Ray Tanner, an MVP on and off the Field
Ray Tanner may be the best known Life Member of My Carolina who didn’t actually attend the University of South Carolina. Most folks know him as the head coach of the Carolina baseball team, which has won two straight national championships. His contributions to the Carolina athletics program are well known, but it’s his contributions to the community that also deserve applause.
“I really cherish the opportunity to be involved in the community,” Tanner says. “My wife (Karen) was the one who came to me about starting our own charitable organization, and that was the evolution of establishing the Ray Tanner Foundation.”
The Ray Tanner Foundation supports organizations that care for seriously ill children, the homeless and other charitable causes. It is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, non-profit organization dedicated to the betterment of economically and medically disadvantaged children and their families.
The Influences Behind the Coach
The Carolina baseball team is the back-to-back defending national champion after winning consecutive titles at the 2010 and 2011 College World Series. Now in his 16th year at Carolina, Coach Tanner has led the Gamecocks to five College World Series appearances in the last 10 years. Under his leadership, Carolina is one of eight schools to appear in the NCAA Regional every season in each of the last 12 years, including nine NCAA Super Regional appearances in that span, one of only five schools to accomplish the feat.
Carolina not only owns more overall and Southeastern Conference wins than any SEC team in the last 12 years, but it is also the only SEC school to record 40 or more wins each season from the year 2000 to the present day. Coach Tanner is the second-winningest coach in league history and has been named the national coach of the year three times, and the list of accolades goes on and on.
Tanner’s baseball coaching career began at his alma mater, North Carolina State University, after playing for the Wolfpack from 1977-80.
“I played at NC State, and like a lot of college athletes, you have those aspirations of going to the next level,” Tanner says. “Near the end of my career, I realized that ‘many are called, but few are chosen,’ and I was going to fall into the ‘few’ part. My coach in college, Sam Esposito, offered me a chance to get my master’s degree and be a graduate assistant. It provided an opportunity to continue my education while coaching the sport I loved. So that’s what I did.”
Tanner enjoyed coaching and everything that went along with it, which included administrative duties as well as serving as a special assistant to the athletics director. He moved up the ladder as an assistant coach over the next several years, and in the summer of 1987, head coach Sam Esposito retired, and Tanner was hired at the ripe old age of 27 as the head coach by the late athletics director and legendary basketball coach, Jim Valvano. Looking back, being a head coach at that level at such a young age is hard to imagine.
“In today’s world of athletics, it’s unimaginable that that could happen,” Tanner says. “Even then, I was the youngest division-one head coach in America. It took a tremendous amount of faith from Coach Valvano and his staff to entrust the program to me at the time. I had been on campus for 10 or 11 years straight. So maybe I appeared more experienced than I really was, but I was really fortunate.”
Tanner considers himself fortunate to have been surrounded by mentors such as Valvano and Esposito so early in his career.
“I learned at a young age from my dad and from my family that you lean on people with great wisdom and experience,” Tanner says. “That was a teaching staple in my household. If you want to know something, if you want to learn, you learn from people who have the experience and have the wisdom. Coach Sam Esposito was my confidante, but we shared the same building with men’s basketball, so we got to know coach Valvano very well. He was one of my tutors. I asked him a million questions. I did whatever was necessary. I really got to know him about as well as anybody outside of his coaching staff and immediate family. He taught me a lot about sport and the media. He was a great influence on me as a young coach, and I had the great fortune that he took a chance on me.”
From 1988 through 1996, Tanner led NC State to the NCAA Tournament seven times in nine seasons.
Time to Leave Home
Tanner enjoyed tremendous success coaching at his alma mater, and wasn’t necessarily looking for another opportunity when it came knocking.
“My mom was a factory worker, my dad was a blue-collar worker, and they always taught me that the grass is not always greener on the other side,” Tanner says. “I never looked for another job. I never had a resume. I talked to a couple of other schools before, but nothing serious.”
Tanner’s wife, Karen, was a Carolina graduate. Tanner knew Carolina coach June Raines and former coach Bobby Richardson. He knew all about the late groundskeeper Sarge Frye, and Sarge Frye Field, and the great fan support the program enjoyed back then, but he wasn’t sure if the timing would be right to make the move to South Carolina.
“I didn’t think it would be something I could pursue because I was involved as a coach with Team USA and the Olympics in Atlanta in ’96,” Tanner says. “I was 24/7 as an assistant coach. (South Carolina Athletics Director) Dr. Mike McGee called, and I said that the timing just wouldn’t work, but he said let’s take it one day at a time. He came to see me, and in the early process he spoke with Karen more than he spoke with me. She is from Mount Pleasant, and I think he wanted to see if she had a desire to come back. I always thought the University of South Carolina was a special place for college baseball. There was tradition. We were able to get together and work it all out.”
Having been on the NC State campus as a player and a coach for 20 consecutive years, Tanner had a deep affection for his alma mater. There was no bitterness toward the program there or the University; rather, Tanner just felt it was time professionally to make a move.
“South Carolina offered me an opportunity for professional development,” Tanner says. “It was a professional decision. It just felt like it was the right thing to do. I didn’t base it on money or anything like that. It was just the right thing to do. And here we are heading for year 16.”
Of course Tanner's 15th season with the garnet and black culminated in Omaha, Nebraska, where the Gamecocks won the 2011 National Championship, becoming only the ninth repeat champion in Men’s College World Series history. Carolina's 2011 regular-season Southeastern Conference championship was the third in school history, as the Gamecocks also collected SEC championships with regular-season titles in 2000 and 2002 along with an SEC Tournament crown in 2004.
Tanner had an understanding of the history and tradition at Carolina thanks in part to his relationship with the former Carolina coaches. He never doubted that Carolina could be a nationally competitive program in baseball.
“Does that guarantee you will win a national championship, no, but what it does is give you that sense you’ll be in the mix any given year,” Tanner says. “That was very attractive. You have to coach and you have to recruit, that’s given. But you have to grow the program outside of that. We didn’t have many season ticket holders back in ’96. It used to be general admission. We put seat numbers out there. We talked about renovations and building a new stadium, and we did that. We had a lot of support. We kept getting in a better position.”
An Important Part of the Community
Coach Tanner was already a popular figure among Gamecock sports fans, but winning consecutive national championships made him one of the University's hottest commodities. As his calendar is constantly filled with more appointments that may not be baseball related, Tanner welcomes the demand for his time and treats everyone like a long-lost friend.
“Success doesn’t make this job more difficult, but it does make me manage my time a little better,” Tanner says.
Among his many influences, Tanner also attributes some of his success to advice he received from legendary LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman, with whom he worked on the Olympic team.
“He told me that you have to embrace your community and they have to embrace you,” Tanner says. “You have to go speak at civic clubs and banquets. Those people have to know you other than just being the baseball coach. I had done a little of that at NC State, but not nearly at the level that I do here. So when I first got here, I invited myself to civic clubs and the like in the hopes that they would come to our games. So I tried to generate more interest in the program.”
His wife, Karen, has always been involved with the community, whether it’s charitable giving or charitable involvement, and he also credits her for influencing him to get out of the tunnel vision of being a baseball coach 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
“She taught me that there’s life outside of that tunnel,” Tanner says. “I struggled with that at first, but there’s enough time to do it all. I really cherish the opportunity to be involved in the community."
Tanner explains that Karen’s vision with the Ray Tanner Foundation was that they were already active in the community, but that they could do more. The foundation could be that vehicle to reach more people.
The Ray Tanner Foundation continues to be a huge success. In the 2011 calendar year, the foundation has given more than $80,000 back to charitable organizations in the Midlands of South Carolina. There is no office or overhead. When an individual contributes to the Ray Tanner Foundation, all of the money goes back into the community. This includes organizations such as Families Helping Families, Family Shelter, Healthy Learners, Holy Family Fund, and cooperative ministries.
“It’s designed around physically and mentally challenged children, but it’s all about families,” Tanner says. “It’s children-based, but we’re proponents of places such as the Oliver Gospel Mission, so we do a lot of different things. It’s been wonderful.”
Tanner notes that the first priority is to help at home in Columbia and the Midlands.
“One of our goals is to keep the money here in the Midlands,” Tanner says. “We have a board and pay attention to what’s going on in the community. We’ll reach out to organizations that never contacted us. It’s great to have an organization you can do that with.”
There are two events in particular which for which coach Tanner is
proud to attach his name. The "Ray Tanner Home Run" is a road race held
in the fall, which starts and finishes at Carolina Stadium. There is
also an annual fundraising dinner and auction, which will be held this
year on January 28 in Columbia.
Tanner’s enthusiasm to work with the community is contagious. The Carolina Athletics program keeps student-athletes involved in the community with the Team Gamecocks program, but his players know that he’s out there in the community, too.
“A majority of my players are involved in the community, and I never have to ask,” Tanner says. “I encourage my players to be involved with the community somehow at least one time each semester. Pick something you can be a part of and give back. Guys like Michael Roth, Christian Walker, and Adam Matthews–those guys are continually out in the community.”
With so many great players having come and gone, Tanner is reluctant to name one as “the best.”
“I’ve been blessed to coach so many great players,” Tanner says. “It’s
really about the relationships you have and guys coming together as a
team. The guys who have been great players have also been great people.
For example, Michael Roth is an All-American, an honors student and
he’s involved in the community. That’s what makes it so worthwhile to
coach a guy like that. I don’t deserve credit for guys like that. He
deserves it. His mom and dad deserve credit.”
Evolution of the Game
Rules regarding the use of certain types of bats have changed the game of college baseball the last few years, and time will tell if those changes make the college game more appealing on a national level.
“The games are a little quicker now and it gives the pitchers a better chance,” Tanner says. “You get more television coverage because the games are shorter. There are some pluses and minuses. Some fans like to see the home run and they were down almost 50% last year. I don’t know if that hurts us.”
Contrary to the beliefs of some, Coach Tanner isn’t one who always wanted to play for the three-run home run.
“I tried to recruit good players and play them to their strengths,” Tanner says. “You have to adjust. It wasn’t that hard for me to adjust to the game. It’s a little more pitching and defense, but that’s the case for every coach.”
Regardless of some changes in the game, Tanner is proud to be a Gamecock and proud to coach his teams at Carolina Stadium, which opened in 2009.
“I’m a little prejudiced, but I think it’s the best in college baseball,” Tanner says. “There are some really nice ones around the country and in the SEC. I just like the way we built this one. It is fan friendly, it is player friendly and it is recruiting friendly. It’s special.”
It is a special place and a special program, and Coach Tanner is a special coach.
The 2012 baseball season gets underway at Carolina Stadium on February 17 against Virginia Military Institute.