the best, but we had no idea, no idea it was going to be like this. This is really unbelievable.’ And I said, ‘Guys, no matter what you guys do the rest of your lives, this will be in the forefront.’
It’s such a special time, and you hit it on the head, the outpouring of support and emotion is beyond comprehension.
Q: Does winning a national championship put more pressure or less pressure on you? Or is there going to be the same amount of pressure that you’ve always put on yourself to get the job done?
A: I’ve been doing this for a long time. I remember when I was an assistant (at N.C. State), and I worked for (current USC assistant) Sammy Esposito’s dad, Coach Espo, and back then for many years, I was the only assistant coach. I lived and died with the program. I was immersed in it. And he used to tell me, ‘I know you hurt when we lose, but you’ll feel differently when you’re the head coach.’ And I kept telling him, ‘Coach, I don’t think I will. I understand why you would say that because the wins and losses go next to your name, but I don’t think I’ll feel any different.’ And I haven’t. I still feel exactly the same. I feel relief with controlled happiness when we win, and I feel miserable when we lose.
The pressure that I feel is all self-induced. I know that at times our fans get upset with us. We may have the administration get upset with us at times. It doesn’t faze me. Not in the least. If we have 10,000 people here booing us or nobody here, I’ll take the 10,000 because (it means) they care. They have expectations, too, and that’s the way I want it. That’s the way I like it. That’s how you thrive. Going back to the pressure, winning and getting there and being Top 10, none of that concerns me. I take it, literally, as it comes.
At the time, I don’t get too far ahead of myself. I’ve never felt like we’ve done well because of me. I feel like when we don’t do well, it’s because of me. I take the responsibility. I’m a firm believer in this profession that we’re in, that players win games and coaches take responsibility for losing. I believe that. That’s the way it should be. It can be tough on coaches at times, but that’s the way it is, and I’m OK with that. I don’t have to check my ego at the door. I’ve got great coaches, I’ve got great players. If you don’t have them, you’re not going to win. I know at times I get a lot of credit, but I don’t feel all this happened because of me.
Q: Were there any signs during the season that you saw where the team really showed you something and you thought that would carry you a long way in the postseason?
A: Two sides to the question, maybe.
The one series at East Carolina — and it was early — really disturbed me. I could not shake it (on the bus ride home), and I told myself, ‘It’s early. It’s the second week. We’re on the road playing an outstanding team, and all three games were in the balance. You know what? We lost two but don’t burn your players. Give them a pat on the back. We’re going to get better.’ But I could not let it go. I could not talk to my coaches. I thought in a few more miles that I’d be OK. We went I-95 South and the further we got, no relief. I-20 across, no relief. So there was nothing to do but explode. I got the guys in the locker room, and I unloaded my disappointment.
They caught the brunt of it, and my message really was, ‘I know it’s early, but a sense of urgency is necessary, and you and you and you and you need to do more. Now!’ I’m sure some guys didn’t like the meeting and maybe got their feelings hurt a little bit. I was disappointed in myself (that) I could not avoid that. I don’t necessarily think that was a defining moment. I think the players were fine. I’m the one that wasn’t fine. Coaches sometimes do things for them thinking they’re doing something right for the team.
I think the (April) series at Vandy was a big one. We’re on the road playing a very talented team. We battled. We had Jay Brown’s shutout pieced together on Sunday, and I saw just a little more character and a little more resolve than I had seen in previous games. We were competitive, and I thought maybe we’re figuring this one out. It was a rubber game, and we had a bus ride home. It’s going to be a good bus ride. We’re getting this done.
You have to take it that you’re going to win your share and lose your share. What are you going to do with the rest of them? That was one of the rest of them. That was one where the guys between the lines said, ‘We’re going to win.’
Q: A team is always the sum of its parts. It always struck me that this team seemed to have more parts to choose from, and that’s what made them a better team.
A: People who follow our program closely and have been here a lot of years have said to me, ‘You’ve had better teams.’ And my answer has been, ‘Not really.’ I might have had more talent at times and good people, but this team was able to accomplish more. So you really have to give credit to this team for being the best team. They won the most games at the critical juncture of the year that resulted in the national championship.
Nothing against the other players that played here. I received over 100 texts from those former players. And I always answer back this way: You helped lay the foundation for what just happened. You were a part of this national championship. You helped do the groundwork. And this group made it happen.
For all teams, if you can get the sum greater than the total of all of the parts, you’re going to have something special going on. We were really able to take that to another level.
We would run some guys at you. Evan Marzilli, he was a guy who wasn’t there and then he’s in the national championship game. Where was he? He was a guy who we let get his feet wet when Jackie was hurt. Then, Robert Beary comes off the bench and get a couple of hits in the College World Series. And Michael Roth starts a game because I wanted him to relieve early. Our attitude was, ‘He’s the guy who’s been very effective in calming the game.’ Well, we felt like that (Clemson) game needed to be calmed down at the very beginning. So he did that. We kept putting different pieces in the puzzle and filling it up.
Q: When Carolina Stadium opened, you talked about it being a culmination of what (former coaches) Bobby Richardson and June Raines had built along the way. Now that you’ve won the national championship, do you feel like you’ve completed the circle?
A: The thing when I took over here 14 years ago, the tradition was here. The fan base was strong. My goal was to continue a great tradition and increase our fan base and do the things they had done.
I didn’t build a tradition here. They did.
I was given the responsibility of carrying it forward. They were extremely successful and in very similar situations. We just happened to win the last game. Without question, on a number of occasions, I’ve thought about Coach Richardson’s seven years and Coach Raines’ 20, and being able to carry on their legacy here at South Carolina.
Q: How will you enjoy this championship? I know you’ll continue recruiting and still keep working, but are you going to take a little time to enjoy this?
A: Honestly, I’ll do nothing different.
We played a little bit longer than we normally do by a few games, but now the schedule is normal. We’ll get on the road. We’ve already done some recruiting since we got back. Nothing changes, but that’s the way I like it. I’ve gotten a number of requests already to make some appearances and do some things that will be very difficult for me to do because of recruiting. We do a lot of evaluating in the summer.
Winning the national championship was the ultimate, but nothing changes for me. I think it’s great the way it is. Nothing is different except for the view. (He points to the NCAA championship trophy on the shelf behind his desk.)