COLUMBIA — Mark Kingston was having dinner with his family when his phone rang, displaying the Midlands area code 803. The head baseball coach at South Florida knew South Carolina had an opening, and wondered to his wife Letitia if it was Ray Tanner on the other line.
“That’s great. Who’s Ray Tanner?” she responded.
Her husband certainly knew. They had met only casually, crossing paths on the recruiting trail a few times when Tanner was in his 16 seasons as the Gamecocks’ head baseball coach. But the reputation of the USC athletic director, who won two national titles during his time in the dugout, was well-known to all in the sport.
“Everybody in baseball knows who Ray Tanner is,” Kingston said after being named the new head baseball coach at South Carolina. “I can assure you, it gives me great pride to know that one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history has given me this responsibility.”
Kingston replaces Chad Holbrook, who won 65 percent of his games and reached two Super Regionals in his five seasons at USC, but resigned June 6 after missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Tanner said that the vacancy drew interest from a number of candidates, and he vetted some possibilities at the College World Series while interviewing others in Columbia.
But there was something that stuck with him about Kingston, who had an under-.500 record in American Athletic Conference play, but made the NCAAs twice in three seasons at USF, which hadn’t been there for 13 seasons before his arrival. Over the course of several long telephone conversations, the current and former coaches exchanged ideas on program management and student-athlete welfare, and Tanner was impressed by what he heard.
“When you talk about the world of intercollegiate athletics today, and what it means to be a student-athlete, I’m not sure I’ve ever visited with a coach who understands the culture as well as coach Kingston does,” Tanner said.
Added Kingston: “We hit it off right out of the gate.”
In some ways, it was a similar situation to the last major hire Tanner made as athletic director. With all eyes on candidates with bigger names, Tanner formed a bond with Will Muschamp based on long conversations about coaching, and he hired the former Florida coach to oversee USC’s football program in late 2015. As with Friday’s introduction of Kingston, it was a somewhat polarizing choice born of a personal connection.
“Whether I did it the right way or not, I want mission, passion, intensity,” Tanner said. “I want to be around coaches with that intensity level to accept the challenges, to accept the expectations. So there were some similarities.”
Although Kingston played at North Carolina in the early 1990s at the same time Tanner was head coach at North Carolina State, there was no previous relationship before Kingston saw that 803 area code on his phone at dinner. They made up the lost time in a series of telephone calls, some stretching an hour or more, so lengthy Tanner hung up worried he had kept Kingston on the line too long.
“We had some long phone calls,” Tanner said. “Not because I was scrutinizing him. We were learning from each other.”
Now that he has the job, Kingston said he will lean on Tanner only to a point. “I’ll call him when necessary, but he didn’t hire me to have to babysit me, in my opinion,” he said. “I’m confident enough in what my staff and I can do with the team that I’m not going to call him all the time. I may call him for non-baseball reasons much more than baseball reasons. I think we know what we’re doing.”
With his confident, understated tone, pledge to be directly involved in all aspects of recruiting, and promise to play the kind of quick-strike baseball fans often wanted to see more of at Founders Park, Kingston may have soothed some concerns of those who wanted a proven major-conference coach with a track record of getting teams to Omaha.
But even Tanner realized his choice would be a surprise to some. “I think a lot of angst is, a lot of people do not know who he is,” he recalled telling his wife Karen, a Charleston native. Her response: “When you came here, did they know who you were?”
— South Florida pitching coach Billy Mohl will not follow Kingston to USC. Mohl has been named the Bulls’ new head coach, USF announced. Mohl oversaw a Bulls pitching staff that this past season recorded a program-record 620 strikeouts, and a team ERA of 3.24.
Kingston said during his introduction Friday that his staff was to be announced, pending his former assistants earning possible promotions in Tampa. He did not rule out retaining some members of Holbrook’s former staff.