When Ray Tanner was on the other end of a drawn-out, slightly embarrassing USC coaching search
June Raines resigned as South Carolina's baseball coach in May 1996, and it took a month and four rejections before Mike McGee offered the job to Ray Tanner.
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Among millennial Columbians like myself, there is an intuition that the South Carolina baseball program was not built by many head coaches, laboring assiduously over a period of decades. Our rational brain urges us to suspect otherwise, but we are nevertheless biologically predisposed toward assuming the Gamecock baseball team dropped from the heavens sometime in the mid-1990s, fully formed and with Ray Tanner as the head coach.
This was, of course, not the case.
Ray Tanner was preceded all-time wins leader June Raines (four CWS appearances and two runs away from winning the whole thing in 1977), who was himself preceded by the legendary Bobby Richardson. Richardson was Raines’s measuring stick, just as Raines was Tanner’s, and Tanner would later become Chad Holbrook’s. Tanner needed a year to stabilize a program in steady decline during the tail-end of the Raines era, but he had USC back in the NCAA Tournament by year two and, from there, enjoyed 16 years of uninterrupted prosperity.1 By June 2000, there was no further utility in comparing Tanner to his predecessors; Tanner had already eclipsed their standard and set a new one all his own.
In the spring of 1996, however, resurgence of the baseball program was not foreordained. After a rip-roaring start to his 20-year tenure, Raines had overseen a decade of malaise his successor would now have to reverse. The dip in the program’s record was mirrored by the steady dilapidation of the facilities at Sarge Fry Field, which had been state-of-the-art when it opened in 1977. Attracting top coaching talent to Columbia was looking like something of an uncertain prospect.
When it came time to replace Raines, athletics director Mike McGee had already made a couple of bold hires in football and basketball that outlined his ambitions for South Carolina as a new member of the Southeastern Conference.2 McGee had every intention of making another splash with his baseball hire, but it was not so easy to find a willing partner for this particular tango.
In the end, it took McGee a full month to secure a replacement, even though there was little reason for USC to have been caught flat-footed by the timing of Raines’ resignation. All the while, rejections from top candidates were piling up and Carolina’s incoming recruiting class was withering on the vine.
Ray Tanner was fourth on the list of candidates McGee formally interviewed, to say nothing of the coaches who might have been screened in more casual conversations. (McGee claimed the list of candidates under consideration was somewhere around 100.) USC struck out with the sitting head coaches at Long Beach State, Tennessee, and Miami before directing its attention toward the 38-year-old at the helm of North Carolina State.
Fortunately for McGee, the facilities at NC State had fallen into even greater disrepair than USC’s, and Tanner was reportedly at odds with the administration over the necessity of upgrades. Matters were helped by his wife’s ties to Columbia and Tanner’s stated position that the Carolina job was one he had long coveted.
But there was a last-minute snag that might have forced South Carolina to move on to its fifth-choice candidate. For several days after McGee had extended an offer, the deal was held up while Tanner haggled with NC State over his $183,000 buyout.3
In the press, the Wolfpack athletics director waged a war of passive aggression over the issue.
“The kind of person Ray Tanner is, he would fully honor whatever is required in any contract,” he told the Greenville News. “So if he is in fact going to be the next coach at South Carolina, there would be complete fulfillment of the requirements of the contract I can assure you.”
South Carolina was unwilling to front the money to cover the buyout, so it was left to Tanner to settle the issue with his soon-to-be-former employer. Tanner never divulged the specifics of the settlement he and NC State eventually reached other than to say that it was “amicable” and would be “inappropriate to discuss.”
Reading all this, my mind struggled to avoid comparisons to the too-often bumbling coaching searches overseen by Ray Tanner in his capacity as South Carolina’s athletics director.
The public refusals from Kirby Smart and Tom Herman, the latter not for another big job but to remain at Houston
The decision to not only hire Will Muschamp but extend his contract
Tanner’s decade-long struggle to hire a worthy long-term replacement for himself
The passage of a month and two rejections before Tanner secured an underwhelming replacement for Frank Martin
Don’t worry. The foregoing has not been prelude to a Galaxy Brain take about how Ray Tanner has been playing four-dimensional chess all along. (Being bad at hiring talented coaches … it’s actually good!) No, what I’m saying is that there is an absurd amount of dumb luck involved in hiring coaches. And that the success or failure of a head coach is contingent on a number of factors beyond just their skill as a head coach and the soundness of the hiring process.
Behold a short list of recent football hires universally thought to have been slam dunks: Tom Herman, Scott Frost, Dan Mullen, Willie Taggart, Will Muschamp (the first time around), Justin Fuente. Of the coaches I wanted us to hire instead of Will Muschamp, only Dino Babers hasn’t since been fired.
These were all universally praised hires that won the press conference. According to The State columnist Bob Spear, Tanner, by contrast, was “flat as a soft drink left uncapped overnight” at his introductory presser.
If, in 1996, Mike McGee had succeeded in hiring his second-choice candidate, UT coach Rod Delmonico, it’s not likely South Carolina’s program would have ever reached the apex of college baseball. Delmonico had some decent seasons in Knoxville after 1996, but he only reached two College World Series and was issued his walking papers in 2007 after posting losing SEC records in five of the previous six seasons.
How lucky, then, that McGee’s search to took as long as it did.
Perhaps the consecutive hirings of Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier rotted our brains and created an expectation that it was possible — perhaps even normal, bordering on mundane — to identify a living legend as your top candidate and simply decide to go out and hire him.
I’m not saying Ray Tanner is good at being an athletics director. I’m just saying that it’s hard to pick which hires will work out and which ones won’t, and sometimes bungled coaching searches produce excellent hires. No one is better evidence of this than Tanner himself.
The top-grossing movie at the box offices the weekend after Ray Tanner’s hiring was The Cable Guy, which weirdly enough was written by a guy named Lou Holtz, Jr. — no relation. Cable Guy was preceded as the No. 1 movie in America by Twister, The Rock, and Mission: Impossible. The next three box-office toppers were Eraser, The Nutty Professor, and Independence Day. What a year.
The No. 1 album on the Billboard charts was The Score by the Fugees, who claimed the top spot four weeks earlier from Fairweather Johnson by Hootie & The Blowfish.
On the front page of The State: The University of South Carolina’s proposed budget included a $70-per-student “technology fee” that would raise $1.3 million to fund the creation of a “modern computer network.”
Quibblers will point to a slightly disappointing run in the late aughts that, ironically enough, immediately preceded his back-to-back CWS titles.
This was a much more substantial sum in 1996 than it is today. At the time, it was equal to three years of Tanner’s salary.