South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner sat down with The State last week at the conclusion of the SEC’s annual spring meetings to discuss several topics, including his thoughts on Will Muschamp and the 2017 football season, the financial future of the SEC and upcoming facilities projects, including a proposed overhaul at Williams-Brice Stadium.
What are your expectations for your football program in 2017?
My expectations are continued growth, continued enthusiasm that Coach Muschamp brought from the day that he got here. I’m excited about the culture of our program, the coaches he has, the attitude of our student-athletes. It’s a very difficult conference to be successful in in football. The fact that he came in at the time he did was a great challenge. We won enough games to get to a bowl game. Hopefully, we’ll be somewhat better, but it’s challenging and I understand that.
Eighteen months into Will Muschamp’s tenure, do you feel as good about the hire as you did when he was announced as head coach?
I am not going to deny the fact that when (associate athletics director) Charles Waddell and I met with him in an official capacity prior to him being named, I got pretty excited. I got excited from a standpoint that I really felt strongly that he understands what it takes and if I was a student-athlete, I would want to play for him. I thought I did a good job of controlling my emotions but I was impressed and it meant a lot to me. That has continued to grow. He’s dynamic, he’s intelligent, he appreciates our fan base, he appreciates our donor base, he communicates with student-athletes, he holds them accountable. I think he has done many wonderful things already in a short period of time. I’m ecstatic about the staff he has with him.
South Carolina ranked 16th in the nation (and third in the SEC) in the latest Learfield Directors Cup standings, which keeps track of a university’s performance in all sports. The school’s projections suggest it will finish with between 830 and 900 points and somewhere between 17th and 23rd in the rankings, which would be its first Top 25 ranking since the 2002-03 season and potentially the highest point total in history. How important is that ranking to you?
We pay attention to it. The fact that baseball didn’t make the postseason, we lost some opportunities there, but we have had a really, really good spring, plus what basketball was able to do and football in a bowl game. We are in a really good position. I am hoping we can finish maybe in the Top 20. We have had success across the board. One of the things that is important to me as an athletics director is, we have 21 sports, it’s extremely important to me that those student-athletes have a chance to compete at a very high level in the sport that they play. What does that mean? That means facilities. That means travel. That means a beach volleyball should feel just as good about their opportunities as Coach (Frank) Martin’s team feels. That’s a very important initiative for me, and I think we’ve done a good job of improving all aspects of our program as far as facilities are concerned and from a resource standpoint to our student-athletes.
The Southeastern Conference stopped releasing its financial payouts in the summer and now makes that information public by releasing its tax returns in January or February. Last year, the conference distributed approximately $40 million to each school and record-breaking revenue of $639 million. How closely is the league monitoring the future of its finances?
We had a really good conversation (last week) about that, about our growth but also the increase in expenses and the things we’re doing on our own campuses and the things that go on in the conference as well when we continue to grow championships and we continue to add technology. It all costs money. That conversation is relevant. I think it’s fair to say that we’re not sitting here thinking that we have a conference that distributes a lot of money to each school and we’re all good. We realize that costs are also escalating from all aspects, from technology to coaching salaries to athletics director’s salaries to everything. We have to be cognizant as the costs increase. We obviously have our finger on the pulse of revenue growth but the costs continue to escalate too.
With ESPN and CBS dealing with the effects of cord cutting and ESPN recently going through a round of layoffs, is the league paying attention to what’s going on in the media landscape?
Those entities were in to visit with the presidents and athletic directors (at the SEC meetings). I thought that was very, very healthy. There were a lot of questions, great dialogue. I will tell you that I think in many instances the negative reports are less than accurate. While subscriptions have declined, the profitability is still very, very solid. Growth is a concern if you just drill down to subscriptions, but the sky is not falling.
Did any part of those conversations include the talk that current television contracts might have to be adjusted down in the future based on changing realities of the media business?
No, we haven’t had that conversation, but keep in mind we are 62 to 65 million subscribers in the SEC footprint. That’s where we are today. That part is very strong. If you look at ESPN, the amount of subscriptions that have dropped there has been some decline but there is also other areas, different types of distribution, where they are paying for the inventory as well. While it may not be a one-for-one, it maybe isn’t as bleak as sometimes it’s made out to be by certain members of the media.
How do you feel about the school’s athletic facilities at this point?
We have made great strides. I credit (former athletics director) Eric Hyman for getting the ball rolling. Being in my former position, I recognize the fact that facilities count. I always have some angst about hearing the terms, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ or that it’s excessive. I never feel that way. I feel like it’s a level playing field where you have to provide the resources. We have invested quite a bit. The track facility was a long time coming. The football operations building is part of the culture of college football now for efficiency and effectiveness. There are still a few things we need to do, but not as many as was once on the ledger. That’s where we are, but we will continue to do our very best to provide adequate resources.
What is left on your facilities to-do list?
We are doing a 200-meter indoor track over at the old fieldhouse. We need to provide a six-court, indoor facility for our tennis programs. We do play an indoor season, and that is a challenge across the country. There are a lot of teams that do not have the capacity that they need. We are outstanding with the outdoor courts. That’s good, but the indoor courts is a project I’d like to get on the board in the near future. I’d like to do an eastside project with football. That’s still in the conversation stage at this point, but we would like to do suites on the eastside of the stadium to give our fan base more opportunities for premium seating as we expand. We have done a feasibility study already. There’s a demand for it, and we would like to be able to move forward when we are able to do that.
Donor contributions to South Carolina’s athletics department have increased from $17.4 million in 2007 to $31.2 million last year. How direct a line can you draw from that to the facilities and increased success of some of your athletics teams?
It’s very, very, very important that group that has committed to putting our student-athletes in the best position for success has been invaluable to us. I want to recognize two groups of people, the impact that (executive associate athletics director for development) Jeff Crane has made and (associate athletic director for development) Steve Eigenbrot and the Gamecock Club has been significant. And, certainly our coaches. We have coaches that embrace the opportunity to engage in donors that make significant efforts to improve what we’re doing. That hasn’t always been the case in college athletics, but there is never an occasion where Dawn Staley, Frank Martin, Will Muschamp, Beverly Smith has been asked to be part of an opportunity and not taken a lead role in it. (They) go see them, take a trip, make a phone call. That hasn’t always been the case. That’s a culture that I don’t think exists on every campus, but it does on ours. That makes an impact as well.