Ray Tanners more relaxed approach helped fuel South Carolinas success
OMAHA, Neb. — For 21 seasons, coach Sam Esposito ran the North Carolina State baseball program with an iron-fisted style that his players accepted, even if it intimidated them.
“If you were soft, you weren’t in the right program,” said former player Jim Toman. “Some of them were afraid of him. If you were a hard-nosed player, you loved coach Esposito. He’d make you a man.”
Toman was hard-nosed, having come to Raleigh from the Pittsburgh area in 1981. So was an N.C. State graduate assistant that year, whose playing career with the Wolfpack ended a year earlier — Ray Tanner. Both men embraced Esposito’s approach, which was common in college baseball in the 1960s and 1970s. That, they figured, is how you’re supposed to coach.
“It was: Keep your mouth shut, run through a wall,” Tanner said. “Nobody quit. Nobody transferred.”
Tanner took over for Esposito in 1988, when Tanner was just 28. Toman joined his staff in 1990, came with him to South Carolina in 1997 and left to become Liberty University’s head coach in 2007. During his 18 years at Tanner’s side, Toman became one of his most trusted advisors. Despite Toman’s admitted “love” of Esposito’s demeanor, it was Toman who helped turn Tanner into the more laid-back coach he is today — a style that better fits the modern player, who is more likely to chafe at criticism and consider transferring.
The change has been one of the keys to USC making six College World Series in the past 11 seasons, tied with Texas for the most in that span. Tonight against Florida, Tanner will begin his quest for a third straight national title, something only one other school has done.
“I’ll be the first to admit, in my career, I’ve been guilty of sometimes putting my team in a trap because I was intense and I was prepared and I was pressured, and I was transferring that pressure,” Tanner said. “It doesn’t work. For me anymore, there’s no place for that.”
Toman said Tanner’s transformation began in earnest for the 2000 season. Former players like Adam Everett, who played for Tanner from 1997-98, told him before he left school, “You need to have fun. Allow your players to have fun.” Tanner recalled Toman noticing his stress level and telling him, “If you don’t change, you’re going to be out. You can win without being the toughest guy in the country.”
For the 2000 season, Toman said Tanner stopped being so strict about forcing players to maintain short hair and clean-shaven faces. After losses — and there weren’t many in that 56-10 season — Toman said Tanner stopped “destroying them” by harping on players’ mistakes, as the coaching staff had noticed it sometimes took a week for the players to recover from that.
“He started telling the players, ‘You flush it and let me go home and be miserable,’” Toman said. “He would be miserable. I’d get on the road recruiting a lot if we were losing.”
Tanner realized that maybe he didn’t need to push his players so hard, and the recent arrival of goofy-natured guys like senior pitcher Michael Roth have further chipped away at Tanner’s sterner side.
Now, Tanner lets Roth and closer Matt Price shag balls in centerfield during batting practice. He doesn’t mind when players pretend to throw fishing lines or lassos from the top step of the dugout when there are two balls, two strikes and two outs. Or when his third baseman, LB Dantzler, arranges for his pet fish, and the team’s unofficial mascot, to ride halfway across the country in the equipment truck to the College World Series. Tanner even sometimes laughs when chatting with his players in the dugout during games.
“There is no way that a lot of pressure, stress and anxiety are going to make you a better team,” Tanner said.
Of course, winning will make any coach more relaxed, and USC won a lot in 2000, and during its run to the past two national titles.
“Once he figured out, hey, we can win the national championship, then he got looser,” said junior pitcher Colby Holmes. “And it takes the pressure off of us, so he’s not necessarily breathing down our throats and making sure we’re doing the right thing. He’s letting us do what we’re here to do.”
Tanner is still hard enough on his freshmen that one of them, left fielder Tanner English said, “Man, if he’s loosened up a lot, I’d hate to see him a long time ago. Coming in, he just kind of has to break you down a little bit.”
Still, this is a different, happier Tanner than the man who arrived in Columbia in 1997, trying to spark a program that hadn’t reached Omaha since 1985. He did that, and more, because he was willing to leave behind so much of what he thought he knew about coaching.
“I revert back once in a while,” Tanner said. “But I’m in a better place.”