Matt Connolly

O’Sullivan, Lee, Kingston ... and more: Behind the scenes of USC baseball search

South Carolina’s search for a new head baseball coach lasted more than three weeks and did not conclude until after the College World Series was complete.

So what happened in between Chad Holbrook resigning on June 6 and Mark Kingston being introduced as the new head coach on June 30? In short, a lot.

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan was thought to be Ray Tanner’s top target from the start, and according to multiple sources, O’Sullivan was interested in the job.

The lack of fan support in Gainesville and the facilities at Florida, as well as family dynamics, had O’Sullivan seriously considering coming to Columbia, even as recently as this past week.

Ultimately a deep run in the College World Series, which ended with the Gators winning the national title, led to O’Sullivan remaining in Gainesville. But the possibility of O’Sullivan ending up at South Carolina was very much real.

As O’Sullivan was leading Florida to the national title, Tanner was working in a couple of different roles.

Before getting too deep into the coaching search, Tanner traveled to Omaha to fulfill his duties as an NCAA Baseball Committee member.

When asked if part of the reason the coaching search lasted so long was because he was pursuing coaches who were in the College World Series, Tanner admitted he was multitasking in Omaha.

“I was working the College World Series. I was not there the whole time, but as a committee member,” Tanner said. “There were a couple of people that I had an opportunity to visit with that had teams playing. That was part of the process.”

Once returning home to Columbia, Tanner continued conversations with potential candidates.

Kingston was interviewed by Tanner on June 22 and Kingston also met with USC President Harris Pastides, as well as some current Gamecocks players while on campus.

He impressed the players he spoke with, a group that included Carolina third baseman Jonah Bride, but no contract terms were seriously discussed at the time. That did not begin to happen until early this past week.

Tanner had a conversation with former USC assistant Jim Toman during the coaching search, according to sources. But he was never considered to be in the running for the Gamecocks job and the conversation was more of a friendly chat than an interview as a candidate.

Tanner also talked with Clemson head coach Monte Lee during the process. Lee acknowledged that he would always answer Tanner’s phone calls due to his respect for USC’s AD, but the two never had serious discussions about the job. Lee was actively recruiting for the Tigers throughout USC’s search and talked with some 2018 USC commits.

He also flipped 2017 Gamecocks commit Sheldon Reed, an outfielder at Spartanburg Methodist College, to Clemson.

Someone who was a viable candidate for the job was Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter.

While Walter signed a contract extension with Wake before being formally interviewed, there was mutual interest between USC and the coach that led the Demon Deacons to a super regional in 2017.

Ultimately Walter agreed to a seven-year deal and a hefty raise before having the opportunity to sit down with Tanner.

USC’s AD acknowledged that there were several candidates that participated in discussions.

“A lot of things that you might have seen in social media, a lot of different candidates were vetted out, were shared. Most of them were accurate, that this job attracts a lot of the top coaches in the country. Some conversations weren’t as serious as others, but they were vetted out,” Tanner said. “I feel like it is the number one job, easily in the top three or four in the country.”

Tanner also said he spoke with candidates that were not reported.

“You guys didn’t get the other candidates, so that was good,” he said with a smile. “I stayed on task. I was able to get to the people I needed to get to and honestly I did vet out a lot of candidates. I wanted to get it right. I wasn’t concerned about it being fast.”

Ultimately Tanner chose Kingston in a move that he believes will pay dividends down the road.

Following a process that lasted more than three weeks, Tanner is confident he landed the right guy.

“It was apparent that he understood a lot of the dynamics about our baseball program even though he had never been very close to it. He had followed us. He knew what we were about and about what goes on here,” Tanner said. “I know that our stands are going to be packed. We’re going to energize the fan base with Coach Kingston. And we’re going to do very, very well.”