SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Locating the start of the USC dynasty
The source of the river of Gamecocks baseball glory has been found.
Traced tributaries include back-to-back College World Series championships, late-inning magic, sellout crowds at Carolina Stadium and "Roth Star" -- King Michael himself -- on the cover of the latest Baseball America magazine.
They lead to, of all places, the "other" Carolina.
And to two seemingly meaningless games involving, of all baseball programs, the "other" USC.
"We decided to make a change in our baseball program," former South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee said from his home in Montrose, Colo., recalling his decision to dismiss head coach June Raines after the 1996 season. "So I called Mike Gillespie and asked for a name."
McGee, now 73 and raising quarter horses, was the athletic director at Southern Cal in 1987 when he hired Gillespie as head baseball coach.
Gillespie told McGee about Southern Cal's trips to play in the Carolina Invitational, a modest gathering in Chapel Hill played after the conference tournaments and designed to help teams prepare for the NCAA tournament.
"Mike brought Southern Cal out in 1990 and 1991, and had good teams," McGee said. "But he told me, 'I just can't beat Ray Tanner.' "
Tanner's N.C. State Wolfpack in 1990 would go on to lose in a Miami regional The Citadel won to advance to the College World Series. But N.C. State on March 19 beat Southern Cal, 7-4.
N.C. State opened the 1991 season with a 14-1 rout of S.C. State, which doesn't have baseball anymore. Between the ACC tournament in Greenville and an NCAA regional in Gainesville, Fla., the Wolfpack again got the best of Southern Cal in Chapel Hill, winning 12-8.
To be fair, the Trojans pounded N.C. State, 14-1, in a 1993 game in Chapel Hill. But Gillespie, who led Southern Cal to its 12th national title in 1998, had seen enough.
McGee while at South Carolina hired Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier
Eddie Fogler and Dave Odom, Bobby Cremins and Brad Scott.
Even in that crowd, Tanner and his five College World Series visits stick out.
"It was clear he was the right man if we could give him the resources," McGee said.
High school and travel league coaches deserve credit. Warm weather, too. But Tanner's arrival at South Carolina helped spur a college baseball golden age that continues all over the state. More or less, NCAA tournament fun has included Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston, The Citadel, Winthrop, Furman and Wofford.
"When I came to South Carolina, I made an assessment that baseball was an important sport in the state all the way down to youth leagues," McGee said. "Ray gave us a wonderful opportunity to tap into that."
Clemson is a high NCAA tournament seed almost annually. As much as Jack Leggett finds himself in South Carolina's long shadow today, the Tigers' head coach was influential in the Gamecocks' rise to dominance.
McGee made the Tanner hire in 1996, not coincidentally the year Clemson made a second straight trip to Omaha.
John Pawlowski, Leggett's pitching coach on the 1996 Clemson team, eventually got the College of Charleston job and took the Cougars to three straight NCAA tournaments. When Pawlowski left for Auburn, Tanner pushed hard for Gamecocks assistant (and former Cougars player) Monte Lee to get the Charleston job in the summer of 2008.
To replace Lee, Tanner hired Chad Holbrook away from North Carolina, where he had helped the Tar Heels finish as College World Series runner-up to Oregon State twice.
Holbrook has won two rings working with Tanner.
"I appreciate that the mornings after both of the College World Series championships, Ray has called me," McGee said. "Except for integrity, hiring the right people is the most important thing in college athletics. Ray brings both of those things."
It's a fine line, the difference between Gamecocks supremacy and lasting fame for some other state team.
South Carolina on its way to the 2010 national title squeaked by Coastal Carolina in an NCAA super regional in Myrtle Beach and defeated Clemson twice in Omaha.
No close call, however, compares to the ones in 1990 and 1991.
What if the other USC had won those two ballgames at the other Carolina?
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or pm Twitter at @sapakoff.