Q&A with Ray Tanner: Gamecocks' AD
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Subjects: Chad Holbrook, Final Fours, Will Muschamp, Clemson's national championship; plus breakfast, lunch, dinner . . .
By Gene Sapakoff, The Post and Courier, 5-13-17
COLUMBIA – The 2016-2017 academic year has been a wild ride for Ray Tanner. The University of South Carolina athletic director tracked Will Muschamp – his first major coaching hire – through a slightly better-than-expected football season. He crisscrossed the country following the women’s and men’s basketball teams to Final Four appearances and celebrated Dawn Staley’s national title in Dallas. And now the man who won two NCAA championships as the Gamecocks' baseball coach is dealing with fans frustrated with a program on the NCAA Tournament bubble after a top-10 preseason ranking.
Tanner in his campus office this week addressed all of this, plus food, music, Clemson’s national football championship and more with The Post and Courier’s Gene Sapakoff:
Q: How is life as athletic director at South Carolina?
A: Great. I’ve had the opportunity to remain in athletics here now closing on 21 years – 16 as a coach and five as athletic director. We still live in the same house we moved into 21 years ago. It’s been a wonderful journey. I don’t take it for granted. I’m humbled and honored that I get a chance to work at a great university under great leadership. Some good things have happened for this university and certainly in athletics.
Q: Some fans enjoyed those years you were coaching so much they would like to see you get back in the dugout, and soon. Any chance of that, here or somewhere else?
A: You never say never. But I would not anticipate that. As long as I have the opportunity to continue in my current role, I’m very happy coming to work every day.
Q: If this year’s baseball team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament – and that would be the second time in three seasons – will Chad Holbrook be back as head coach?
A: I’m not going to answer that, but I’ll tell you that baseball is not any different than any of our other sports in that at the end of the season you always have an evaluation with your coaches. That kind of talk is premature; there’s still a lot of baseball left this season.
Q: When you went from baseball coach to AD in 2012 the model for a move like that was LSU’s Skip Bertman, who, like you, won some College World Series titles before they made him AD. And Skip eventually had to fire his successor, Smoke Laval, before looking to the Midwest for another coach, Paul Mainieri, who led LSU back to a national title. Have you talked with Skip about that stuff recently?
A: I have not talked to him about my job as it relates to our baseball program. I’ve talked to him about the AD role and he’s shared some things with me – some things he did right and some things he did wrong. He shared some important nuggets. He cares about me as a person and the role I’m in and I’m extremely grateful for that.
Q: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
A: An Egg McMuffin.
Q: What was it like going through two Final Four runs simultaneously?
A: It was exhilarating. I had a chance to be in the background and watch two programs compete at a very high level at the most critical time of year and I got a chance to travel from time zone to time zone to time zone and make all the games. It was incredible. Am I biased? Yes, but we have great coaches. I’ve never wondered if Dawn Staley could win a national championship, it was always "when?” And then what Frank Martin did with Sin (Sindarius Thornwell), and Duane (Notice) and PJ (Dozier) and (Chris) Silva, they just got on an incredible run. Momentum, enthusiasm, great defense. A lot of people thought we were a Cinderella, but I believe our team thought it was the team to beat. And not only winning the games, we got a chance to see our coaches as we know them on a national platform.
Q: Both Dawn and Frank were so good for the school and the state dealing with topics that transcended basketball, like the Confederate flag and the role of parents. You had to be extra proud of that.
A: Without question. It was who they are. They shared their feelings and their emotions. It reminded me of when I was coaching at N.C. State when Jim Valvano was the basketball coach there and people got to know him as a person. Yes, he won basketball games but he captured America and so did our coaches.
Q: You inherited Frank Martin as a head coach. His style isn’t for everybody, some players included. Early on with him and through four seasons of not making the NCAA Tournament, were there times you wondered if it would work out? Or did you always believe?
A: I never had any question about who Frank was. I think he found some comfort in that I was a former coach and I was comfortable with his investment in our student-athletes. He was perceived as a guy that was very passionate and intimidating and that sometimes became a negative light but his players never had an issue with him. Did he concern me at times? Only from the standpoint of, "Hey, don’t show quite as much emotion.” But I knew where his heart was. And so did his players.
Q: You just mentioned about how being a coach helps you as an AD. A few weeks ago, Ron Howard in an "Off Camera” interview with Sam Jones said being an actor gave him more of an edge as a director than an academically-trained film school graduate gets. It sounds like you’re saying a similar thing.
A: Yes. And not to be critical of any other athletic director who wasn’t a coach …
Q: Or wasn’t a championship-winning coach at the top level?
A: Well, right. I understand the pain. I understand the exhilaration. I understand the highs and the lows. I’ve never coached beach volleyball or football, but I understand the commitment. I think my coaches know that I get it. I tend to keep my distance, except when I think they need a bit of a boost.
Q: Do you do iTunes?
Q: What music are you listening to?
A: Not much but strictly country.
A: I like Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney. Of course, Darius Rucker is No. 1. I like the real-life stories. You know, the trucks and the girlfriends and going fishing. And if you play all the songs back, you get your truck back and you go fishing again and you’re still married. But I never listen to talk shows or read blogs. I never turn on talk radio. It’s not bad and crazy, I’m just not interested.
Q: Do you have Netflix?
A: Just for my kids.
Q: So what do you watch?
A: SEC Now and MLB Network.
Q: How is Will Muschamp doing so far?
A: He hit the ground running when he got here. He’s hired great coaches and created a culture inside his program. The progress he has made in a short period of time has been impressive. I think we’re going to have some great days ahead of us.
Q: But it might be a lot harder going from six wins to nine wins than it was going from three wins to six wins. Are South Carolina fans going to be patient with what looks like a gradual process?
A: Our fans are great and very loyal. They love to win but I think they appreciate the investment that coaches and student-athletes make. Do they want to win at a high level? Of course, but I think from Coach Muschamp’s first press conference to his first game here, his approval rating went way up. It’s evident that he is a great fit for our football program.
Q: What did you have for lunch?
A: A turkey sandwich at the 5th Avenue Deli.
Q: At the moment when Deshaun Watson threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow to give Clemson a national football championship what were you thinking?
A: Great play. Great call. What an exciting game. The question was: Was a penalty going to be called for an illegal pick? But even if that happened, they were going to kick a field goal and send it into overtime. Deshaun Watson is a very, very special football player. He was very instrumental in the success of Clemson football and he seems to be an outstanding young man. He represents what student-athletes should be about.
Q: Does a Clemson national title impact your corporate strategy or planning?
A: No, we’re always trying to compete at a high level in everything we do – sports, social media, budgets, scheduling. We won five games in a row in football against them, they’ve had a great run and now we’re striving to flip it back our way.
Q: You guys and everyone else in major college athletics are always building new facilities. But can this arms race get to be too much?
A: You can be cynical and talk about "keeping up with the Joneses” and I am a part of that as well. However, here we needed to make some progress in the last five or 10 years. We needed to make improvements for our student-athletes across all sports, and not just football.
Q: What’s for dinner tonight?
A: I’m going to our baseball game so chicken fingers are very likely.
This article has been reprinted on Clips with the author's permission.