This article was originally published Dec. 25, 2011
The walls in the ranch style home at 206 Woodall Street seemed to be crumbling around the Tanner family. Young Ray’s grandfather, Herman, the man with whom he shared a bed for the first 12 years of his life, had passed away.
Then came the telephone call during the fall of Ray’s sophomore year of high school. His mother, Mavecine, took the call from a trooper with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. It seems that Ray’s father, Donald, had been run off Interstate 95 outside Benson, N.C., motoring against traffic. He was driving drunk.
Ray was named for his father, Donald Ray Tanner. He admired his dad greatly for being a well-respected man about town, the local bread truck driver for more than two decades. Senior taught junior how to work hard and how to play baseball.
So, these were troubling times for Ray. He no longer had his grandfather, his best friend, to turn to. His disappointment in his father bowing to alcoholism created a schism between the two that seemed irreparable.
Ray decided to take his concerns about his father first to his basketball coach at South Johnston High School, Tom Kernodle.
"Don’t make excuses," Ray remembers Kernodle telling him rather bluntly. "Other people have problems, too, so let’s go. You have problems, you deal with them. You have hurdles, you leap over them. You keep going. Don’t make excuses and don’t feel sorry for yourself."
Bruce Coats, Ray’s baseball coach at the high school, reinforced the message.
"Ray and I had some talks," says Coats, now 83 and retired in the Benson area. "I don’t believe just being a baseball coach was what you were supposed to do back then. I believe you can teach a boy a few things that can help him later in life."
The seed was planted. Ray would be a coach some day, and a leader of young men. Nearly four decades later, Tanner is a leader in his profession and the most successful coach in University of South Carolina history. His USC teams have captured consecutive national baseball championships. His teams at N.C. State and USC have won more than 1,000 games. He has coached the USA Baseball National Team.
Over his 24 years of coaching college baseball teams, Tanner’s management style has evolved, from a hair-trigger decision-maker who intimidated his players to a father-figure who will place his arm around a player’s shoulder for some heart-to-heart counseling.
The influences on Tanner’s style have been many and varied, from his high school coaches to his college coach to a legendary basketball coach to his wife, Karen, to his three children.
"To this day, I value experience, I value wisdom," Tanner says. "If you’re going to learn from somebody, shouldn’t it be somebody who’s walked in those shoes, been there a long time? I feel like I’ve had some pretty good mentoring from a lot of good people."
A BASEBALL FAMILY
Ray Tanner was wondering about fairness in baseball and life during the early summer of 2001. His father had died at age 62 on May 4. For a second consecutive season his USC baseball team was on the verge of falling one win short of Tanner’s first trip to the College World Series.
Donald Tanner attended as many games as possible during his son’s coaching career, first driving the 30 miles from Benson to N.C. State University in Raleigh, then occasionally making the three-hour trek south to Columbia.
That season, Tanner missed the pregame and postgame phone calls from his dad, who had lived the final years of his life alcohol free only to succumb to pancreatic cancer. Dad’s advice almost always was the same: "Wear ’em out."
Dad also was a big believer that everything evened out in the game of baseball. If the opposition dropped a few broken-bat singles into the outfield, sooner or later your team would get a check-swing single or two to balance things out.
Three weeks after his father’s death, Tanner was starting to believe. USC fought out of the losers’ bracket to win a regional tournament, and was headed to California for a Super Regional showdown against Stanford and a possible trip to the College World Series.
After the regional title celebration on the Sarge Frye field, Tanner walked side by side with Ronald Kasper, the team psychologist and a trusted confidant since Tanner first arrived at USC for the 1997 season.
"You’re tearing up. Don’t you start that," Kasper recalls saying to Tanner. "You’re going to get to me, and we’re going to look bad crying here."
Ray’s tears did not come from the joy of winning. They were tears for his dad, the light of his life for so many years and the man he so badly wanted with him for this celebratory moment.
Summers were the best times in Tanner’s life growing up in Benson, where small-town living -- from the downtown drug store to the age-old hardware store -- still exists 35 years after Ray left there headed for college. Ray hopped aboard his father’s Sunbeam bread truck every morning around 4. The two first loaded the truck and by 6 o’clock deliveries to area stores were under way.
It was not so much that the elder Tanner needed the assistance. He did not. Rather, the son was being taught how to work, and perhaps more importantly how to be good at your work.
By noon, deliveries were complete and Dad headed home for a nap while Ray placed his ball glove on his bicycle handlebars and headed the six or so blocks from home through downtown Benson to the Mitchell Nance Athletic Complex for an afternoon of baseball. The games were loosely organized and almost always concluded with a large orangeade at Warren Drugs downtown.
Early evenings were spent playing games of "pepper" with his father and grandfather in the tiny front yard of their Woodall Street home. Dad and Mom shared one room in the house, Ray and his grandfather another, and Ray’s younger sister, Donna, shared the third with Dixie Tanner, Ray’s aunt.
Times were tough and housing six in one small house was a way to make ends meet for a lower-middle class family. Donald Tanner probably never reached $15,000 in annual salary delivering bread, and Mavecine could not match that paycheck with her full-time work making shirts at Block Industries.
Still, no one ever missed a meal, and Ray never went without a new pair of cleats for baseball or a new set of Converse All-Stars for basketball. Dad always drove a Ford Galaxy, and the trio of men in the Tanner household often sat in the carport during baseball season listening to baseball games on the radio.
The Tanners loved baseball. All except Aunt Dixie piled into the Galaxy a couple of times each summer for an up-and-back daytrip to Washington, D.C. It almost always was a chance to see the family’s beloved New York Yankees play against the Washington Senators. One time, the family waited around afterward outside the Yankees’ clubhouse so young Ray could shake the hand of his idol, Mickey Mantle. Another time, when Ray was 8 or 9, the family headed to Texas to watch an indoor baseball game in the newly constructed Houston Astrodome.
LEARNING FROM ESPOSITO
Tanner was a star at South Johnston High, shortstop on the baseball team, point guard in basketball and slot back/safety/place-kicker in football. He once scored all of South Johnston’s points -- two touchdown receptions, two extra-points and a field goal -- in a 17-14 win over rival Clayton. Still, his love was baseball, and Coats says his all-state player knew naturally how to hit to the opposite field, a rarity in high school.
Tanner attended N.C. State University to play baseball for Sam Esposito, one of the most respected coaches in the business because of his knowledge of, and no-nonsense approach to, the game. Even for Tanner, who craved stern discipline and direction, Esposito was intimidating.
Players would cower, hide in corners and scatter to the opposite end of the dugout when they saw Esposito coming. He lasted parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox primarily because he could play every infield position and partly because he knew how to play the game and played it hard.
Hard-nosed only began to describe Esposito. He imparted that toughness to his players at N.C. State, and perhaps never was there a better case study than with Tanner, who played for the Wolfpack from 1977-80. He earned all-ACC honors his senior season. During that season, in a game against Wake Forest, Tanner took a groundball to his mouth and lost his front teeth, leaving blood splattered on his jersey. Tanner will tell you two things about that game: N.C. State won and he remained in the game.
It is no wonder years later that Tanner stuck with light-hitting second baseman Scott Wingo, who far exceeded his talents through hustle and determination. It paid off when Wingo was a driving force on both of USC’s national championship clubs.
Under Esposito, hair could not touch the ears and was not allowed on the face. Every player wore his pants legs and socks to the same length. Shirttails were tucked in, even in postgame walks to the team bus. Uniformity was part of discipline. Everyone played by Esposito’s rules, thus knowing when to keep the double-play in order by throwing to second base from the outfield and how to properly flip the ball to the shortstop as a second baseman.
Tanner carried many of the same rules with him through his days at N.C. State and on to USC. Only in the past few seasons has Tanner loosened the reins some. He turned his back to the facial hair most of the team sported during a long winning streak a season ago. When the 2010 USC squad used a bat as an Avatar spirit stick to rally the troops, Tanner played along.
Esposito was a stickler for details. If you showed up on time to a meeting with Esposito, you were actually 15 minutes late. Tanner’s players know to set the clocks on their cell phones ahead a few minutes or run the risk of him sending the bus off without them. Wingo found that out before a game in Greenville this past season when he missed the bus.
Tanner remains so detail-oriented, he still balances his bank account to the penny in his checkbook. Take a peek inside his closet at home and you will see his pants perfectly aligned by color, khakis on one side to blue slacks on the other. It is the same with his shirts, from blue to white to red.
THE VALVANO STYLE
Upon earning his diploma, Tanner remained at N.C. State and served as an assistant to Esposito while working on a master’s degree. In seven years under Esposito, Tanner also worked in the N.C. State ticket office and was in charge of game day operations in other sports.
When he was not observing Esposito, Tanner was seated at the scorer’s table for men’s basketball games to watch Jim Valvano work the sideline. The baseball office for Esposito and Tanner was located on the same third floor of the Case Athletic Center as those for Valvano and his staff.
Valvano was the master at adapting on the fly. He could abandon a plan for the season after just a couple of games or alter a particular game’s plan just minutes into the action.
The same operating style has served Tanner well. Long an advocate of the Earl Weaver brand of baseball, in which a team plays for three-run homers, Tanner adjusted USC’s game in recent years. Gone was "Gorilla Ball," replaced almost seamlessly with hitters who work deep into the count and can slap the ball to the opposite field.
Tanner also took mental notes of how Valvano worked with his players, assistant coaches, administrators and even the media. Valvano was a motivator, whether addressing his team or a room full of business executives.
You could almost hear the late Valvano’s voice when Tanner spoke earlier this fall at the annual Lexington Medical Center banquet. Tanner’s speech was enthusiastic and motivational in nature. He had the 1,000 or so in attendance enthralled.
Each weekday morning while at N.C. State, Valvano and members of the athletics department gathered in the baseball office for coffee. Then the same group would remain late into the night after basketball games with Valvano holding court and Tanner more than happy to be a member of the audience.
Some said Tanner was Valvano’s "go-fer." Tanner preferred to be called Valvano’s "valet." Tanner fetched sandwiches for Valvano’s lunch, picked up his clothes at the dry cleaners and even ran signed checks to the bank. Valvano loved the service and the person providing it, but when it came time for Esposito to retire, Valvano insisted in the morning meetings that "I’m not hiring a short, fat guy from Benson, North Carolina. I’ve got to hire a big name."
Valvano, then the N.C. State athletics director, finally approached Tanner about leaving baseball and becoming an athletic administrator. The pay and job security was better, but Tanner was 27 years old and wanted to give coaching a chance.
One day in the summer of 1987, Tanner received a phone call from a friend who had heard Valvano speak the night before at a Wolfpack Club meeting in Greenville, S.C.
"V hire you?" the friend asked Tanner.
"No. We’ve talked some, but no," Tanner replied.
"I think he hired you last night."
Sure enough, Valvano returned to the office the next day with the news.
"I think I hired you last night," Tanner says Valvano told him. "I think I got to talking too much. . . . You better not screw this thing up."
The $27,000 starting salary for a first-time head coach was a far cry from the $500,000 Tanner would eventually earn annually at USC, but the head coaching job at N.C. State meant he could shed his other duties in the athletics department.
Although one of the youngest head coaches in the country -- 29 by the time his first season started -- Tanner was prepared to take charge. For the previous few seasons he handled recruiting, scheduling and much of the baseball program’s daily activities.
Early on, he proved to be overly ambitious at times. Once, he carried a printed practice plan that called for a four-hour workout. Valvano, who was known to map his practice plan on a napkin, told Tanner the young coach’s plan was all about ego. Only Tanner wanted a practice to last that long, Valvano said, and certainly not his players. Tanner’s teams have not practiced more than two hours in a day since.
Before his first game as head coach, Tanner became acquainted with a young certified athletic trainer who was working with the women’s basketball team while seeking a master’s degree. Tanner soon began dating Karen Donald of Charleston.
She quickly learned Tanner’s priorities in life, and they started and ended with baseball. Nothing controlled his life more than wins and losses. To be around Tanner after an N.C. State win was fun. A loss was pure misery, for everyone.
"Nobody likes losing," Karen Tanner says today. "But he has a way of making people hate losing like I have never seen because it’s just so miserable. People hate losing and they’d just rather win because they don’t want to be around him after they lose."
Jim Toman served as Tanner’s right-hand man in the dugout for 17 seasons, both at N.C. State and USC, and now is the head coach at Liberty. Toman knew when to steer clear of Tanner after losses, leaving the head coach alone in his hotel room following a defeat on a road trip.
Tanner’s foul mood over losing occasionally permeated the entire program, so Toman would hit the road recruiting. Once, during the 2003 season, Toman worked the Florida panhandle for prospects -- and found top-notch relief pitcher Chad Blackwell -- while USC was winning a conference series at Florida in Gainesville.
During his first few seasons at N.C. State, Tanner often returned after a loss to his Raleigh apartment in full uniform and wore it through the night. His future wife, Karen, would return from women’s basketball road trips sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning to find Tanner and Toman still in uniform discussing that night’s loss in the office.
Even with his success at N.C. State, Tanner was not fulfilled. His first team in 1988 set a school record with 45 wins. He directed the Wolfpack to six NCAA tournament appearances in his first seven seasons. He proved he could attain success, but happiness proved ever-elusive.
"The part I didn’t do well with was the wins and losses and pushing them and challenging them," Tanner says of his teams. "I was probably a little bit over the top. Quite honestly, in a lot of ways, I’m probably still fortunate to still be coaching."
Tanner and Karen had been married for two years by the time (1995) N.C. State blew a 15-4 lead in the ninth inning of a game against Clemson. In those days, Tanner dressed for games at his Case Athletic Center office and drove his car the two miles to Doak Field, believing the head coach should not be seen in uniform walking across campus.
Karen entered the women’s basketball athletic training room the following morning and was confronted by another coach in the department.
"Hey, did Ray get his car fixed?" Karen recalls the coach asking.
"What do you mean?" Karen replied.
"Well, I saw him last night walking back from the field over to (Case Athletic Center) in uniform."
Karen saw her husband later in the day and asked, "Hey, how’s your car?"
Tanner snapped back, "My car is fine."
It turns out that Tanner walked -- stewing all the way -- directly out of the stadium in full uniform after the loss and toured the campus before arriving back at his office.
Karen took it upon herself, almost as if it were part of her wedding vows, to help her husband deal with defeat. From the outset, their relationship has provided an outlet for Tanner, something to deflect energy from his profession.
"I probably wouldn’t be coaching today if it wasn’t for Karen coming into my life and trying to get some balance," Tanner says.
BECOMING A GAMECOCK
Tanner would have remained for life at N.C. State, if only the athletics department had shown the same commitment to his program. When Esposito passed the coaching torch on to Tanner, he did so with a few words of advice. "Ask for more," Esposito told his protégé.
Tanner asked and received an expanded schedule at N.C. State. He also believed for N.C. State to keep up with Clemson and North Carolina in the ACC it needed to begin hosting NCAA regional tournaments. That meant revamping tiny Doak Field and adding lights.
When Tanner’s requests were denied, he headed to USC, where athletics director Mike McGee promised to meet just about every one of his new coach’s demands. Sarge Frye Field was remodeled and eventually replaced with a new $36 million stadium.
Tanner brought along his upfront, confrontational style to Columbia. He gathered his new team in the fall of 1996 at The Roost, shut the door and read the riot act to the startled young men.
"I was a big fan of June Raines," Tanner says of the man he succeeded as head coach. "I felt like that at the end of his career some in that room had not done the best they could as a student-athlete at the University of South Carolina. That infuriated me."
By the start of the season, Tanner also had every player sign the same 12-step pledge, or contract, that he used at N.C. State. It called for a prohibition on drugs, smoking and alcohol. Curfews were instituted and class cuts were not excused.
One player who came along with Tanner to USC was shortstop Adam Everett, who played his first season at N.C. State. Everett knew what to expect from Tanner and believes his coach’s discipline helped him eventually enjoy an 11-year major-league career.
A couple of seasons into professional baseball also made Everett realize something else about Tanner. So, during one offseason, when Tanner sought Everett’s advice on how to better the USC program, the former player offered it.
"Have a little fun doing it," Everett recalls telling Tanner. "Not so much ease up, but mainly have fun doing what you’re doing and let the guys do the same."
The 2000 season proved to be a turning point. That team opened the season with 22 consecutive wins and completed it with a 56-10 record. Beyond that, it was a loose group of players who seemed to make Tanner more at ease.
Midway through that season, after USC salvaged the finale in a three-game series at LSU, the team boarded the bus. Road trips home after losing a conference series are no joy ride with Tanner. On this occasion, though, Tanner waited for everyone to board, then stunned his troops. He began pointing at the LSU fans outside the bus, taunting them. He screamed about how those fans brought brooms to the game yet were unable to wave them after a sweep. Tanner had loosened up as well.
Two years later, Tanner’s father no doubt smiled from heaven as USC finally broke through and reached the College World Series for the first of three consecutive seasons. Then came the most magical of all rides with back-to-back national titles the past two seasons.
Along the way, the Tanners began raising a family. They first adopted Gracie and, two years later, Maggie, while Karen was pregnant with Luke. Having children proved to be the last piece of the transformation for Tanner.
"I finally realized that the shortstop was someone’s child," Tanner says.
Instead of charging down the dugout to confront a player after a missed sign or throw to the wrong base, Tanner is much more likely these days to initially let the offense pass. Later, he might calmly approach and inquire about the player’s thinking. Over the years -- in baseball vernacular -- Tanner has morphed from coach to manager.
Tanner’s grandfather passed away long ago. His father has been dead for a decade. Valvano died in 1993.
So, it was a joyous occasion on the first day of 2011 when Tanner attended a wedding in Marion, N.C., and was seated next to the groom’s father, Sam Esposito. The old coach lives these days in a retirement home in Banner Elk, N.C.
Sammy Esposito enters his fifth season on Tanner’s staff. On the practice field, even today, Sammy says he can hear the voice of his father. It usually comes when Tanner instructs his players to "keep the double play in order," or "use the scissors flip" to get an out at second base. Or, maybe he hears the voice when Tanner is counseling one of his players about life off the field.
"It’s kind of eerie sometimes," Sammy says.