COLUMBIA — Ray Tanner is pleased he kept South Carolina athletics moving forward in his first year as athletic director.
Tanner worried things in the department might hit a speed bump after he took over last summer for Eric Hyman, who left for a similar position at Texas A&M.
“I was concerned, ‘OK, I’m going into a new role. Do we have to take a step back before we can take two forward?’” he said. “Well, I didn’t want to do that. I wasn’t interested in that.”
Tanner credits the department’s staff for ensuring that didn’t happen. Almost immediately after accepting the job, Tanner worked at recruiting — something he excelled at in leading South Carolina baseball to six College World Series trips in 16 seasons — South Carolina’s athletic administrators to his team. All but academic chief Raymond Harrison remained on staff, and that’s meant barely a blip in the facility, fundraising and on-field success for Gamecocks sports this past academic year, Tanner said.
“That’s the thing I think I’m most happy about, that there wasn’t a lull,” he said.
Tanner recently spoke to The Associated Press about his initial year in charge and the overall state of South Carolina athletics.
He acknowledged he had the advantage of a building plan that had already shown results like $36.5 million Carolina Stadium, a baseball facility that’s helped the Gamecocks win consecutive national championships in 2010 and 2011.
Tanner also had some good timing in his new job, moving into the new offices on the top floor of the $8.5 million Rice Athletic Building instead of the aging (and now demolished) Roundhouse that housed athletic administrators for decades.
“I don’t miss that,” he said, laughing.
Tanner’s view looks on the nearly completed softball complex. Farther on is a track and field area set for renovation. Tanner has added his own twists to the plan, too, mapping out space for the school’s fledging sand volleyball program, indoor tennis courts and a new basketball practice facility. Those, Tanner said, are longer-term projects he hopes to get going as soon as possible.
For a campus crazy about football, it’s hard to think of a better stretch for the Gamecocks. Steve Spurrier’s team has posted consecutive 11-win seasons for the first time in school history, and South Carolina features one of the game’s marquee players in helmet-popping defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
“He’s fun to watch,” Tanner said of the 6-6, 274-pound junior.
He’s also been a boon to keeping donors excited and getting South Carolina’s message out to the public. Donations surpassed $25 million in 2012, in part because of plays like Clowney’s hit in the Outback Bowl when he dislodged Michigan runner Vincent Smith’s helmet and made a one-handed fumble recovery to help the Gamecocks to a 33-28 victory.
“The attention he and football bring us is amazing,” Tanner said.
But they’re not the only sports showing success. Women’s basketball won a school-record 11 SEC games and reached its second straight NCAA tournament under Dawn Staley. After the season, Tanner and the Gamecocks were able to keep Staley on board after Ohio State inquired about its women’s basketball opening.
Tanner liked the passion he saw from men’s basketball coach Frank Martin and is confident the group of newcomers entering this fall — Martin signed eight new players and will have Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson available for SEC play — will boost the team’s play in the coach’s second season.
The biggest roller-coaster ride for Tanner came, as you might expect, during baseball season. He rode the line of staying away from a program and coach in Chad Holbrook he was close to or seeming too big a booster for his old team. Still, Tanner watched from the stands as the Gamecocks came up a game short of their fourth straight College World Series appearance. Tanner thought Holbrook did a strong job in his debut season and thinks the Gamecocks’ run of baseball success will continue.
Tanner also expects better of himself in year two. He gave himself a “B’’ for his first go-round simply because the time it took to get comfortable in the job kept him from achieving all he believed he should. That learning curve won’t be there next fall, and that has Tanner ready for bigger things at South Carolina.
“We’re in a very good place. Are we where I want to be? No,” he said. “I believe there’s still opportunity for growth.”