Tanner Takes the Lead

20 Questions with USC’s Athletic Director

By Henry Clay

Photography by Emily Clay

Approaching his second football season, Ray Tanner implements his strategies to bolster the program’s strength. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Coach Tanner and listen as he shared his insights into the USC Athletic Program and his goals for success.


Q: With the SEC TV Network starting this past month, what is the anticipated effect it will have on the University of South Carolina?

A: It will have an extremely positive effect; not only will it enhance football exposure, which is currently very good with Coach Spurrier and our success in the last four years, but it will even enhance that. Forty-five additional football games during this season — three on every Saturday — will be televised. And of course we play the very first game on the network. But it goes beyond college football and the SEC. It will cover all the other sports. 

We’ve enhanced our production capabilities internally so we can produce an ESPN quality production on digital television, which means we can transfer it linearly and have a quality picture you would expect from ESPN offering announcing, play-by-play video and the high definition color. We’ve invested internally to cover all sports, not just football.

We are extremely proud to be a part of this conference. We feel like we have the greatest conference in the country, and we continue to enhance that brand. It’s very special for us at the University to be a part of that and — even better — that the SEC network will be located in Charlotte.

Q: Has it been a challenge to get the school ready in terms of staffing and infrastructure?

A: We have hired a three-person staff to run the day-to-day operations of the SEC Network. We will have a group of part-time workers as well as students to help us in our game day production. We’ve developed a great relationship with the Journalism School to give us an opportunity to use students to help. We have a state-of-the-art control room at Williams-Brice Stadium, and we’ve run fiber to all of our venues. I believe we are ready to produce quality broadcasts for the SEC Network.

Q: Any potential downside or risk?

A: We are new to the TV production business, so we may have a hiccup or two in the first year, but the second year will be better than the first and the third year will be better than the second. We are very excited!


Q: What is your position on the “full cost of attendance” issue and how do you think the NCAA will vote on it?  

A: I believe before late August, we will have a new autonomy. Will it be different than what we know today? Probably so. You mentioned cost of attendance; if we have full scholarships plus the cost of attendance, there will be additional financial opportunities for certain student athletes, and I’m okay with the different landscape. I don’t think our model is broken, but times change and there was a whole abandoned lawsuit image of likeness, although many of us provide opportunities for athletes to come back and graduate if they left school early, went into the professional ranks or had an issue where they could not finish school on time. We continue to honor their scholarships when they come back. Just talking about cost of attendance — that’s financial pressure on a lot of universities. The way of doing business will certainly be affected. 


Q: Is USC experiencing a student attendance drop at home football games like some schools are?  

A: Fortunately for us we haven’t felt the effects that other schools around the country have, and I credit Dr. Pruitt and Jerry Brewer on campus and our student leadership, Chase Mizzell and now Lindsey Richardson, our new student body president. We collaborate and work together to keep students at the games and enhance the fan experience. We want tremendous television exposure but we also want the stadium to be full — we want it both ways. Our students have been very passionate, enthusiastic and energetic, and they’ve embraced our football team. 


Q: What are the next steps in the beautification projects around Williams-Brice Stadium and USC?

A: We’re excited about the up coming changes we’re going to make and that we’ve already completed, like the Athletic Village and a new sand volleyball complex. Currently under construction are two new practice fields for our football team including an indoor facility. Our tennis programs will undergo construction in the next few weeks with a brand new locker room complex. In the next few months we’re going to be building a new track, new locker room, weight room and video room area for men’s and women’s soccer. And as soon as the season is over we will begin construction around the tarmac of Williams-Brice Stadium. 


Q: How will the indoor facility benefit the athletes and staff?

A: It’s a great resource for the football program to have an opportunity to train. It’s not just a building to keep out of the weather, they will be using it full time. The two practice fields are perpendicular to the fieldhouse, and the doors can be opened on the side. It will be used even when the weather is great. It will give a place to train on a full-time basis, which they can’t do now because they share the fieldhouse with all other sports. 


Q: Do you think the College Football Playoff (CFP) system will be well received? 

A: There are going to be skeptics and questions as it unfolds. I don’t know that any system will be perfect, but personally, I’m happy where it is right now. It’s going to be four teams, and it may expand. We finished fourth in the country last year so I like the position we are in, and I’m excited about those opportunities. I think it will work well. The CFP is made up of a wonderful panel, and I believe they will be fair in assessing the better teams in the country. 


Q: How do you feel about the pre-season poll picking South Carolina as the SEC East winner? Do you think it raises expectations too high?

A: I like it. I coached for many years, and you either have the bull’s eye on your back or you don’t — you really want the bull’s eye and want the expectations — that’s why we do what we do. We want our fans, coaches and players to have expectations, and when you have the respect of the sports writers and other coaches, that maybe we’re the team to beat in the East, that’s a good thing. I look at that as a positive.


Q: Do you think South Carolina has a better chance of winning the SEC championship than in past years?

A: Coach Spurrier and his team have won 33 games in the last three years. We are in the position, and that is extremely important. It would be great to win the SEC championship in Atlanta, and I hope that’s something we get to experience. Most important is that our program is in position for that to become a reality. And we’ve been in that position before, so that speaks volumes about our football program and what Coach Spurrier has done for the University.


Q: Which would you rather win — the SEC championship or the Clemson game?

A: Both! Some would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC, and I certainly would like to beat Clemson, but I want to win the SEC. My answer is both!


Q: South Carolina is the first SEC team to have a nutritionist on staff just for football.  How has this helped our players during the off season?  

A: I don’t know if we are necessarily the first, but I know we’re on the cutting edge. We have two full-time nutritionists on staff. We also have a Gamecock Refueling Bar in the weight room with protein smoothies, fruits and products that help refuel the players after a workout. Being a successful athlete has taken on a whole new meaning in the past few years, and we certainly think that’s important for our student athletes.


Q: Is this a trend in the SEC?

A: I think it will probably be a trend in the future. Like I said, we are one of the teams on the cutting edge.


Q: Can you give us an idea of your typical schedule on an SEC football Saturday?

A: I’ve always had a game-day routine, but as the athletics director I have an entirely different approach and perspective. However, there’s a part of me that treats it the same — it’s game day. I wake up and have that energy and passion for the sport. I’m at the stadium ready to go four hours before kick off accompanied by Kendall Belk who also works in the department. We visit donors, fans, we’re on the east side of the stadium, the west side and we’re in the fairgrounds. We speak to recruits, and I visit the sidelines and occasionally do a pregame or half-time presentation. Even though I’m not playing or coaching, I’m getting ready for the game. 


Q: How do you feel about the type of baseball changing next year to make it go farther?

A: There currently aren’t enough home runs, and in baseball people like to see the home runs. One reason we are in this position today is because a few years back we had too many home runs. So they made some changes with bats and now there aren’t enough home runs. As a result of that we are now changing the baseball. We will be going with a lower seam professional baseball, and testing has proven that the ball will travel 20 feet further. That will make the difference in having a few more home runs. I’m excited to see how it shakes out. We don’t know yet, but I think it’ll be good for the game.  

Q: How will the flat seams affect pitching, if at all?

A: The pitchers will probably show an increase in velocity, but they will be more challenged to throw really good breaking pitches without the seams. It’s a little bit of an unknown game, so we’ll get through next season and evaluate it at the end of 2015. 


Q: With South Carolina topping the SEC first-year academic honor roll for the seventh straight year and being the only SEC school with more than 300 student athletes on the list, what is the University doing to obtain such a consistent high level of achievement? 

A: We have enjoyed the unprecedented success academically from our student athletes, and it’s fair to say it starts with them. They are the ones taking the tests, writing the papers and going to class. We are committed and dedicated to our academic enrichment program led by Maria Hickman. Our student athletes, staff and coaches deserve a lot of credit, and we certainly are proud of the 336 men and women on the honor roll. The truth is that with more than 500 student athletes, more than 98 percent will become professionals in something other than the sport that they play.


Q: How did your skill as a highly successful baseball coach help you transition into your role as athletics director?

A: As a former student athlete, I walked the walk in college as a baseball player. After college I went to graduate school. As a graduate assistant I worked with great coaches and then became an assistant coach. Soon after, I became a head coach. I worked with administrators; I watched the evolution of intercollegiate athletics change. I was always interested in the intricacies of the environment around athletes. I wasn’t just consumed in the sport, I was involved with the coaching. I was concerned with the number of tickets sold, how many walk ups we had on game day and if we were operating in the black. I had a different perspective than a lot of coaches. I coached baseball, so unlike basketball or football, I was challenged to generate enough revenue to pay our expenses. I was engaged in the capacity outside of coaching even though I was in a coaching role. Looking back, it was a valuable experience I never realized would be so beneficial today. I know how to win, I know how it feels to lose, I know what integrity means, I know dedication and commitment, and I understand the trenches and the pitfalls. It’s a wonderful opportunity the way I see it.


Q: Do you see any trends in college athletics that are of concern to you?

A: I think we are in an arms race with the facilities and resources, cost of attendance, the investment that we make in programs, coaches salaries and AD salaries. Assistant coaches’ salaries continue to climb, and at some point the model is not going to work anymore. The challenges are going to be tremendously difficult as we move forward. I can remember when our budget at the athletic department was near 40 million and in the next two years we’ll hit 100 million, and we are ninth or 10th in the SEC in annual revenue generated, but we are doing extremely well operating in the black. 


Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: The experience of being around student athletes and coaches. I’m invigorated all the time because of the people who are around me. I love being around student athletes, watching them compete and grow. Coming in as freshmen and leaving as juniors or seniors, they’ve become so different as they mature. They’re getting prepared for the world out there. We are doing things we love to do in a great conference with great resources. It’s a wonderful opportunity for student athletes, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity for me as an administrator — even more so having the opportunity to coach. I’m very blessed and very fortunate. I don’t take it for granted, and I am very appreciative and tremendously excited.

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