Ray Tanner is a three-time National Coach of the Year and Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. He com- pleted his 15th season as head coach at the University of South Carolina in 2011 when the Gamecocks became the ninth repeat champion in College World Se- ries History. South Carolina was the first team in history to go an unblemished 10-0 in NCAA Tournament play. Inside Pitch caught up with Tanner to discuss fundamentals, family, and fandom.
Inside Pitch: Was it always a goal of yours to have a career coaching college baseball?
I really didn’t have any goals set going into my first coaching position. Like a lot of younger players, I had aspirations of playing at the next
level, but when I realized I may not have had the tools to be really successful at the professional level, I began to think about the possibility of coach- ing, and it turned out to be a really great fit for me. As much as I loved to play, when I got into coaching, I knew that I had found a true passion.
IP: You’ve had uncanny success at producing top-of-the-line middle infielders. What is the key to your success at developing some of the most important positions on the field?
I think it can be traced back to when I played and coached under the legendary Sam Esposito at North Carolina State. He was a tenured big- leaguer and was the backup to Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio for many years with the Chicago White Sox. Coach Esposito was a tremendous infielder who taught me the tools of the trade, which I’ve continued to pass on to the guys I’ve coached.
I believe another part of producing great infielders is finding players with developmental ability. I’ve had some guys really embrace the position and grow their talent. Not to get too technical, but I teach of lot of conservative defense in the middle. Baseball is a hard game, and one of the things that’s imperative is the ability to get out of what is quickly becoming a bad inning. I think the guys in the middle of the diamond can control that better than anyone else on the field.
Lastly, it’s vital to have talented players. I know there are a lot of really great coaches around the country, but you’ve got to start with the guys that are playing the game. I’ve been fortunate to have some really talented infielders throughout my career.
IP: There are a lot of sacrifices that elite-level coaches have to make, especially when it comes to family. How have you been able to balance your life on the field with your life at home?
It’s made me a better coach, to be quite honest. I started as a young
assistant and became a head
coach at 27, and I wasn’t convinced that you could have a quality family life as a coach. I knew that there were a lot of coaches who were married, but I also knew that the divorce rate was higher in the coaching profession than it was in the normal population, which is staggering. I was blessed to cross paths with a young lady who was an athletic trainer for the late coach Kay Yow at NC State, so I was able to marry someone who was in the profession, so to speak, and it’s really worked out.
I was one of those guys
who put my head down and plowed forward. I was going to roll up my sleeves and outwork people. I was going to be tireless in my
effort and relentless in the pursuit of excellence. I
don’t think that mentality is necessarily bad, but I don’t think I handled it well. I didn’t do a good job with balance and
perspective, and I think I may have been too hard on my players early on.
Once I was in the profession for awhile, I married and had children, and I learned to balance what was important. I also think I’ve been a little more fun to play for, as opposed to my early years when there was maybe too much pressure and I was too demanding. I created anxiety more than anything else, and I think as a coach, you should try to alleviate that. Nowadays, I spend more time alleviating anxiety than anything else.
IP: How has your recruiting style changed since you started coaching?
Wow, I’d say it’s taken a complete 180. When I first started out, you had to dig the players out, you had to go find them and work extremely hard at uncovering good talent. It was imperative to use all of the networks at your disposal and to be on the road constantly to beat the bushes. That’s a phrase that’s hardly used anymore. Now, the “bushes” are at your fingertips. With all of the lists, rankings, ratings, and videos that are available, I think it’s possible to do a good job recruiting from your desk using the internet.
The emphasis on college baseball today is greater than it ever has been television exposure, recruiting possibilities and technology have all grown by leaps and bounds. There’s no doubt that it’s changed, though most of the coaches in these programs still like to go out and see players. But there are big events like Perfect Game, the World Wood Bat Championships in Jupiter (FL) and all of the showcases. It’s not unusual for there to be 75-100 Division-I coaches at a Perfect Game tournament, for example. In the old days when I first started, I’d go to a high school or legion game and maybe see three or four coaches. That’s all changed now, and I think that it’s good for everyone.
IP: How did you prepare your 2011 team after winning the College World Series in 2010?
The one thing that hit me is that—never winning a championship before 2010—I had never really given it any thought. But soon after we won in 2010, I was chatting with Coach Paul Mainieri down at LSU, and he told me that after they won it all in 2009, the following year was a tremendous challenge, more of a challenge than it had been before. He gave me some advice, and told me what I could expect with the attention caused by winning it all, and I listened. I definitely give Coach Maineiri credit for helping get everyone ready for 2011.
We started fall practice and our effort and perspective were on all the same things. The first thing I told our players is that we could draw from 2010 in a very positive way. I asked them to remember and reflect on the positive experiences of that year, but aside from that, the page needs to be turned. I told them that we had a good program, but what’s in the past is in the past.
Nothing prepares you to win the College World Series two years in a row, however. It was incredible. There are so many great teams out there and there’s so much competition in college baseball. The fact that we were able to get back in that position is still hard to believe. We had some things go our way, but we also had a lot of experience, guys who had been there before, so we might’ve been able to avoid some of the emotions other teams went through.
IP: What were some of your thoughts as the 2011 culminated into another national championship?
It was so special, I can remember sitting through the opening ceremonies in 2010 and thinking, “wouldn’t it be really neat to win it in the last year at historic Rosenblatt Stadium?” And somehow we were able to do that, the bugle sounded at the conclusion of the championship against UCLA and that was one of those things that we’ll never forget.
We got into the 2011 season, and I was just hoping to have a good enough team to make it to the postseason. In the back of my mind, though, I couldn’t help but think, “wouldn’t it be really neat closing down one stadium and opening up the next one at TD Ameritrade?”
It’s important to not get ahead of yourself, but I know it was in the back of our minds. Our players would mention it from time to time, and when we made it into the postseason we were able to get hot at the right time. It was extremely special, and I know it’s going to mean so much to our players and coaches many years down the road. In college baseball, it really doesn’t get any better than that.
IP: What is your favorite thing about being a college baseball head coach?
That’s easy: the players. I love the players. I love the daily interaction and the camaraderie, I love having the freshmen around and watching them grow and develop as people. Even though a lot of them believe they’re already adults, there are growing pains to being on your own for the first time. I know sometimes when I’m coaching, they’re thinking, “He doesn’t love me so much!” But, that’s what’s in it for me.
I even love fall baseball, because I get to coach and mix it up without the pressures of the games. The games are tough but it’s different; fall baseball is just coaching and working with the players and trying to emphasize things they need to be doing personally as they’re moving into adulthood.
How has the fan base and the brand-new Carolina Stadium impacted your program?
We have a very special fan base here at the University of South Carolina. In Columbia, we don’t have the professional sports to deal with like a lot of places have. It’s a state capitol, but it’s also a college town. We draw 80,000-plus for football games and we sell 5,000 baseball season tickets. A lot of our home games have an attendance of over 8,000.
Our fans are passionate and really embrace us. Don’t get me wrong, we had great fans at the old Sarge Frye Field, but it has elevated since we built the new facility. We have a concourse that surrounds the entire stadium. You can walk around the entire ballpark and never lose sight of the field. It’s a really special stadium, it’s a
great atmosphere, and it’s certainly enhanced our program.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself as a young coach?
Wow, I’d probably tell myself to enjoy the journey in the early years. When I was younger, I put too much pressure on myself and on the people around me. As I said, I rolled my sleeves up, put my head down and plowed forward. I’m not sure I appreciated and enjoyed the journey as much as I should have. I know now that when you’re young, sometimes you make mistakes and that was one that I made.
Looking back, I think I was too hard on my players at times and I was too
hard on myself and it was unnecessary; it didn’t make anything better. I’ve
probably got some former players who would say, if they were with me
today, “wow, he’s changed a lot.”
I didn’t know that I wasn’t doing it
the way it should be done, but those were the mistakes that I made and
I’ve grown from them. The advice that I’d give to young coaches today is to appreciate and enjoy the journey.