The phone calls came from Nebraska, from nice hotel suites not far from the Missouri River, both of them placed early on glorious summer mornings. Ray Tanner, in 2010 and again in 2011, might have been wearing his garnet uniform.
He wanted to thank Mike McGee, the former South Carolina athletic director who had a lot to do with the Gamecocks’ back-to-back College World Series celebrations in Omaha.
“Except for integrity,” McGee said in 2012, “hiring the right people is the most important thing in college athletics.”
McGee died Friday at 80 at a retirement home in Montrose, Colo., where he raised quarter horses. Among many other resume highlights, he left a mark quite unlike that of anyone else who ever worked at South Carolina.
In charge from 1993 to 2005, he hired a lot of the right people.
Steve Spurrier (three straight 11-2 seasons) and Lou Holtz (back-to-back Outback Bowl wins).
Eddie Fogler (SEC regular-season championship) and Dave Odom (two NIT titles).
Curtis Frye (2002 NCAA title in outdoor track).
And Tanner, the two-time national championship-winning baseball coach turned athletic director.
But McGee isn’t getting due respect in Columbia.
There are 187 members in the University of South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, a group that includes athletes and coaches, a trustee (Rutledge Osborne), a trainer (Jim Price), a publicist (Tom Price) and a groundskeeper (Sarge Frye). All are deserving.
It’s just hard to fathom anyone having more of a positive impact on Gamecock athletics than McGee, still not a member.
If it’s an oversight, what a mistake.
If it’s an intentional slight, how ridiculous.
He should be in the state Athletic Hall of Fame, too.
The ‘other’ USC
The son of a Coast Guard captain, McGee went to high school in Elizabeth City, N.C., before going on to play college football. At Duke, he won the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top interior lineman (other winners include Merlin Olsen, Randy White, Lee Roy Selmon, Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald).
Coincidentally, McGee as a member of the old St. Louis Cardinals played in the first NFL preseason game (and one of only two) played in Charleston, a 31-21 victory over the two-time defending champion Baltimore Colts in August of 1960. That sweltering night, he had to block the likes of Hall of Famer Art Donovan and “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, a 6-6, 300-pound defensive lineman who dabbled in pro wrestling.
“I was hanging on for dear life at times,” McGee once told me. “Art Donovan talked a lot and I was all eyes and ears. I would describe him as almost jovial, but he played hard.”
McGee was a head football coach at East Carolina (1970) and Duke (1971-78).
As an AD, he made a huge mark on the other USC, too.
Hired away from Cincinnati, he remains the only Southern Cal athletic director with no ties to a school that much prefers hiring former Trojan football stars (Mike Garrett, Pat Haden, Lynn Swann) to run the show.
McGee had a comical moment in L.A. with his public introduction of a new basketball coach: “(We welcome) Jim Raveling … George Raveling.”
The faux pas was played over and over on the late Jim Healy’s wildly popular nightly radio sportscast for years with any mention of Raveling.
But McGee’s real legacy was ousting football coach Ted Tollner and hiring Larry Smith, who led Southern Cal to three straight Rose Bowls, firing basketball coach Stan Morrison and replacing legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux with Mike Gillespie.
It was Gillespie who offered clutch advice when McGee went looking for a South Carolina baseball coach to replace June Raines.
Go get N.C. State’s Ray Tanner, Gillespie insisted.
Front office staff
McGee made some mistakes at South Carolina, perhaps most notably his halfhearted interest in the Carolina Panthers when the new NFL team wanted to play its inaugural season at Williams-Brice Stadium while their stadium was under construction. The Panthers instead went to Clemson, which didn’t see a Charlotte-based NFL team as competition, as McGee did.
But McGee made lots of money for South Carolina, taking a neophyte SEC program from the basement to the middle in conference revenue rankings. He was the primary force in the construction of Colonial Life Arena.
As impressive as anything was McGee’s eye for sharp young management types. His athletic department staff at South Carolina included Dan Radakovich, the AD at Clemson; Chris Massaro, the AD at Middle Tennessee State; and former Gamecocks and NFL player Brad Edwards, the AD at George Mason.
McGee is survived by Ginger, his wife of 56 years, four children and 19 grandchildren. He will be buried in Colorado on Saturday and honored later at a memorial service in Elizabeth City, which Tanner plans to attend.
Hopefully, Tanner’s subsequent appearance regarding McGee is at an overdue University of South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame ceremony.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff