Ray Tanner and Monte Lee were quite the duo as coaches for South Carolina in the mid 2000s.
Lee was a member of Tanner’s staff from 2003-08. The Gamecocks advanced to the College World Series twice in his six years and made the NCAA Tournament all six seasons, with four Super Regional appearances.
There were plenty of blowout victories during that time as USC was one of the top programs in college baseball.
Tanner was in charge of positioning the infielders when USC was on defense. Lee was in charge of positioning the outfielders.
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The two had differing opinions on how hard they should be coaching late in the game with a comfortable lead.
“I stood right behind him when we were on defense every game… We would get up on a team, sometimes eight or 10 runs... We’re talking top of the ninth and we’re up by eight to 10 runs on somebody, and I would just go ahead and sit down because the outfielders can just play straight up,” Lee recalled. “He would say, ‘Hey, you need to move your outfielders. You’ve got so and so playing too deep … Hey, you need to move so and so and get him over there.’ I’d be like, ‘I mean dang, we’re up by eight or 10 runs. Why do I need to continue to move outfielders?’ But he’s continuing to move infielders. The guy competed like you would not believe, regardless of the score.”
Tanner acknowledged that he had that conversation with Lee on a few occasions.
“Well, I was a little bit excessive probably at times,” Tanner, who won national titles in 2010 and 2011, said while laughing. “I had a fear of losing. There’s no clock in baseball, so I never got comfortable. I lost some games along the way where you’re up by a few runs. I was hyper-sensitive if you will.”
Lee did not understand why Tanner was so particular at the time, but as he has continued throughout his coaching career, first as the head coach at College of Charleston and now with the Clemson Tigers, to rely ed on lessons he learned from Tanner.
“Everything that I’ve done as a head coach, a lot of it is stuff that I learned from Ray,” Lee said. “I think the one thing that stood out to me about Ray, he’s the most competitive human being I’ve ever met. I’ve never met anybody more competitive than coach Tanner.”
Lee was coaching AAU baseball when he first came in contact with Tanner, and USC’s legendary coach immediately believed the former minor league baseball player had a bright future as a coach.
Lee started his college coaching career as an assistant at Spartanburg Methodist College before Tanner convinced him to become a volunteer assistant with the Gamecocks.
“He was well beyond his years. You always think that a guy starting out would have a lot to learn, but he was very polished as a young coach,” Tanner said. “I think that was attributed to how he played the game and the time that he was in professional baseball and the different people that he was around.”
Lee made the NCAA Tournament in four of his seven seasons at College of Charleston and has hosted a regional with 40-plus wins both years at Clemson.
Tanner, who moved into the AD role at USC in 2013, is not surprised at all by his former assistant’s success.
“He was with me for six years, and he was a real asset. I was always very fond of him as a person, but he was a great coach as well. The thing that was so special I think is as an assistant coach you’ve got to have a relationship with players and that was easy for him,” Tanner said. “The baseball part, he was outstanding and he was a great coach… But his balance for the game was tremendous. I tended to be excited from time-to-time, the highs and the lows. I was never great at (handling) that. And he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around. He respects the game. He’s able to keep it in perspective and coaches sometimes struggle with that.”
While Lee was helping Tanner remain calm and pile up victories, he was also crafting an idea of how he would want to run his program if given the opportunity.
Lee said that it is hard to put into words how much he owes Tanner and appreciates having the chance to learn under him.
“The guy never took a pitch off, never sat down, never relaxed. He was always in the game all the time, and he was like that in practice,” Lee said. “If he wasn’t throwing batting practice he was swinging a fungo bat. He never stood there and watched. He was always actively involved.”
Lee also learned that every detail matters, from the direction of the wind to the opposing pitcher’s strengths, to how many righties or lefties would be in the lineup.
“That’s probably the biggest thing that I learned from coach Tanner is he coached every day, every season like it was life or death. I felt like I was working with a man on a one-year contract every year. And this was a guy that had played for the national championship the year before I came there in 2002,” Lee said. “I felt like I was playing with a man that was in the last year of his contract. That’s what I respected so much about him, is he never felt like he had arrived. That’s how he coached. He coached every day like he had something to prove. That’s why his players were so tough, that’s why they competed so hard, because that’s how he is.”
Tanner and Lee still talk regularly, including last week when the Tigers were preparing to face a top 25 club in Dallas Baptist.
Tanner wasn’t sure playing a ranked team the weekend before facing USC was the best idea, but the Tigers ended up sweeping DBU.
“I was giving him a hard time… We exchanged a couple of texts and then he called me, and I said, ‘Who scheduled them? I mean who’s the schedule maker? What are you scheduling a top 10 team for?’ ” Tanner said with a chuckle. “And he laughed and said, ‘I thought it was a good idea.’ I said, ‘How about now?’ He said, ‘Not so much.’ With their schedule and our schedule and playing each other the third weekend, you’ve got to be careful for your team. But he came out looking like a genius, didn’t he? They took care of business.”
The two coaches being on opposing sides of the rivalry has not changed their friendship or respect for each other.
“My relationship with him will never change. I know we’re on opposite sides of the rivalry… but my opinion of him as a man and what he meant to me, that’s never going to change,” Lee said.
Tanner echoed Lee’s comments but clarified that just because he likes Lee doesn’t mean he feels obligated to pull for the Tigers.
“I’m happy for him, but don’t mistake that as I’ve become a Clemson Tiger fan, let’s not mistake that,” Tanner said. “But I’m a Monte Lee fan… He’s perfect for the college game. He’s a true professional, and Dan Radakovich made a great hire in Monte Lee. There’s no doubt about that.”