It's been five years since Ray Tanner took the reins as South Carolina's Athletics Director. GamecocksOnline sat down with Coach Tanner to look back and look ahead at the future of Gamecock Athletics.
1) With five years in the books, do you have a clear perspective about the direction South Carolina Athletics will take in the future?
Ray Tanner (RT): "It's important to understand that the world of intercollegiate athletics is ever-changing. When you think about things such as cost of attendance, the competitive nature of facilities, and the resources; we're in a different state than we were many years ago. Being an athletics director, you have to recognize change and growth and be able to adjust. We continue to grow, develop, and use our resources to advance our school within this conference and nationally.
"I'm very fortunate to be surrounded by people with so much experience and a passion for their jobs to help our student-athletes compete at a high level and be successful academically. We have a group of coaches that are exceptional. We're coming off a year where we had great success across the board. I don't think you always have to measure your success by wins and losses, but we did have a really good year with wins and losses."
2) If you could write a letter to yourself from five years ago, what would you say?
RT: "I try to be thorough. I try to be involved, and I try to delegate. If I could start over and write that letter, the thing I would tell myself is to spend more time going to practices with our student-athletes. That's where I think I have failed -- not on purpose, though. There are always other responsibilities. I can assure you that from this day forward, that's one of my priorities going into year number six. I go to games, but I'm going to be more visible at practices. I think it's important. Some veteran athletics directors have shared that with me that your student-athletes love seeing you at practice. You don't have to talk to them or stay the whole practice. They love to know that we are there, and I do love doing that."
At the end of the day, what's the most important thing? It's being able to move forward with your adult life, and you do that with an education.Ray Tanner
3) You have consistently talked about creating a "championship experience" for student-athletes and focused on student-athlete welfare, branding, and facilities, among other things. What are your priorities heading into the 2017-2018 academic year?
RT: "The priorities are to continue to see our student-athletes have success in the classroom. That may sound like `A.D. speak,' but the truth of the matter is that 98 percent of our student-athletes become professionals is something other than the sport that they played. So academics are paramount. "We have to continue to operate our program by being fiscally responsible and finish another year `in the black.' That is certainly a big priority.
"We want to win in competition at a very high level. I don't like talking about a `win or else' mentality, but it is important to me that we are always in a position to be successful. That's the word I use more than anything else with our coaches when we're talking about sport evaluations -- what position is your team in? I want to know from them, do you have any restrictions? Is your position good enough? If your answer is that we are in a good position, then you can end up in a Final Four or a national championship. It doesn't mean you're going to end up there, but it means the opportunities do exist.
"One of my many jobs is to position our coaches and student-athletes to eliminate the reasons they can't be successful in competition. Even today with our 21 sports, there are two or three sports that we need more opportunities. We need to improve their resources to succeed at a high level. That is certainly on my radar."
4) In your five years as athletics director the department has put up impressive numbers on the field, in the classroom, as well as financially. Is there one area that stands out the most to you?
RT: "Those accolades are great, but they're not because of the athletics director. It's because of the people -- our administration and each sport's staff - and the student-athletes. I will say that I'm extremely proud of what we do academically with our student-athletes. At the end of the day, what's the most important thing? It's being able to move forward with your adult life, and you do that with an education.
"If you can play in the NBA, NFL, or WNBA, that's great. But even then, there are no guarantees that you'll do it for a long period of time. Academic success is the ultimate. With [Senior Associate A.D. for Academics & Student Development] Maria Hickman's leadership and her staff, we've been very successful. Our Graduation Success Rate for football was number three in the nation. Those are successes that resonate. Yes, we want to win games, but those things are for the rest of your life and playing a sport is for a small period of time. I sit here today because of education, not because I was an OK college baseball player. Education gave me opportunities.
"Look at our men's basketball seniors - Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell, and Justin McKie. They all graduated. They're trying to make it by bouncing the ball, but when the ball is not bouncing anymore, they have their degrees. They're going to have some opportunities. That's exciting to me."
5) It's difficult to describe all the duties of an athletics director, what are the challenges or perks for you, personally which come with the territory?
RT: "There is no idle time in the office. There really isn't. There are meetings and phone calls and places to be. There are games, events, and socials. It's non-stop, and it's great! You have to want to be in that position. Today I had a chance to visit with a student-athlete, and that's special.
"There are things that keep me up, but they're not things that have me worried or stressed. It's things that are exciting. It's things that make you think about progress and moving forward. The cost of running an athletics program is very daunting, and we've been able to do that for many years without receiving money from tax dollars or tuition. We're a self-supporting entity. That continues to be a challenge.
"I'm excited to be in this job. I get to live vicariously through our student-athletes, our coaches, and our teams. It's not overwhelming. It's constant adrenaline. I'm very blessed with the leadership of Dr. Pastides. He and our Board of Trustees embrace what we do, and they're very supportive.
"There are definitely some tough decisions that many people never know about. Whether it's dealing with a student-athlete or when we had a coaching change in baseball. Those can be difficult times. That's part of the process of being a coach, and it's part of the process that athletics directors deal with. Again, it's part of what we do.
"I get more suggestions from fans as an A.D. than as a baseball coach. Baseball is more seasonal. I don't get questions about bunting too much or not bunting enough in this job, but I get suggestions. I do get some good ones. I like to read them and answer them when I can. I got a few this weekend after the D.J. announcement (at home football games). They were very well thought out. I answered them to try to satisfy some questions they had. The bottom line is that we are trying to enhance our game day experience.
"One of the things that attracted me to South Carolina 21 years ago was the passion and enthusiasm of the fan base. That had a big effect on me. It continues to be apparent to me. We did have success across the board this year, and our fans were there for us. They were in Phoenix and in Dallas. That's special. Our fans have been so loyal for so many years, and when you have a year like this, with women's basketball winning a national championship, and the men going to the Final Four, it's like they're getting something in return for their love of the Gamecocks. You had [women's soccer] running the table and winning the Southeastern Conference. Men's swimming finished in the top 15 in the country. Men's and women's tennis and golf had great years. Kalen Anderson's [women's golf] team won their fifth NCAA Regional in the last eight years. There are a lot of special moments. The consistency of success stands out. The challenge is to sustain it."