What Mark Kingston learned from, thinks about South Carolina’s difficult year
As the NCAA baseball tournament kicked off with the first games of the regional round, the biggest news of the day for South Carolina baseball was another transfer, the third so far this offseason.
Just a year after coming one win away from a College World Series berth in coach Mark Kingston’s first season, the Gamecocks are watching from home as 10 other SEC schools and rival Clemson compete in the field of 64.
For a proud fan base that has experienced the highest of highs within the past decade, the 2019 campaign was a disaster, one of the worst showings in the program’s past 50 years. And for a small, impatient and vocal segment of USC supporters, it was reason enough to call for Kingston’s job, just two years after he was hired.
There’s no indication, however, that Kingston’s job is in any danger — he still has four seasons left in the six-year deal he signed in 2017, and athletic director and former coach Ray Tanner, under contract until 2022, has repeatedly expressed his commitment to the North Carolina alum and former USF coach.
“The beginning of last year, the first half of the season, it was pretty much what I expected,” Tanner said in a radio interview on 107.5 FM midway through SEC play. “The second half was not what I expected. He was one win away from Omaha, that team really turned the corner at the halfway point, won the last five series. It was a very impressive initial campaign. And his nonconference games this year have been impressive — I think they have 20 wins in the nonconference with two out of three against Clemson.”
Still, Tanner acknowledged that the team’s results in SEC play — a program-worst 8-22 record — were well below expectations.
“(They’ve) had some really hard losses in this league. This league is grueling, as you know. And he’s had the injury bug,” Tanner said in that same radio interview. “I’m not making excuses. At the end of the day, you either win or you lose. But he’s had some obstacles he’s had to overcome. I have complete confidence that he and his staff, they’ll get some holes plugged and we got to get healthy too.”
From the outside, national observers have also expressed support for Kingston while urging patience in evaluating his tenure.
“My thing with Mark is, we’re all in a results-oriented business, and I think when you look at what Mark has done in the past he’s been a big winner everywhere he’s been,” D1Baseball.com editor Kendall Rogers told The State. “So until something changes, that’s what I’ll think he will be there as well. He gets to a Super Regional last year, which certainly, they overachieved last year. Obviously this year has been very disappointing. … I think when you look at Kingston, he’s won everywhere he’s been. He recruits at a high level. And until I start to see things trend in the wrong direction I’ll think that he’s going to be a big winner there.”
Recruiting and building culture is key, SEC analyst Kyle Peterson told The State, and that can take time in a sport where prospects may commit two, three or even four years in advance.
Peterson compared South Carolina’s current state to where Georgia was several years ago under then-new head coach Scott Stricklin. In Stricklin’s first four seasons, the Bulldogs posted losing records and never finished higher than fifth in the SEC East. Over the past two years, however, UGA has surged to two national seeds and is currently a favorite to reach the College World Series.
“I’m not saying that South Carolina goes on the same run that Georgia has the last few years, but I think it’s an interesting study because so recently everyone has been in such a hurry to fire a coach,” Peterson said. “And to say, ‘We’re going to change this. We’re going to change that.’ But the reality is they stuck with it at Georgia and it’s worked out pretty well for Stricklin.”
Peterson also pointed to last year’s success as a double-edged sword, raising expectations for this past season.
“They did a lot better than people thought they would last year. It’s always funny, when people overachieve you look at it and say where it’s a program with history, ‘Well, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.’ Even though they did more than they probably should have last year. When they underachieve you look at it and go, ‘Well, now it’s broken.’ The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle to where they played a little bit better than they were last year. Maybe they didn’t play quite as good this year as they are,” Peterson said.
“And ultimately as long as you’ve got the right guy, and Mark has proven everywhere else that he’s been that he’s the right guy, I just hope that those right guys get enough to build it the way that they want to. And if it doesn’t work in that time frame then I get it.”