Keeping up with the Joneses

Ray Tanner has continued to oversee success on the field in his two yaers as South Carolina's athletics director. (AP Photo/The State, Gerry Melendez)

There are two chairs next to a window in the far corner of Ray Tanner's office, their backs turned to the rest of the room.

They overlook part of South Carolina's athletics village, the land Tanner controls. Just below, tennis courts are tucked neatly against the softball diamond. Near the horizon, Williams-Brice Stadium towers above everything.

From here, Tanner can keep an eye on the progress. He'll watch as new men's and women's tennis locker rooms are built this summer. He'll see construction crews create a new entrance plaza at the football stadium next fall. There will be other projects, from an indoor football practice facility to soccer locker rooms. Tanner will watch new buildings rise from the ground, and he will be pleased.

But never satisfied.

"I don't think that you get to a point in athletics that you go, 'OK, we've built this, we've built that. We can pause,' " Tanner said. "I think if you ever get in a position where you pause, you're going in reverse."

South Carolina certainly isn't going in reverse, not with a top-five football program, a nationally elite baseball team and an SEC championship in women's basketball. It is swimming upstream.

Money means everything in college athletics. Finally, South Carolina has some. The board of trustees passed $53 million in construction projects last year, upgrades that will soon be realized. Dollars are being poured into facilities, and the benefits are being seen on fields and courts. But in the SEC, a conference dripping with financial resources, South Carolina is merely catching up to its peers.

South Carolina's athletics department exceeded $90 million in revenue during the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to USA Today. Sounds nice, until it's considered in context.

"It is a challenge because different schools have different opportunities, and different resources," Tanner said. "When I saw the article in USAToday that we were 25th in the country (in revenue), at first glance I'm like, 'We're continuing to climb. We're doing well.' Then I counted from No. 25 to No. 1, and there were nine other SEC schools in between us.

"I'd certainly like to be higher than 10th, and we're pushing hard to get there. But intangibles count."

So does a sound financial strategy. South Carolina is near the bottom of the SEC in revenue. In many sports, it's near the top of the league in competition. With the right investments, Tanner thinks that trend will continue.

Tanner will celebrate his second anniversary as South Carolina's athletics director next Sunday. It's been two years of balancing budgets, guiding the department, managing staff, enjoying success - and always competing.

Occasionally, Tanner said someone will ask him if he misses coaching the Gamecocks baseball team. His answer is always the same.

"I'm still coaching," Tanner said. "I'm competing, and that's coaching. I don't need to be on the front line, I don't need to be in the newspaper. I don't need to have a win by my name or any of those kinds of things. When I see our student athletes thriving, and they're competitive, and they're happy, those are wins for me."

Tanner saw South Carolina athletics begin to grow under former athletics director Eric Hyman. When Hyman moved to Texas A&M, Tanner wanted to keep the Gamecocks moving forward. South Carolina's revenue has increased both years Tanner has held the job. Upstream, multiple teams have competed near the top of the league.

It isn't by accident. Even before moving from the dugout to the Rice Athletics Center's third-floor office, Tanner's interest stretched beyond wins and losses. As a coach, Tanner would check ticket sales and concession revenue. Each season, he'd make sure the money added up.

"I always wanted to run a program that was going to be in the black," Tanner said. "I was always interested in concessions, always interested in season ticket sales and per-game walk-ups and those kinds of things. I always paid attention to that."

Now, Tanner's task is on a bigger scale.

It sounds odd for an operation working with more than a $90 million budget, but South Carolina has learned how to do more with less. Five SEC teams generated at least $103 million in revenue during 2012-13, according to USA Today. The gap between South Carolina and league leader Alabama is $58.6 million.

Athletics departments are like governments. The purpose of making money is to spend it. Tanner said the key is spending money in the right places. Almost every day, Tanner said he meets with South Carolina chief financial officer Jeff Tallant. Together, they go over the budget.

"If you don't invest, there is zero chance that you're going to get a return," Tanner said. "I think that you have to invest, certainly very wisely. What we do with our resources here, we try to invest our dollars in places that maximize the opportunities to give us a return. We're going to operate in the black, but we're going to try to stay in position to invest in our student athletes."

Not long ago, South Carolina's reputation trailed as much as its revenue. Tanner heard the skepticism, people saying the Gamecocks didn't belong in the SEC. Over time, perception has changed.

Tanner believes the "defining moment" came before he traded his cleats for a suit and tie. He remembers Nov. 23, 2004, the day Spurrier came to South Carolina. The significance makes it impossible to forget.

"I thought that was a very important day for us," Tanner said. "The fact that Coach Spurrier didn't have to come here, this was an opportunity for us to make a statement. He gave us instant credibility. It was national attention, and that helped us tremendously. I think his influence has been tremendous on this campus and in this athletics department."

Mike McGee, the athletic director prior to Hyman, hired Spurrier and Tanner. Hyman brought in women's basketball coach Dawn Staley (a hit), men's basketball coach Darrin Horn (a miss) and Horn's replacement, Frank Martin (too soon to tell). Tanner replaced himself with Chad Holbrook.

All are paid accordingly.

Eight SEC schools out-generated South Carolina by at least $5 million in 2013. Only two spent more than $5 million on coaches and athletics department staff. South Carolina committed $31.9 million - 35 percent of its expense budget - to salaries in 2013. With Spurrier's salary raised to $4 million in February, and his staff receiving pay bumps, that figure will increase this year.

To Tanner, it's a worthy commitment.

"I would argue that if you looked at all 14 schools in the SEC, and there was a way to evaluate it, we may be at the top with the quality of coaches," Tanner said.

Spurrier, especially, has made a direct impact on South Carolina's finances.

When the Head Ball Coach arrived in 2005, the athletics department generated $46.2 million in revenue. Next year, South Carolina expects revenue to rise to $94 million - more than double. Spurrier doesn't deserve all the credit, but leading teams to three straight 11-win seasons helps the wallet.

"He's a hall of famer," Tanner said. "Arguably one of the best to ever coach college football."

His mind is fixed on the future. Every day, new ideas come. Sitting in the corner of his office, looking out onto the athletics village, Tanner pointed to the only empty area.

"You see this plot of land here," he said. "That would be an ideal spot for men's and women's basketball practice facility."

South Carolina isn't done building. Tanner said there are still "a number of things" he'd like to do in order to enhance facilities. When he sat down with The Post and Courier for an interview recently, Tanner said he wants to build a football complex to house coaches' offices and meeting rooms. Currently, offices and meeting rooms are located on separate end zones at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Tanner said the board of trustees hasn't discussed any new projects yet. It's just his "vision for the future."

"It's going to be ongoing," Tanner said. "Again, I think it's a mistake if you ever get to a point where you pause."

It's also going to require more money.

South Carolina's revenue will continue to climb, partially because of its lucrative affiliation with the SEC. But Tanner wants to do more. Tanner said he's exploring ways to better use premium seating at Williams-Brice Stadium. Fundraising is also at the heart of his job description.

Generating revenue isn't more important at South Carolina than other schools. College athletics is in the midst of an arms race, with newer and fancier buildings built every year. With South Carolina's financial disadvantages, Tanner said the future hinges on continuing to make the right investments.

"I think that you do have to think a little bit differently because we don't have - even though we've exceeded $90 million - there's not a lot of discretionary income that we have from those resources," Tanner said. "So we have to be very prudent in the decisions that we make, with our coaches and their salaries, with our facilities. It has to be well thought out."