Owning Omaha: Ray Tanner on the journey to the top
Ray Tanner is a three-time National Coach of the Year and Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. He completed his 15th season as head coach at the University of South Carolina in 2011 when the Gamecocks became the ninth repeat champion in College World Series History. South Carolina was the first team in history to go an unblemished 10-0 in NCAA Tournament play. Inside Pitch recently caught up with Tanner to discuss fundamentals, family, and fandom.
Inside Pitch: Was it always a goal of yours to have a career coaching college baseball?
Ray Tanner: I really didn’t have any goals set going into my first coaching position. Like a lot of younger players, I’d had aspirations of playing at the next level, but when I realized I may have not had the tools to be really successful at the professional level, I began to think about the possibility of coaching, and it turned out to be a really great fit for me. As much as I loved to play, when I got into coaching, I knew that I had found a true passion.
Inside Pitch: You’ve had uncanny success at producing top-of-the-line middle infielders. What is the key to your success at developing some of the most important positions on the field?
Tanner: I think it can be traced back to when I played and coached under the legendary Sam Esposito at North Carolina State. He was a tenured big-leaguer and was the backup to Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio for many years with the Chicago White Sox. Coach Esposito was a tremendous infielder who taught me the tools of the trade, which I’ve continued to pass on to the guys I’ve coached.
I believe another part of producing great infielders is finding players with developmental ability. I’ve had some guys really embrace the position and grow their talent. Not to get too technical, but I teach of lot of conservative defense in the middle. Baseball is a hard game, and one of the things that’s imperative is the ability to get out of what is quickly becoming a bad inning. I think the guys in the middle of the diamond can control that better than anyone else on the field.
Lastly, it’s vital to have talented players. I know there are a lot of really great coaches around the country, but you’ve got to start with the guys that are playing the game. I’ve been fortunate to have some really talented infielders throughout my career.
Inside Pitch: There are a lot of sacrifices that elite-level coaches have to make, especially when it comes to family. How have you been able to balance your life on the field with your life at home?
Tanner: It’s made me a better coach, to be quite honest. I started as a young assistant and became a head coach at 27, and I wasn’t convinced that you could have a quality family life as a coach. I knew that there were a lot of coaches who were married, but I also knew that the divorce rate was higher in the coaching profession than it was in the normal population, which is staggering. I was blessed to cross paths with a young lady who was an athletic trainer for the late coach Kay Yow at NC State, so I was able to marry someone who was in the profession, so to speak, and it’s really worked out.
I was one of those guys who put my head down and plowed forward. I was going to roll up my sleeves and outwork people. I was going to be tireless in my effort and relentless in the pursuit of excellence. I don’t think that mentality is necessarily bad, but I don’t think I handled it well. I didn’t do a good job with balance and perspective, and I think I may have been too hard on my players early on.
Once I was in the profession for awhile, I married and had children, and I learned to balance what was important. I also think I’ve been a little more fun to play for, as opposed to my early years when there was maybe too much pressure and I was too demanding. I created anxiety more than anything else, and I think as a coach, you should try to alleviate that. Nowadays, I spend more time alleviating anxiety than anything else.
Inside Pitch: How has your recruiting style changed since you started coaching?
Tanner: Wow, I’d say it’s taken a complete 180. When I first started out, you had to dig the players out, you had to go find them and work extremely hard at uncovering good talent. It was imperative to use all of the networks at your disposal and to be on the road constantly- to ‘beat the bushes.’ That’s a phrase that’s hardly used anymore. Now, the ‘bushes’ are at your fingertips. With all of the lists, rankings, ratings, and videos that are available, I think it’s possible to do a good job recruiting from your desk using the internet.
The emphasis on college baseball today is greater than it ever has been- television exposure, recruiting possibilities and technology have all grown by leaps and bounds. There’s no doubt that it’s changed though, most of the coaches in these programs still like to go out and see players now, but there are big events like Perfect Game, the World Wood Bat Championships in Jupiter (Florida) and all of the showcases. It’s not unusual for there to be 75-100 Division-I coaches at a Perfect Game tournament, for example. In the old days when I first started, I’d go to a high school or legion game and maybe see three or four coaches. That’s all changed now, and I think that it’s good for everyone.
Inside Pitch: How did you prepare your 2011 team after winning the College World Series in 2010?
Tanner: The one thing that hit me is that- never winning a championship before 2010- I had never really given it any thought. But soon after we won in 2010, I was chatting with Coach Paul Mainieri down at LSU, and he told me that after they won it all in 2009, the following year was a tremendous challenge, more of a challenge than it had been before. He gave me some advice, and told me what I could expect with the attention caused by winning it all, and I listened. I definitely give Coach Maineiri credit for helping get everyone ready for 2011.
We started fall practice and our effort and perspective were on all the same things. The first thing I told our players is that READ THE REST