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Ray Tanner's homecoming: Concrete progress

Ray Tanner played and coached at N.C. State for 20 years before coming to USC.
Ray Tanner played and coached at N.C. State for 20 years before coming to USC.

RALEIGH | WHEN RAY TANNER strolled into Doak Field Thursday morning, a flood of memories overwhelmed him and gave him pause to reflect on a 20-year love affair with North Carolina State that ended with an unsettling divorce.

Today, Tanner brings his South Carolina baseball team into an NCAA regional at the site he called home first as a player, then as an assistant, and finally, for nine seasons, as the coach.

The interesting twist to his return is that N.C. State is a tournament host for the first time, and its inability to do so before was a significant reason Tanner left Raleigh for Columbia.

“I have nothing but fond memories,” Tanner said. “I spent 20 wonderful years on this campus.”

Perhaps it is best to start at the end of this story and work backward. Tanner’s final seasons at N.C. State were ones of extreme frustration, ones that led to conflicts with the school’s athletics administration, and, ultimately, to his departure.

Tanner wanted better facilities for a program he had elevated from powerful to powerhouse. By 1996, Doak Field’s left field bleachers had been condemned. The infamous slope to the right field corner was the butt of jokes around the ACC. One N.C. State official recalls standing at a public urinal inside the park. Beside him was North Carolina coach Mike Roberts, standing in full uniform during the middle of the game.

Despite fielding teams that averaged 44 wins a season, Tanner’s clubs could not play host to regional tournaments because N.C. State never submitted a bid to the NCAA. The frustration level reached a boil in 1993 when N.C. State took a 47-15 record into the postseason, earned a No. 1 seed and traveled to Oklahoma State for regional play.

In Tanner’s eyes, the goal of reaching the College World Series could never be reached with the albatross of an aging, run-down stadium as a home field. Todd Turner, N.C. State’s athletics director at the time, saw things differently.

Turner’s view was obstructed by a fundraising campaign to build a new basketball arena and by another effort to upgrade N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium for football. Every athletics director in the country faced the same proposition in dealing with baseball: How much sense does it make to pump funding into a program that is a money drain on the department?

Tanner and Turner attempted to make it work. The two helped raise $500,000 to add lights at Doak Field for the 1995 season. Turner then signed Tanner to a three-year contract in 1996, a deal that included what Turner described as an “unprecedented for N.C. State” annuity.

Tanner was scheduled to be paid $61,200 annually and collect $100,000 if he remained at N.C. State for the three years of the contract. A couple of months later, Tanner was gone.

“I was at an age that money wasn’t going to make a decision for me,” said Tanner. “The commitment was always (at N.C. State) personally. But the resources for the program, we were not keeping up.”

Turner said the contract alone showed N.C. State’s desire to keep Tanner.

“It just takes time, and he just didn’t have the patience to stick around,” Turner said. “He found a better opportunity at South Carolina, and I was happy for him.”

Tanner, of course, has found happiness in Columbia, where his teams have played in three College World Series and appeared in the NCAA tournament 10 times in his 12 seasons.

Tanner said he now is a Gamecock through and through. Yet there is no denying Tanner was born and bred an N.C. State Wolfpacker. He grew up an N.C. State fan in Benson, 35 miles east of Raleigh.

Francis Combs played on N.C. State’s only College World Series team, in 1968, and has been a supporter of the program since. He remembers coach Sam Esposito sending him to South Johnston High School to take a look at Tanner.

“I went back and said, ‘He’s pretty good.’” Combs said. “He’s kind of short and doesn’t have a great body, but he can play. He’s got a good arm, plays good in the field, hits the ball good.”

Esposito signed Tanner, put him in the lineup as a freshman and did not take the third baseman out for the next four seasons. Tanner earned all-ACC honors as a senior and had aspirations of playing professional baseball.

“Coach, I’m going to Rocky Mount for a tryout camp,” Combs recalled Tanner saying to Esposito.

“Ray, go if you want to, but you’re wasting your time,” Combs said Esposito replied.

Tanner returned the next day and said to Esposito, “Coach, I’m through with pro ball. My pro career is over. I’m ready to coach.”

For the next seven seasons, Esposito groomed Tanner to succeed him. Tanner eventually led N.C. State’s recruiting, handled the baseball budget and called many of the shots in the dugout. Finally, upon Esposito’s retirement, Tanner took over at age 28.

In his first season as the coach, Tanner’s club set a school record by winning 45 games. He subscribed to the Earl Weaver style of baseball, preferring the three-run homer to the hit-and-run single. What he called the “Doak Stream” — a strong wind that consistently blew out to left field — helped his 1988 club hit 123 home runs, a total that remains a school record.

Beyond the winning baseball and the style of play, Tanner also established a first-class approach to running the program and became known for paying an inordinate attention to detail.

Ray Brincefield is the longtime assistant athletics director for outdoor facilities at N.C. State. He said Tanner repeatedly pointed out “eyesores,” you know, like the dormitory activity beyond Doak Field’s left-field fence during a game. Good planning, Brincefield remembered Tanner saying, would have prevented the distraction. Brincefield’s grounds crew still works in matching uniforms because of Tanner.

“The main thing is, if you are going to be out here on the field in front of our people, then you need to remember this is first-class for all, whether it be in front of visiting teams or visiting administrators, or visiting fans or whoever,” Brincefield said. “He wanted you to be in uniform, to look like you were part of the deal. We didn’t need one person having shorts, one person having long pants, one person having a red shirt, one person have a black shirt. We needed to look right.”

Unfortunately for Tanner, his demands to make N.C. State a top-of-the-line baseball program could not be met by a cash-strapped athletics department. So, when former USC athletics director Mike McGee offered to double his N.C. State salary and promised to make certain that Sarge Frye Field could play host to regional tournaments every season, Tanner was ready to leave.

Although leaving behind the only baseball program he had known was difficult, Tanner’s decision was prudent. Twelve years have passed, and he returns this weekend to Doak Field for the first time as an opposing coach.

Doak Field is hardly recognizable from the Tanner years. The slope in right field was eliminated. N.C. State dresses in a spiffy new clubhouse. Fans can sit comfortably in the 2,500-seat facility, and they no longer get to meet the opposing coach in the public restroom.

The facility is what Tanner dreamed of when he coached at N.C. State. So, perhaps it is only fitting that Tanner returns to Doak Field as it plays host to an NCAA tournament for the first time.

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