When South Carolina’s baseball season begins on Feb. 16 against VMI, there will be a new set of eyes taking in and taking down all the action at Founders Park.
It’s going to be quite a shock to the system for a program that is so accustomed to one face and one system for so long, but the Gamecocks are going to have to soldier on without Andrew Kitick, who for 15 years served as USC’s director of communications for the baseball program.
That’s not the name Gamecocks fans were expecting to read there, but while Kitick’s departure might not be noticed by the fan base, it’s a symbol of a larger shift within South Carolina’s most successful athletics program.
For the past 21 years, either Ray Tanner or Ray Tanner lieutenant Chad Holbrook has been at the helm of the South Carolina baseball program. Tanner won back-to-back national titles as the baseball coach before moving on to the athletics director job and hiring top assistant Holbrook to take over. When Tanner and Holbrook decided after last season that a change was needed, Holbrook was out the door and, suddenly, the foundation that built Founders Park is no longer there.
Mark Kingston was hired from South Florida to restore the program to its former perch. He has all the resume lines to suggest that he can do the job, but he’s still an outsider. For a rabid fan base that adored Tanner and wanted very badly to like Holbrook and before that had to learn the names of only two managers from 1970-1996 (Bobby Richardson and June Raines), it’s a shock to the system.
“I think they have the right to say, ‘Hey, let’s wait and see,’ ” Kingston said. “When I meet people, they have a ‘Let’s try to figure this thing out’ attitude to see what this new guy is all about. What I’ve seen is that when people take the time to get to know me and my vision and what our staff believes in and how we are approaching things, they generally say, ‘OK, we’re going to give this guy a chance.’ To me, I think the vibe among our fan base right now is very good. Now it’s up to us to win as many games as we possibly can, but I think every fan base across the country when you have a new staff, you have the right to sit back and evaluate it as you go.”
South Carolina fans stand ready to evaluate. The Gamecocks were 35-25 overall and 13-17 in the SEC last year. This year, they are ranked in only one of the nation’s four preseason baseball polls, which qualifies as a slap in the face for a program of USC’s stature. Kingston has pressed the flesh and laid out his vision as many times as his schedule would allow since being hired June 30.
“What my hope is is that over the last six or seven months, we’ve shown our people what we’re all about and they can get on board with that, and I think that’s what’s happened,” he said.
Kingston is not so naïve as to believe that anything he can do in the offseason will convince a (and I say this with all due respect) spoiled fan base of much of anything. If the Gamecocks go to Omaha, their fans will be happy. If they do not, well …
“It’s clear there is a passion for baseball here, and that’s one of the main reasons that I wanted to come here, that I want this to be my last stop in college baseball,” Kingston said. “They have the same passion for the game that I do, that my staff does. I have dedicated my whole life to this sport, and it’s great to be in a community that has the same passion. We want to win at a very high level, and when you do that here, the support you have is unbelievable.”
When Kingston and his staff recruit players, they show them photos of national championship parades and pep rallies that fill Colonial Life Arena. They also know what’s on the other side of that coin.
“The fans have high expectations. That’s OK. We do, too,” Kingston said. “When I’m up at 3 in the morning trying to figure something out, it’s because we want to win badly, and that’s how they are, so I’ve got no issues with that. Our fans will know that we’re prepared and the more they get to know us and hear us speak and talk about our vision, they understand we are going to do everything we possibly can within the rules to make sure we are the best team in the country.”
For the moment, though, South Carolina fans still are trying to make sure their feet are on solid ground because so many things that they for so long took for granted – whether it be the Tanner Way or high national regard – are gone. Longtime pitching coach Jerry Meyers was retained by Kingston, but that didn’t last long, because Meyers took a medical leave of absence and returned as an assistant in the athletics department. In his place, Kingston hired 33-year-old Skylar Meade from Michigan State.
A shakeup could be good. Even successful organizations sometimes need a reboot.
“It’s been really good,” South Carolina senior third baseman Jonah Bride said. “We’ve been really getting after it hard. Buying into the culture that coach Kingston has been bringing is awesome. We’ve been going really hard every day. There’s a mentality that we’re all carrying around here, and we’re ready to go.”