As Ray Tanner sat in a meeting room with the other 13 athletics directors in the SEC at the Hilton Sandestin last month, he realized he was an outlier from most of his colleagues in one critical area.
One of three former coaches-turned-athletics directors in the conference, Tanner operates now in a world that is much more MBAs than RBIs, and that’s one of the reasons he senses he is more patient with the head coaches under him than many of his peers.
“There are a lot of ADs that have expectations that are short term. I probably look at it more long term than short term,” Tanner told The State.
Tanner’s patience is going to be a big topic for South Carolina’s fan base in the coming year. In his second year, baseball coach Mark Kingston is sitting at home while the NCAA postseason marches toward Omaha. In his fourth year, football coach Will Muschamp has a .500 record in the SEC and maybe the nation’s toughest schedule staring him in the face. After that comes basketball season, where Frank Martin is entering his eighth season with one NCAA Tournament appearance, a 2017 trip to the Final Four.
With the university’s three most high-profile men’s sports in flux, much of the Gamecocks’ fan base is antsy. Ray Tanner is not.
“I understand the scrutiny that goes along with it, but I also believe in continuity and consistency,” Tanner said. “Making changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward necessarily. I think for people who would look at me as someone who is too patient, you have to look at the alternatives. Is it going to be lighting in a bottle if you make a change? It’s not normally the case.”
The average tenure of a football coach at South Carolina is 3.4 years. Since Jim Carlen left after the 1981 season, six full-time head coaches have lasted an average of six years per tenure. Muschamp is 22-17 overall and 12-12 in the conference in his first three seasons, which makes him the winningest coach in school history in his first three seasons. He is under contract through the 2024.
“If you believe in your people, believe in their work ethic, believe in their integrity and their recruiting strengths, you have to be patient to get where you want to go,” Tanner said. “It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Tanner’s belief system is influenced not just by being a former coach but a former baseball coach. In a game where the best hitters in the world fail more than 65 percent of the time and a .750 team winning percentage is championship material, patience is a prized virtue. When he was the team’s baseball coach, he preached the value of a long-term view to his Gamecocks, who won back-to-back national titles in his tenure.
“My main thing that I always taught as a coach was, ‘Hey guys, stay the course. Today didn’t work out like we wanted it to, but stay the course. Don’t panic,’ ” Tanner said. “You’re not going to win them all. We are at a time in society there is not a lot of patience. I get it. I live in it too, but I like the idea of just staying the course. If you believe strongly that you have the right people, you stay the course until good days come.”
It’s a message Tanner has been indoctrinating the school’s top donors with since he took the job as athletics director in 2012.
“We talk about that, about having the right people,” Tanner said. “You don’t give up on your family when things aren’t going great. You hang with them don’t you? That’s the way I look at it a little bit. It’s not like, ‘He’s not winning, that’s all right.’ That’s not the way I feel. I am not happy when we don’t win either. I’m probably more unhappy than they are, but I don’t want to change my family unless there is reason to. I think there has to be some patience, but I do believe in consistency. I think that’s the way you can become successful.”
No matter how loud the chorus may get to make changes in the Gamecocks athletic offices, the only voices that matter belong to Tanner and the school’s president and board of trustees, all of whom are undeniably influenced by those big-money donors to whom Tanner is preaching patience.
“I understand the leash is not as long today as it used to be, but I don’t think in terms of short leashes,” he said. “I think in terms of giving somebody the opportunity to be successful if they’re doing the right things.”