Ron Morris

April 4, 2010

Morris: Tanner never forgets influence of mentor

Ray Tanner remembers the nervousness that came with being a college head baseball coach for the first time, particularly for someone not far removed from being one of the players at 27 years old.

Ray Tanner remembers the nervousness that came with being a college head baseball coach for the first time, particularly for someone not far removed from being one of the players at 27 years old.

Tanner can immediately recount that first win at N.C. State, a 7-1 decision over Western Carolina. Jeff Hartsock, he will tell you, was the winning pitcher.

Beyond that, Tanner can recall the calm confidence he carried into the dugout that day in late February 1988. It is the same self-assurance Tanner has possessed every game he has coached the past 23 seasons at both N.C. State and South Carolina, a belief in himself and his philosophy that has him on the verge of 1,000 career wins.

When he reaches that milestone - he entered the weekend with 995 wins - Tanner will recognize his assistant coaches over the years, the administrations at N.C. State and USC for their support, and the players who have made him the 44th coach in Division I history to reach 1,000 wins.

Then he likely will call Sam Esposito, who lives in a retirement home outside Boone, N.C., to give him the news. Esposito was Tanner's coach at N.C. State, then his boss in the dugout for seven years when Tanner served as an assistant coach.

"I was very fortunate. I had a confidant. I had a guru. I had a tutor. I had it all," Tanner says of Esposito. "He was there for me. I know in a lot of sports, coaches have guys who help pave the way for them, and certainly he did that for me.

"I've been blessed to be trained by a legend. Coach Esposito was a legend. He prepared me to embark on this career. I make mistakes. I'm not perfect. But I had a formula for success."

Midway through his junior season at N.C. State, Tanner realized playing pro baseball. About that time, Tanner began sitting closer to Esposito in the dugout. He began picking the brain of a man who played 10 seasons in the major leagues, including an appearance in the 1959 World Series with the Chicago White Sox.

Then Tanner joined Esposito's coaching staff and the learning curve increased dramatically. Esposito was nearing the end of a 21-season career at N.C. State that included a College World Series appearance and more than 500 wins.

"I can remember standing alongside of him. I was a sponge," Tanner says. "He truly was a great teacher. He wasn't just a head coach I learned from. He was a great teacher. He taught me everything about the game."

By 1985, it was clear Esposito was grooming his fifth-year assistant to become the head coach. Tanner did the bulk of recruiting. He was coaching third base and making many of the game's managerial decisions.

Then, one day, as the two entered the office they shared, Esposito removed all the paperwork from his desk and placed it on Tanner's desk.

"I'm out," Tanner recalls Esposito saying.

"What do you mean, you're out?" Tanner responded.

"(The job's) yours, and in time they'll hire you."

Tanner was not so sure. Morning coffee sessions in the N.C. State athletics department at that time often included many of the head coaches, a few assistants such as Tanner, and Jim Valvano, then the athletics director.

"I can't hire this short, fat, thick guy from Johnston County," Tanner recalls Valvano telling him over coffee. "I've got to hire a big-name coach."

Valvano eventually relented and went with the Johnston County kid. Even during his nine seasons as N.C. State's head coach covering 395 wins, Tanner was still learning from Esposito, who often watched Wolfpack games from his perch down the right-field line.

Tanner says Esposito told him to take a different approach than the veteran coach did in dealing with the athletic administration.

"He'd say, 'Look, don't sit back. Be very aggressive. Ask for things. Build your program. Try to make it better. I never asked for anything. I never got anything,'" Tanner says.

N.C. State's lack of commitment to the baseball program led Tanner to USC for the 1997 season, and he has been imparting the wisdom gained from Esposito on his assistant coaches and players ever since.

"Strategy, running a program, building a program, baseball-related issues, there hasn't been a lot of deviation," Tanner says of the Esposito Way. "The deviation has come with people, emotions. That's been different."

While situations calling for a hit-and-run or a sacrifice bunt have not changed much over the years, dealing with athletes is an ever-changing state. Tanner often has sought the advice of Ronald Kasper, the team psychologist who has positioned himself in the USC dugout during Tanner's 14 years.

Kasper said Tanner has taken courageous steps in player relations since he is "an old-school guy taking on the entrapments of the 21st century."

When shortstop Adam Everett left USC for the major leagues in 1998, he advised Tanner to allow his players to have more fun. Tanner says the bigger awakening for him was when he became a father six years ago.

"The understanding wasn't the same for me until I had my own," says Tanner, who has three children. "I went all these years coaching other people's children, not knowing what it's like to have a child. I didn't know. (The player) wasn't Billy Wingo's son. He was the second baseman."

Tanner admits to that part of coaching being a work in progress. He says he returns home at night concerned that one of his players either received the wrong message from him or no message at all.

There is no such consternation, though, with the game itself. As if Tanner needed the constant reminder of where he learned the game, he has had Esposito's son, Sammy, on his staff for the past five seasons.

Sammy Esposito and Tanner often glance at each other in practice, knowing, for example, that when they teach the "scissors" technique for the first baseman's toss to the pitcher covering first base, they both were schooled by the same instructor.

Tanner also is a believer in "keeping the double play in order" when his team is in the field.

"I'll hear our fans sometimes say, 'Why didn't we try to throw the guy out at home?' and we're throwing to keep the double play in order," Sammy Esposito says. "Coach Tanner believes in keeping the double-play in order. I know my dad used to say that all the time."

Tanner knows.

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