Let’s be honest. Most days South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner’s job is a gravy train with biscuit wheels.
He goes to work in a gleaming new building, from which he can survey more gleaming new buildings. He heads an organization that makes almost more money than an SEC football coach can spend. He works with people who are pleasant, dedicated and diligent. He is paid handsomely to attend the events that Gamecocks fans pay handsomely themselves to see.
His job is what many people dream their retirement might be for most weeks of the year. This is not one of those weeks, though. Soon, Tanner must make a difficult decision. South Carolina’s baseball program is on shaky soil. The Gamecocks entered the SEC Tournament as the 11th seed in a 12-team field after finishing 13-17 in SEC regular season games.
They exited the tournament Saturday, falling 11-0 to LSU in the semifinals to go 3-2 in the tournament. They did surprise some by winning games against Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky after an earlier loss to Kentucky.
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After starting the year ranked in the preseason top five nationally, they finished 35-25 overall and were left out of the NCAA Tournament. It is the second time in three years that coach Chad Holbrook’s team failed to make the national postseason.
For a program that measures itself by College World Series appearances and results, not making the 64-team field is unacceptable. So Tanner has to decide whether he is going to make what should be the toughest call any athletics director has to make – firing a coach.
It should always be a difficult decision considering all the lives affected, but it’s especially tough for Tanner. He spent 16 years on that same dugout step (metaphorically at least) that Holbrook stands on now. He coached the Gamecocks to back-to-back national titles in the sport before handing over the reins to Holbrook.
And that’s not the hardest part for Tanner. The hard part is his relationship with Holbrook. He hired him in 2009 to be his top assistant coach. He immediately promoted him to the job of head coach when he became athletics director in 2012. He knows his family. He knows all the repercussions and the people his decision would affect.
It is a gut-wrenching and important personal decision, but, let’s be honest again, it’s not an important professional decision – at least not in the sense that it will affect Tanner’s ability to thrive or wilt in his profession.
If Tanner keeps Holbrook, there will be grumbling. If the Gamecocks don’t mount a remarkable bounceback next season, which seems a tall task considering all that will have to be replaced from this team, fans will say, “I told you so.”
If Tanner fires Holbrook, fans will nod sagely and say, “He made the right decision,” and then be very excited for a while about who the new coach will be.
And then do you know what will happen? Then everyone will forget about it because it will be August again and that means football season. Tanner can fire Holbrook, keep Holbrook, do whatever he wants with Holbrook, and it won’t affect his job status.
SEC athletic directors don’t get fired because of what the baseball program does. They rise and fall with their football coaches. That means that no matter how much closer personally Tanner might be with Holbrook, he is tied professionally to football coach Will Muschamp.
The success of the baseball program has been a wonderful shot of self-esteem for the South Carolina fan base. It has provided some of the most exhilarating moments in the school’s athletics history, and it has served as a significant inspiration for some of the school’s other sports teams, including football.
What it does not have the power to do is supplant football as the “one thing Ray Tanner must get right to keep his job.” Tanner’s position this week is not enviable, but his position into the future also is neither weakened nor strengthened no matter what decision he makes.