Ray Tanner will forever be remembered as the best coach in the history of South Carolina baseball. The numbers speak for themselves, most notably two national championships.
As athletics director for going on three years, his legacy has yet to be defined. Tanner hasn’t done anything to tarnish his reputation, but he hasn’t had to make a terribly difficult decision.
He’s been handed his first, and it’s quite a doozy. When Steve Spurrier quit midseason, Tanner was faced with making the coach of the university’s flagship team his first major hire. All one has to do is Google “coaching busts” and see how making the wrong choice has cost other ADs their legacies and sometimes their jobs (i.e., the other USC).
Tanner’s glorious tenure as baseball coach will remain. A bad decision as AD may hover forever. Fair? Unfair? Neither. Reality.
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“I knew that in 2012, when I became the director of athletics, there was a chance that coach Spurrier may end his tenure before I did,” Tanner said at Spurrier’s resignation. “It’s important that as a director of athletics, it doesn’t matter what sport it is, that you have prepared a plan to go forward and you have a staff in place that can assist and you have contacts around the country that can help, and that has been the case.”
Following the acts
The Gamecocks’ past two ADs left different marks. Mike McGee hired some big-name coaches (including Tanner and Spurrier) with four still employed today. He also had the Gamecocks lagging behind the rest of the SEC in facilities and money-making.
Eric Hyman reversed the latter. Under his watch USC was transformed into one of the SEC’s leaders in facility and financial success. It wasn’t coincidental that athletic success followed – the Gamecocks had their best stretch of overall winning.
But Hyman never had to hire a football coach (McGee hired three), and his other hires are mostly a case of “the jury’s still out.” Dawn Staley has certainly proved her worth by making the women’s basketball program one of the country’s best, and coaches such as Bill McDonald, Kalen Harris, Frank Martin and Beverly Smith are recently seeing the rewards of their labors.
His one big misstep – men’s basketball coach Darrin Horn – resulted in one SEC East championship and a lot of losing. That and holding on too long to Horn’s predecessor, Dave Odom, left a pall on his hiring record.
Tanner has hired two major coaches, but each came with an asterisk. His successor as baseball coach, Chad Holbrook, ranks as a major hire, but it’s not like Tanner scoured the country for him. Holbrook was his top assistant and took the job three days after Tanner was officially announced as AD. Interim football coach Shawn Elliott counts, but he’s an emergency replacement.
Coaching hires define an athletics director’s tenure, fairly or unfairly. While Tanner’s a tremendous ambassador for the university and has stressed his love for Gamecock Nation, nobody’s going to recall his charity work or spearheading of improvement projects 10 years from now.
They’re going to remember who he picks as Spurrier’s successor.
Cult of personalities
McGee often rubbed folks the wrong way with a leadership that was nearly a dictatorship. If you didn’t like it, tough.
He got Colonial Life Arena built and guided the Gamecocks as they waded into the SEC. His vision in luring Lou Holtz out of retirement led to a long-craved national football spotlight, and that led to Spurrier choosing USC after his NFL experiment. McGee also landed USC’s first SEC title-winning coach, Eddie Fogler, in one of the worst possible circumstances – after the first choice, USC alum Bobby Cremins, accepted the job and quit three days later.
He didn’t want to share USC with pro sports, though, and that cost the Gamecocks one season’s worth of revenue from the Carolina Panthers. It also had the Capital City Bombers move to Greenville when a proposed USC/minor-league baseball field couldn’t be hashed out.
Hyman, coming into a department with financial issues, was a businessman first and second. He didn’t want to be part of the “old boys network,” because to make USC into a Top 25 program across the board, he couldn’t be.
“I wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest. I was trying to do what was right,” Hyman said in 2013. “There were a lot of difficult decisions that had to be made. When I got there, to be successful, I think you have to have great coaching and you have to have a sincere commitment. And I really didn’t feel that South Carolina understood what a sincere commitment was.”
Hyman understood his role was to make USC a money-maker, not be everybody’s pal. His decisions on seat-licensing and cost-cutting ruffled feathers, but look where USC is now.
Tanner’s a people person. He’s always been honest and not one to say something just because that’s what folks want to hear. He’s already listed the desired factors of his new football coach – winner, recruiter, etc. He also said he wants somebody who understands what it means to be a Gamecock.
“I love Columbia, I love the University of South Carolina,” he said. “I want somebody to be like that. I want somebody that fits that role.”
Tanner could hire the best hot young coach on the market. He could hire a sitting coach who has a fistful of rings. He could keep Elliott and ensure that, if nothing else, there wouldn’t be a major shakeup for the players.
The problem is that no matter who he hires, it’s still USC football.
The program was under .500 all-time before Spurrier arrived. Even he wasn’t immune to failure – the 2007 season was an epic collapse and seasons that weren’t 2011-13 were mostly a game or three over .500.
But that stretch from 2011-13 ...
The Gamecocks won 11 games each year, bringing the thought that maybe the corner had been turned – forever. The 2014 and 2015 seasons reversed it and showed that USC was never far from the USC it’s usually been.
It showed how college football is a fickle mistress, where a bad year can derail a lot of good ones before it. It’s never as simple as showing up on Saturday and making the right play call – it’s making the right calls on the recruiting trail.
USC had its best stretch when it got big-time recruits. They ran out of eligibility and the program has gone back to where it was (if not fallen below). The 33-win stretch proved it can be done – but was it luck or the evidence that even USC can be a consistent winner?
Tanner is weighing all options. Trying to find one coach who can hit every criteria is impossible, yet he has to hit at least 85 percent. Of course, Tanner could hire the greatest guy ever who graduates his kids, loves USC more than family and runs the program the right way – but if he doesn’t win, he won’t be around very long.
There will be a search firm. There will be an advisory committee. Tanner was handed a head start of getting to look at any potential candidate as they finish the current season. That should help research and have him ready to pick someone soon after the season’s over.
“I’ll certainly consult a lot of people,” Tanner said. “It’s going to be thorough.”
Tanner won a lot of games by making the right calls from the dugout. A lot of times, they were gut feelings.
Hunch, stats or whoever says yes, Tanner needs another game-winning decision.
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TURN BACK THE CLOCK
Tracking the hires of South Carolina’s last three athletic directors (* Currently coach):
MIKE McGEE (1993-2005)
* Todd Sherritt, men’s/women’s diving
Thirty-six All-Americans, 15 U.S. Diving national champs, one NCAA national champ and three Olympians in 22 years.
* Curtis Frye, men’s/women’s track and field
Won school’s first team national championship in 2002.
Ray Tanner, baseball
Coached back-to-back national champs along with two national runners-up and three SEC champions.
Bobby Cremins, men’s basketball
Landmark hire who was lured from a tremendous Georgia Tech program. He left after three days.
Eddie Fogler, men’s basketball
Reigning national coach of the year who healed the Cremins black eye; claimed the school’s first SEC title in 1997.
Dave Odom, men’s basketball
Four 20-win seasons, two NIT titles and the program’s last NCAA tournament appearance, but never a winning record in the SEC.
Puggy Blackmon, men’s golf
NCAA Regionals in all 12 of his seasons plus 11 individual champions.
Beth Harrell, women’s swimming
Two Top-25 finishes and two NCAA Women of the Year.
Don Gibb, men’s/women’s swimming
Top-20 finishes for each team in 2003-04.
Brad Scott, football
Won school’s first bowl game in 1995, but ended with a 1-10 season in 1998.
Lou Holtz, football
Put Gamecocks in national spotlight and won 17 games over his second and third seasons, but his last three were forgettable.
Steve Spurrier, football
Had Holtz left when he wanted to, the program’s winningest coach may never have been hired. Spurrier coached the Gamecocks’ best stretch of football and its only division champ.
Susan Walvius, women’s basketball
An Elite Eight appearance in 2002 wasn’t sustained over the next six seasons.
Stan Rosenthal, cross country
Final team was ranked second in the country.
* Boo Major, equestrian
Three-time national champion and two-time SEC champion.
Kristi Coggins, women’s golf
Eleven postseasons and one SEC championship.
Sue Kelly, women’s soccer
First coach in program history reached one NCAA tournament in six years.
* Shelley Smith, women’s soccer
Seven NCAA tournaments in the past eight years, including an Elite Eight berth in 2014, with two SEC titles.
Kim Hudson, volleyball
Winningest coach in program history and responsible for six of the program’s seven NCAA berths.
Nancy Somera, volleyball
Two seasons and a 28-31 record led to a resignation and a takeover by her husband.
ERIC HYMAN (2005-12)
Ben Somera, volleyball
Went 56-63 (28-52 SEC) in four seasons and resigned in 2010.
* Bill McDonald, men’s golf
Winningest coach in school history with 14 tournament titles; took five last year with an individual SEC champ and a No. 6 final ranking.
* McGee Moody, men’s/women’s swimming and diving
Notched some of the best seasons in school history.
* Kalen Anderson Harris, women’s golf
Three NCAA East Regional titles since 2010 and the program’s first No. 1 ranking in 2015.
Darrin Horn, men’s basketball
Won just the second SEC East championship in school history, but was fired after four years with a 60-63 record (23-41 SEC).
* Dawn Staley, women’s basketball
Improved SEC win total in every season and overall wins in every season but one, when she matched the 25 from the previous season. Final Four participant in 2015 and a No. 1 ranking for most of the regular season.
* Josh Goffi, men’s tennis
Program’s highest final ranking in more than a decade (18) with two All-Americans and five all-SEC selections.
* Beverly Smith, softball
Three straight NCAA tournaments and three straight seasons of improved overall wins.
* Scott Swanson, volleyball
Two winning seasons in first four years, but no NCAA tournament trips and a 21-55 SEC mark.
* Kevin Epley, women’s tennis
NCAA tournament in each of his three seasons.
* Frank Martin, men’s basketball
SEC improvement each year, the program’s first overall winning season in six years and the program’s fourth McDonald’s All-American.
RAY TANNER (2012-present)
* Chad Holbrook, baseball
Certainly qualifies as a major hire, although it certainly wasn’t a major search. The four-year assistant was promoted three days after Tanner was hired as AD. While his overall record is good, the Gamecocks missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 last year.
* Moritz Moritz, beach volleyball
An assistant on the other volleyball team who was tabbed to lead the newest program, Moritz nearly tripled his first season’s win total with 14 in his second. The Gamecocks finished 17th in the country.
* Andrew Allden, cross country
Won four meets in 2014 and finished 18th at regionals.
* Shawn Elliott, football (interim)
Chosen midseason after Spurrier resigned, the Gamecocks’ former offensive line coach is 1-0 thus far.