Ray Tanner is the athletic director and former head baseball coach at the University of South Carolina. Tanner won back-to-back NCAA National Championships in 2010 and 2011. His South Carolina teams qualified for 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, the longest active streak in the SEC.
On this podcast, Tanner discusses:
- Initial resistance to sport psychology
- Emphasizing mistakes in practice rather than on game day
- Learning to compliment kids
- Being an energy giver
- Having fun in meetings
- The journey
- and much more…
Tanner: Yeah last year I finished my 25th year as a head coach and my first nine as a head coach at NC State, then I came here to do the last 16. But I had never been involved in any type of sports psychology at all. Maybe hear a speaker once in a while, a motivational speaker or just a conventional conference or something. Or even athletic department or somebody who comes in and speaks. But as far as my team I never had any dealings with it. I feel like a lot of the coaches are probably close minded to it. Maybe not too much in this day and age but years ago it was.
When I came here 16 years ago I met Dr. Casper who I think technically has a clinical background but he played baseball and he is still a psychologist. He introduced himself to me when I got here 16 years ago and he was doing a little bit of consulting work in the department. He still works for the state of South Carolina in clinical, but he spends half his time here in athletics. That was really the only sport that maximized his use. Some other coaches talked to him. He would meet with a lot of different athletes on occasion but I’m the one program that he’s been still – he is in the dugout tonight. He has been here–
Cain: For years. He has been there since 2003.
Tanner: Yeah. And I was not receptive in the beginning. It was like “if I need you I’ll call you” kind of thing. But he sat in on my first team meeting uninvited. I just met the guy and I didn’t know whether the AD had sent him or I didn’t know what, a distinguished gentlemen. I’m like “do I kick him out,” I don’t know. So I let him in but I didn’t change who I was.
We laugh about it today. He says “after your first team meeting I didn’t think you were going to last very long.” I came in and said “new Sheriff in town, this is the way it’s going to be, get on board or get out.” I probably used different words too. But that was his first meeting with me. But obviously fast-forward he became part of our program and as time went on he exercises the psychology of sport, as I call it. He helped me tremendously and he is still helping me today.
I don’t know all the terminology that is proper in psychology but he did a wonderful job enabling me to coach and take out the negativity that surrounds failure in sports. Does that make sense?
Tanner: Coaches sometimes we coach hard and we coach intense and you dwell a lot on failure. It’s not meant to be but we spend more time teaching/correcting mistakes than we do complementing the good things that go on. I know that we’re in there now, you try to emphasize the positive and complements. I had a moment back, it wasn’t really a thing in the past. I was an old school coach. It was like you work hard and keep your mouth shut and do it that way. You didn’t get a lot of positive feedback. If the coach wasn’t saying anything to you you must be doing a pretty good job. He helped me get through a lot of those things.
I use this line all the time that one of the classics with him was I had a philosophy that even mistakes that you make will get us beat therefore in practice I will emphasize the mistakes you make in a tone of voice that you are not going to appreciate to make an impression on you. I won’t do it on game day but I will do it in practice because not just “hey you don’t do it this way,” I will be very demonstrative and offensive at times. Not meant to be offensive but it’s just not like “hey in this situation you’ve got to throw to second, you threw to the wrong base.” That is not the way I talk.
Cain: Right. You gut on them a little bit.
Tanner: Yeah I gut on them a little bit. That is another statement.
But I didn’t do it on game day. Occasionally I remember early in his career with me I got a guy pretty hard. Of course I know as a few hours later or an hour later it’s kind of hard on the kid. The next day he bounced back pretty good. I thought it would sort of me a little slow process because I had been hard on the kid but he was ready to go the next day. I was out of line. I was over the top with the kid. But he shows up the next day bouncing.
I’m like “oh I thought I might have to massage that a little bit.” I said “Doc did you talk to this kid” and he said “yeah I talked to him.” I said “is he mad?” “Oh yeah, he’s mad with you.” I said “well what happened?” He said “he told me how upset he was with you for getting on him and you were pretty loud and he didn’t appreciate it.” I said “so you got it cleared up pretty quick.” He said “yeah I told him not to listen to the tone of voice but to the message and the message is complimentary, just not delivered the way you would like to get it.”
Tanner: So he turned a negative situation into a positive for the kid and the kid was able to flush it – which I think was one of Ravizza’s famous lines. He was able to flush it and move on. So that was the kind of relationship that we had over the years that I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do and that he has got to get them back as quick as possible if I lose a kid, if I’m too hard on a kid. Then I learned to complement kids. I’m an old school guy. Old school coaches don’t complement kids, do they?
Cain: Not much.
Tanner: No. And so I had to learn to go “my goodness you were good today.” I didn’t do that in the past. And of course it doesn’t matter if you are 5’6. I got a little leftie tonight who is 6’6. It’s all about your approach and your belief. Failure is okay because it’s part of it. You fail. If you compete you fail. But it got to the point that we were pretty good about – we would dwell on the fun, the competition, and if we lost it’s just a learning opportunity to get ready for the next one. You don’t spend much time on that.
My practices were short and crisp. It used to be a long practice. He has changed everything. It was positive, it was upbeat, it was energy, give energy, don’t suck energy. Are you a teammate? Are you a first team guy? Are you a team first guy? Which are you? We are going to be team first. If you are a first team guy it’s not going to work. That is just the way it is. Other than that we’re going to have a good time. We are not going to – you probably saw clips of our team the last 3-4 years. We had the expose in the World Series. You didn’t see a lot of stress or anxiety in our dugout.
Cain: I was actually with Coastal at the super regional 2010 when you guys came in there. That was one thing I noticed was his just as cool as you can be.
Tanner: Not a lot of stress. But it’s a game. It’s baseball.
I think as a coach part of my career – I worked hard, I coached hard, I invested in it. Sometimes as a coach you exude stress and anxiety. Well they can’t play on stress and anxiety. And who do they feed off of? Coach most of the time.
Cain: It’s contagious.
Tanner: Yeah. And so I was guilty. Guilty as charged. It was a process. It was a process and Doc was very patient about teaching – not putting too much on me at one time. Bits and pieces here, bits and pieces. But I firmly believe that – I coached baseball. I didn’t coach any other sports. But now that I’ve been through it and coached all these years I might not be able to coach a women’s softball team or a tennis team or a track team but I could enable athletes to be in a better place just by what I have learned myself about preparing them and the experience.
The failure, the negativity – the failure exists. The negativity doesn’t have to. It goes back to short memories to – the great players in the big leagues always tell you “have the shortest memories.” Well it’s true. It’s true. You’re going to the mat. You’re going down. How quickly you get back up. You are going down. I mean that is a given no matter who you are. But the successful ones get back up quickly and they move on. They don’t dwell on it. Same with success. You don’t dwell on it. You’re happy about it but you don’t dwell on it. You can’t dwell on the bad games either.
I don’t know that my teams the last 5-6 years I coached, I don’t know that they were any better than my teams 10 years ago. Probably in some cases they weren’t as talented. But we had better teams because we were able to handle the balance. When I say the balance I believe in our sport (in baseball) you win games and you lose games. What do you do with the other third? That is the way it is in baseball.
The best analogy is probably Major League Baseball. They play 162. You can book this because there are 32 teams? How many teams are there?
Cain: 32, 34.
Tanner: Okay. So there are 32 teams. Every team in baseball is going to win 50 games. Every team in baseball is going to lose 50 games. Book it. Look at the stats at the end of the year. Or last year. Every team wins 50 and loses 50. Well there are 62 left.
Tanner: Okay. Are you 40-22? Or 44-18? That is how pennants are won. Well is it really about the team or is it about the intangibles? I believe in most situations it’s about the intangibles that make the difference at the end. I just believe that. It doesn’t mean you’re going to run the table or anything. But you’ve got a chance. It’s your best chance to be successful.
Cain: When you say “intangibles” what kind of things are you talking about?
Tanner: The ability to handle the pressure. The ability to handle failure. The ability to handle a team with injuries. The last couple of years of course we won so it was win anyway. I took win anyway from Bertman or Dr. Casper or whoever at the time. We showed up at Mississippi State on a Sunday afternoon split in the first two games. We were playing on Sunday. Three outfielders, all three starters, none of them could play. Three. I mean how many outfielders do you think you take on a road trip?
Cain: Maybe 4-5.
Tanner: Four. So I took a freshman sub out that never played, I ran him out there and two pitchers.
Cain: They must have loved it.
Tanner: They were having a blast. We won like 13-6. In the pregame I remember getting together and our players know is Marzilli is not playing. Jackie Jr. is not playing. They knew all our starters were out. I got them together and said “we are going to have some fun today.” We were running guys out there like Neff. I said “Neff didn’t you start in high school?” Yes sir.” I said “go down there, it’s like high school, let’s go.” He gets a couple hits and we won going away. Because that was my thing, “we’re going to win anyway.” It doesn’t matter, we’re going to win anyway. You just get them to that mentality. Don’t know if you can win or not but you are going to have your best shot to win.
Cain: No doubt.
Tanner: Then it’s like you get a couple hits and the other team goes “let’s send the pitcher, it’s the pitcher.” Then it gets him. You just take it. You get big something to nothing and you go “hey guys, it’s a great learning experience, did you learn anything, let’s go, let’s get a piece and we’ll get them tomorrow.” What are you going to have, a two hour meeting? Because that is what I would have done 20 years ago.
Cain: So when did you have that sort of transformation and the light bulb went off?
Tanner: It wasn’t a light bulb on and off. It was a process.
Cain: The dimmer switch.
Tanner: Yeah. I had to get there. I started to get there. I started to see signs. I started to see across the field. I started to see the tension. Two years ago – I guess it was two years ago – we played the Yukon in the Super Regionals. Best teams in college baseball. Jim Pender’s team at Yukon. George Springer centerfielder first round. Pitcher first round and shortstop second rounder.
Cain: Make it fly.
Tanner: Marzilli’s kid, second base, Mets coach. Better than us. Playing here. Packed house. Can’t get a ticket. TV, the whole deal. They are better than us. I told our guys “ Storrs Connecticut, hey they don’t have us, these guys are good but not here, not here, watch, look. Watch them in the first inning, watch them in the second. We’ll be fine. Just let it play out.” You’re not right all the time but you know you’re right with your approach. That is where it took me a while to get there. And you know what, you live with it. You have your best shot and you just live with it.
Like I said if you made me say I did something negative in my career as a coach I was mistaken for a long, long time by creating tension and anxiety for my teams. Not on purpose of course. I thought I was “getting them ready, we were working hard, we’re going to get after it, we’re going to be intense,” but it becomes tension and anxiety. You can’t perform that way. You’ve got to be relaxed. You’ve got to play to win. You’ve got to play to be successful. You can’t dwell on the negative. You can’t play against the game. You can’t try not to fail. You can’t “I’ve got to put this in play, man at third, one out.” It’s got to be “I’m getting ready to lace one into the corner.” And if you do it, fine. If you don’t, fine. The approach is the right way.
I try not to delay the game too much but occasionally I have called a hitter over rather while they’re changing pitchers and say “scouting report you see here is the way it’s coming after you, you’ve got runners out here, he’s coming out of the bullpen. He’s got to impress the coach because he wants to pitch some more. Too much. He’s going to get something to hit just be ready to go and be ready to turn it loose. He’s got too much pressure on him.” So I just transferred everything.
Tanner: I didn’t do that 10 years ago. I wanted them to the point that I understood it. I was with five USA teams so Ravizza came through and I listened and a lot of his stuff was technique – the breathing, the relaxing. That’s all good but the mental side is very special as well and that was more – and there has never been anybody better than Skip Bertman. I’ll make sure you know that.
Cain: I see his influence on you already (laughing).
Tanner: Yeah. But he is the best because when you look back at his career – and I was a part of it playing. A lot of people go “whoa Coach Bertman has really, really good players.” Well he did have some good players. But then I started to realize they are not any better than my guys. It’s not like – you know Ben McDonald was good but when you start sizing them up my guys were as good as his guys. How come he is in the World Series so much? They’re really not that much better than my guys.
Those guys were confident. They were excited. They were enthusiastic. They had the belief system going. They’d be down by two, they thought they were going to win. I used a lot of that. I kept all his speeches. I still pull them out once in a while because I’ve got to do a speech somewhere and I’ll pull one of them out. That was a tremendous effect on me because I don’t want this to be played out or not but there are a lot of coaches as good as Coach Bertman coaching, but there isn’t any better than him getting a team to play to win. I can remember telling Todd Walker “let’s see you get three hits today, you’re probably a homer.”
Cain: So it’s all positive and it’s temporary setbacks. Just a hurdle.
Tanner: I can remember this one road trip we had when we were with the USA team. It was one of those couple of days that we were travels. Traveling, planes late, bus ride, weather, it was one of those things. He called us all together. I remember we were in an airport somewhere. He called us all together. “Hey guys come in, you see the last 24 hours lots of things have happened.” He said “lots of things it seems really prepared us, adversity, this is making us successful.” And we’re going “really?” But that’s how he did it. He told me one time – because we were together in 1995 and 1996.
Cain: The Olympic Team in Atlanta in 1996?
Tanner: Yeah. We had the USA team in 1996. That was the last amateur team. But we were together in 1995 as well. We played for two summers instead of one.
He told me what I’ll never forget. He says “hey young fella you’re a really good coach.” This was after practice one day or something. I said “oh I appreciate that, thanks coach, coming from you I really appreciate that.” He said “but you’re too hard on players.” And I go “what?” “You’re too hard on players.” We played against him during the season. He wasn’t talking about the USA team. He was talking about – he said “you’ve got to lighten up on your players a little bit, you’ll get more out of them.” That kind of thing.
Cain: It’s perfect, that line.
Tanner: If you told me that I’m like “yeah whatever.” But once you Skip Bertman tells you.
Cain: It’s different. Different voice.
Tanner: Yeah well – yeah.
Cain: The grand poobah speaking.
Tanner: Yeah there you go. But you’ve still got coaches today who don’t want to hear it. They don’t – they go “nah.” But you’ve got guys listening. You’ve got guys listening.
Bianco, he’s great. He’s been trying. He’s been through the system. He has been getting there. But he was like me. He gritted his team real tight. A couple of really good teams. It was like “we’re here now.” Texas goes to Oxford. It’s not like he’s playing in Oxford. And he had the best team. But this is baseball, anything could happen. But yet
Cain: Well Oggie’s guys are a little better at that. I think it’s a little different than Skip but it’s got a lot of Ravizza “hey we’re going to give ourselves the best chance for success in one pitch at a time.”
Tanner: And Oggie’s team are not superior now like they were. They’re not winning as much because his talent level is not there. But I think there is a reason that they’re not as successful. I’ll share that with you. But there are a lot of guys that are listening that, okay, we can coach. We’ve got good teams. What else?
Well that is the “else.” You’ve got to be ready to perform today and do it all the time and be your best. It doesn’t mean you are successful, but you have your best approach. The team is sloppy, you guys are doing bad time. No. I mean that’s not real. I don’t believe in all that. I don’t believe in all that.
Yeah you lose three in a row. That doesn’t mean that you’re snakebit. It doesn’t mean it snowballed on you. You could make it worse. To me if you do it the right way you might lose three but you’re not losing six. Like I said it took me–
Cain: But you could make it worse and do six.
Tanner: Oh yeah. You can turn it into a nightmare.
Cain: No doubt.
Tanner: I have more fun coaching. I have more fun coaching. I had some guys that we won a lot of close games. I think last year we were in 26 or 27 one all games. We won them all. We won more than we lost. But we were in them all the time.
Early on in my career I could have never done this but the last few years we played a close game and we might make a mistake or something but it’d be a good game. Guys, this is why you do it. It’s a hell of a game. It’s a hell of a college baseball game. You don’t feel as good as you would have if you’d won it but you know what, great opportunity, let’s go. We’ll get them tomorrow. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t make more of it than you should. Maybe point out if we did something wrong briefly and go.
I’ve never coached after losing. I never made the next day bad practice. I would coach more when we won if I really felt like I needed to emphasize something. I’d never do it after a loss.
Cain: More receptive after they’ve won.
Tanner: Yeah. And they feel better.
Tanner: It’s interesting. Like I said it took me a while to get there. And I’m in AD now. In the staff meetings if you can’t dish it out and you can’t take it you’re in the wrong place because I am going to have some fun. It’s not going to be a necktie stiff collar two arm mate, we’re going to have some fun. Then it’s like time out. We need a water break here. I mean you can’t – it’s no good. It’s no good.
My predecessor, he was at A&M. He liked big staff meetings every month. Then there’d be an hour, hour and a half. We still have them for informational purposes but my first meeting I go “hey guys you know I didn’t like these staff meetings when I was a coach.” Yeah we know, why are we in here?” I said “well we’re going to give you some information.” I think my first meeting was 28 minutes. This is not dog and party. This is give you stuff you need and out. We’re done.
So it’s got to be an enjoyable experience. It doesn’t matter. It has to be. Like today is Good Friday. I sent out an email this morning “if you’re ready to start your Easter vacation stick around till 2:00 then check out.” It’s a different approach. I was miserable as a young coach. I put my head down and plowed forward and had tunnel vision. I was a head coach at 27. Single. I grinded it night and day. I was going to out work you, I was going to out coach you, I was going to out recruit you going out and doing it any particular way. If you weren’t in that tunnel I didn’t know you existed. If you were in that tunnel and you got in my way I’d run over you.
So I would win I was ready to leave. If I’d lose I was miserable. It was a struggle. My first year at NC State we set a school record for most wins. I was extremely unhappy. It was like I didn’t understand the journey. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be enjoying. I wasn’t enjoying it. I thought that was the progress. It’s really not. It’s about a lot of things. Yeah, you want to win because you’re playing, you keep score, but it’s about more than that.
One of my favorite teams was my first year here. We were awful. We won more than we lost. I didn’t enjoy it at the time as much as I do looking back and realizing “hey those guys were a tremendous group” and the business doing what they did. They did it.
I remember my first year I didn’t bust their balls too bad because they weren’t good enough. Then we got a little bit better. It’s an interesting dynamic. But John Capalari – there was a great article here in the newspaper a couple of days ago – Greg Marshall, Wichita State coach. You might want to dig it up. It was a good article.
Cain: What was the paper?
Tanner: The State newspaper. It’s called The State. The state of South Carolina. Greg Marshall coached at Wichita State. He talked about his personality and how his players assume they play a little bit like he is. You take on the personality of the coach.
Tanner: They said he was a little bit arrogant, a little bit aggressive. But they took on his mentality. Like Florida Gulf Coast. But you know what, you can’t trick your way into where they are. They had to do something right during the end.
Tanner: Yeah they may have some good players but there is something else going on there too. You know that as well as I do. There is something else going on. They beat Miami during the regular season. They’ve got something else going on. They may have a few good players but they’ve got that “it.” They’ve got that extra deal going that gives you an opportunity.
I don’t know if you remember last year – tonight our team got back to 500 I believe. We’re 4-4 now. Last year we only got 1-5 and played for a National Championship. Our first six conference games we went 1-5.
Cain: You mentioned somebody is going to lose 50, win 50 in Major League Baseball and as you see someone is going to lose 10, 12, and someone is going to win 10, 12.
Tanner: I remember our guys were down. I remember saying “we’ve got 30 days, we’ll get it back, we lost a couple of close ones but we’ll get those back, then we’ve got to win some other close ones.” We’ve been out but we have to get up on the upside.
I tell this to my team. I used to tell them all the time. No matter how many baseball games you play, 56 in a row a season, you play some more. College baseball is five games. If you’re 40-20 that is a pretty good year. Five games you’re at 45-15, now you’re ranked 4th in the country.
Tanner: Yeah. It’s only five games. Five games is a team game swing, five in the up, five in the down. It’s a team game swing. So don’t worry about today. It’s the accumulation. But you’ve got to bust your ass on Wednesday. You’ve got to bust your rear end all three games because you don’t get them back. You play with a heightened awareness. That was a big thing is heightened awareness. Don’t let the game settle in. We scored five in the first. With heightened awareness, go get some more. Don’t relax. I used all that stuff. I never used that early in my career. It was heightened awareness. It was win anyway. It was battle.
Cain: Just do it.
Tanner: Yeah. It was battle. I think it brought you together as a team a little bit more.
Cain: How much did you make an emphasis with Dr. Casper, my nemesis, about having a routine or taking a breath and playing one pitch at a time – which is a lot of what Ravizza–
Tanner: Not as much. Only for the players that seemed to get out of kilter when they were a little anxious. Just with those players. Not as – they weren’t as a team type thing where you step out. I think Vandy was doing it a couple years ago. It was like all of them did it. And you might have been the reason, or Ken. That’s fine. But to me they all don’t need to do it. It’s certain guys might need to do it. So we didn’t make that a big deal. Doc would do some stuff with the pitchers. He would bring them in for relaxation techniques. He’d light a candle.
Cain: I remember Calvy was telling me about that.
Tanner: Yeah he did that stuff. He believed in it strong. He had to be really professionally, personally – there were times where I would never show my players but I would be hard on myself because I didn’t do a good enough job. He is like “come on really?” He’d try to take the edge off a little bit from that vantage point.
Cain: Did he – I notice he is here a lot. He’s here reading a couple articles online and coming over.
Tanner: He is here every day.
Cain: Every day. Is it mostly one-on-one with players or does he actually talk to the team?
Tanner: No it’s mostly one-on-one. It’s kind of like – here is what he would have done. Tonight Kyle Martin and the kid from A&M, the starting pitcher. He did get out first. A could walks, couple hits, and he’s one. Did he get one out in the first?
Cain: One or two, yeah.
Tanner: Okay. So he would have let him digest it a little bit. He probably would have walked over during the game, 4th inning or something, and said “you okay?” I would listen occasionally. Or watch. Not that I was trying to but I would just hear him. It was almost like he let the guy settle in and then it’s like let’s talk tomorrow or sometimes they’d come straight to him and then he’d help them figure out – it didn’t’ work good for you and I have to coach you to let it snowball and you got a little anxious, you didn’t breath, you didn’t step back, you let the game go too fast for you, whatever his message was.
But it was more individual. I would tell Doc sometimes “hey Doc this kid can freaking play but he doesn’t have enough confidence I’m trying to bat him on the ass but you’ve got to build him up for me.” But we had one kid down there who played the first two games really good but he didn’t have enough confidence.
I got some use out of him last year because he could hit lefthanders. So I went to him one day and I said “hey your numbers are pretty good against lefties.” He was sitting at like 200 but he was at 300 against lefties. I said “I’m usually against lefties so get ready to smack their ass because that is when you are going to be in there.” So I played him against lefties and he hit them all. He got a big hit against I guess it was Florida maybe in the World Series. A big hit. It cleared the bases. But he isn’t confident. He is one of those kids. And Holbrook kind of quit using him and I only used him against lefties. He is good against lefties. That is all I could get. That is a challenge for me.
He’s a great student, he’s a good kid. He had the highest GPA in Omaha last year. He got the ’88 award winner – whatever they call it – and Holbrook didn’t even take him to Missouri. He didn’t make the roundtrip. Now that’s his team and he can do whatever he wants to do I’m sure. I talked to the kid the other day. Holbrook and I are close he said “pump him up a little bit for me” so I did. But he just doesn’t have enough confidence. But he’s talented. So you try to get in there and sometimes you can’t get them there. Then you’ve got guys like that 5’6 smurf out there. He’s throwing 84.
Cain: Competing his ass off.
Tanner: You kidding me. A&M got three. I guess you might have been charged with that other the run. But he’s trying to have 9 guys.
Cain: He’s got a good change man.
Tanner: Yeah. But I mean really should he be that successful?
Cain: Him versus the Kyle Martin of Texas A&M who’s 6-4 with throws 90.
Tanner: Should he be that? The answers is no he shouldn’t be. Why is he? Well because everything is there except his natural ability. And he is able to have enough ability. But you can run up Kyle Martin, you can line him up, you are not taking that kid, you’re not taking our guy.
Cain: Right. Matt Kennedy came up for A&M who pitched pretty good and he was great at Ole Miss last week for 5 weeks.
Tanner: Yeah, red shirt freshman.
Cain: Yeah. And that is the great thing about baseball is that you can do that – I don’t know if you can do that in football.
Tanner: You can’t do that.
Cain: As the AD you talk about the system per se, the Skip Bertman system or the things that you’ve done here. Do you see other coaches in their sports that do those same things or is it?
Tanner: Not as much. Coach Spurrier is – I mean he is 67. And Doc is here and people know that I believe in Doc. Volleyball is using his a little bit now. He is still into individual stuff. All of those athletes go “I want to talk to Doc” but a lot of coaches haven’t embraced it.
Cain: Which is amazing in football when you read all of Nick Saban’s stuff about using Trevor Moad and then guys flying Rose in from Michigan State and the whole process and everything.
Cain: You think that “hey if they’re doing it why aren’t we.”
Tanner: Absolutely. If you had said to me 15 years ago “hey what do you think” I’d go “eh I’m good.” That was when Doc and I were just making our transition together. He has been there for me. The thing is when you’ve got somebody like you or like Doc – and he is with us fulltime – the wheels don’t run off. You know what I mean? You keep it on the track. You’ve got somebody else. You’ve got another person there. Doc is like a staff member. We’re having a blast. He is in the locker room before the game. He is with the coaches. The travelers. He comes almost every road trip. He’ll miss one once in a while. But he goes on most of them. He is also post-season, always difficult times, that kind of thing.
Cain: And when you guys are on the road do you ever do – I know one of the things we would do at Fullerton with Ken and Beck and all three at Omaha is at night you have me to have the guys in the conference room at the hotel turn the lights off and talk them through the mental imagery of playing the next day.
Tanner: Occasionally but not on a regular basis. Again here it was more individual or 2-3 guys. It wasn’t as much of a team as a team thing. That kind of thing.
Cain: Interesting. Trying to see what else I’ve got here.
Tanner: I know that is just for you. I hope I didn’t say anything.
Cain: No it’s for me. And I was going to ask you – I should have asked you right before but, at some point if I was going to do anything with it. I’ll get it transcribed just so I can read it. If I’m ever going to do anything with it in print I’ll make sure that you see it and approve everything.
Tanner: Yeah that would be great. I don’t mind doing that. I’m at a point that I didn’t have this tool psychologist. I didn’t have this. I didn’t take advantage of it and now I’m a proponent.
Cain: One of the things with coaches here – probably like when Bo Burton was for you, when coaches hear you say that it’s going to open up their ears which is huge from the kids point.
Tanner: Well that is why the minors do it, because of Burton. That was my first taste. And of course I came here after the ‘96 Olympics. I came straight here and that is when I met Doc. And being exposed to Burton it’s like this is part of it. He taught me so much. I mean I didn’t do – I was a head coach at NC State for nine years. I probably didn’t do 25 public speaking deals at NC State and here I do 100 a year. I’m not a great speaker but it’s about clarity, it’s about embracement, it’s about the buy-in, it’s about the passion, enthusiasm. It all becomes part of your approach.
Cain: I’m assuming when you came here it wasn’t like this.
Tanner: No. I built that.
Cain: And how much of that is going out and doing the speaking engagements and all that?
Tanner: It’s part of it.
Cain: How do you find the balance between doing that but also not getting taken away from your own team?
Tanner: Well I had a rule that I would never miss practice and never miss a game. I had some things that people said “can’t you miss practice in the fall to do this” and I go “no I wouldn’t miss practice, I wouldn’t use any time.” I would race out of practice sometimes and have to go 2-3 hours away to do something or go speak to somebody. I just kept my finger on the pulse. I never distanced myself from that.
I would tell the players – occasionally I would take the players with me if I was local. I wanted people to see them. I coached them. You guys have go to open up, be warm, be courteous, be respectful. It’s the right thing to do. There are players – we sign autographs after the game. That’s what you do. That is what we do. You don’t have to do 25 guys but you’ve got to have 6-7 guys down there every night and that is what we do. It’s not about just winning baseball games. It’s about having community embrace you. That’s all the effects from Burton.
We were good. I could recruit. I had good coaches. Other teams had it too. So we’re in the SEC, who is bad? What separates you? You’ve got to find something. Whatever it may be. You’d better find something.
Cain: And if they’ve been away training a long time they go well everybody is doing that now.
Tanner: Yeah. That is – it’s just like I’ll never forget. Yukon was tremendous. We were in the summer of 1992 we were finishing up a USA tour and we were in – where were we? In Nicaragua. We were in Mangua finishing up our USA tour. There was war going on between the rebels and Sandinistas and Contras, they were fighting over there. You could hear gunshots in the ballpark. I’m like “this is crazy.”
Cain: You could hear gunshots at the ballpark.
Tanner: Yeah. So we end up playing Nicaragua in the quarter finals and it was nasty. It was nasty. But the game – even guys with machine guns in the dugouts, the whole deal. I’m like “how do we know that they are on our side” and they are like “well you don’t.” So it was the first baseball game I ever didn’t want to win. I didn’t want to beat Nicaragua in Nicaragua. I wasn’t interested. And we lost 6-3 I’ll never forget. The most happiest I’ve ever been after all. I wanted to get out of there. They had a bus and some others out of our bus while we were in it and making it very difficult for us to get out of there. There was a quarantine at the hotel for 36 hours and we finally got out of there and we didn’t play. We didn’t play the next medal round. We left and we got out of there.
I was talking about quiet desperation, you get up every morning to go to work, punch the clock, every single day you did the same thing. you wake up with your wife after 20 years. It’s a routine. It’s quiet desperation is all it is. It’s not necessary. You don’t have to be that way. So it’s like that made an impact on me in 93. I’m like whoa I wake up tomorrow and I‘m going to hit the ground running.
So I’m like anybody else. I tend to stay up too late and get up too early. You need some sleep. But when I wake up in the morning to me we live in the greatest country in the world, you have a choice to make, is it going to be a good day or a bad day? No matter what the circumstances are. I mean you’ve heard me talking about trying to keep my women’s basketball coach. I’m a new AD in the first year and Ohio State is trying to take her from me. But it’s you have a choice and you have a choice in athletics and you have a choice in whatever you do. I believe strongly in that that that is you’re going to make it whatever you want it to be that day. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best day in the world. But you don’t allow it to be the worst day in the world either. So I think that’s a huge deal when it comes to athletics.
Cain: What is the attitude you take is the decision that you make. The attitude you take is a choice. Speaking about attitude, as a coach or now as an AD are there kind of core values or foundations of a program that you’d say were about attitude and intensity and toughness or is there anything that you kind of hang your hat on as a core value either of your program or now the entire department?
Tanner: Well I’ve only been in the administration for a short period of time but yeah, I think it’s doing the right thing all day everyday – as always I would tell my players. Don’t do anything to embarrass yourself, your family, or the University of South Carolina. Simple. So we are going to do – enjoy yourself. A couple years ago all the tweeting bans came out, they said you can’t tweet anymore. When I told our guys that I’m not putting the tweeting ban on. You guys are mature enough to handle it. You do. I’m not against that. Obviously use good judgment. But I don’t like a lot of restrictions. People make good decisions. To me that is the way it needs to be.
Toughness I think is just being comfortable and competitive. You’re going to compete and it’s battle. That was our – just keep battling. Just battle. That is all you’ve got to do. Right, wrong, or different, if you battle some good things can happen. So that has been sort of our mantra here is you have a lot of fun. You play hard. That is one of our things – play hard, play smart, have fun.
Cain: And that is your center core values in your program.
Cain: And it kind of transfers to life, work hard.
Tanner: I really have a great respect for Corbs. I really do. And Jack and all those guys. Sully. I really think a lot of them were friends I think and I remember being at the convention three years ago. Corbs did a presentation on his practice plan. It was incredible. I spoke to some high school coaches there and they said “do you do something similar” and I go “no.” “You don’t?” “No.” We practice very short. We have fun. I don’t make it too difficult and I never do more than one fundamental a day. They go “why is that” I go “well did you go to class in college?” “Yeah.” “How long was your class?” “50 minutes or an hour 15.” “Okay why do you think that was the length?” That was your focus.
That is why I never do more than one fundamental. If you do first and third, you do by defense, you do relays, you do big plays, how long are they going to stay with you? I do one a day. I’d say give me 15-20 minutes here guys, give me some heightened awareness. Let’s do this. Let’s be crisp. That’s it. Batting practice now. Let’s take a few ground balls. I want them to be good and you can’t do it for four hours. I don’t need – like Corbs. They’ve got stuff going on everywhere. They’ve got-
Cain: Different machines.
Tanner: They are shooting balls like holy cow what is going on here. That is just not – they’ve been very successful. I’m not condemning. I’m just saying I didn’t want it for me. That was too much. Maybe I’m not smart enough to do that. It’s too much. Let’s work on this one thing here then we’ll shut this down.
Cain: Were you always that way or was that a change from when you were at NC State?
Tanner: That was a change, that was the Valvano impression. Years ago when I was a young coach – obviously – I told you I had tunnel vision. Coach V was the AD basketball coach – Jimmy Valvano. He hired me as the head coach.
One day he comes by my office because they were on the same wing and he saw my practice itinerary. He said “what’s this?” I said “practice plan.” It was about 3 hours and 45 minutes. I had it all mapped out. He said “looks real smart.” I said “what are you talking about” because he would get on you a little bit. He goes “that’s a great plan” sarcastically. He said “you know that is for you don’t you?” I said “what do you mean?” He said “you did that practice plan for yourself.” I said “it’s for my team.” He said “no your team is not interested in that practice plan, you did that for yourself because you are the head coach.” I go “no” he said “yes.” He said “your players have no interest in going out there for 3 hours and 45 minutes today and do what you’ve got them doing on that sheet.” He said “you won’t get better today.” Okay.
He used to make his practice plan out on a napkin after he finished lunch, true story. Never – he’d practice an hour and a half. So I couldn’t do it that day but I transitioned backwards. I started to notice you get worse, you have more injuries.
Cain: Did you ever have competitive drills and things in practice to measure quality contacts and BP and post up rankings where guys can see where they land so that when they’re out there for that short time it’s even more focused?
Tanner: Occasionally I have designed a hitting efficiency chart for batting practice. Every once in a while we’d use it for heightened awareness. But we didn’t do it all the time. It’s too much routine. Make it competitive once in a while. Every once in a while we do the 27 outs. Go fast. I remember one day I threw nine innings in like an hour and 20 minutes myself. I scored 4-3. We changed sides. I didn’t walk anybody. I just threw it up there. Maybe spin one, throw a change up, they hit it, pop it up.
Tanner: Yeah but we made them run in a play. I think the whole game it was like 4-3. My point was you play fast, you play with heightened awareness. People gonna hit balls. They are going to pop it up. They are going to hit it at you. Don’t make it too hard. Our guy gave up a couple bloop singles late in the game tonight. But that kid is tough as nails. They’re going to have get seven of those, you know what I mean? Because he wasn’t giving in. He was going right back. Strike one. Next pitch. He gave up the two bloops to get–
Cain: Yeah, down the left field line.
Tanner: And then had some life there. But that kid did it well. That was his 10th save.
Cain: 10th save this year?
Tanner: And you know what? He ain’t that good. I mean talent wise. He’s 87ish, 88, a little bit of a cutter, takes the change.
Cain: Great presences.
Tanner: Big time. His makeup is incredible. He didn’t always have makeup. He didn’t always have makeup.
Cain: Makeup can be coached?
Tanner: I think it can be coached a little bit but I think it’s also the environment where they sit there and they go “why is this guy more successful than me?” You’ve got to watch it. You’ve got to see it today, tomorrow, the next day, it’s got to rub off on you a little bit. He was a kid – and you’ll have to do some research here. This was – this kid tonight on his 10th save he got called out at Clipson a couple years ago. We were playing Greenville. He was a kid Jack had, the leftie. Lam. Will Lamb. Will Lamb.
Tanner: Will Lamb. He played for Jack Leggett. He was the first baseman left-handed pitcher. He didn’t pitch much but he is pitching at pro-ball really well. Lam called our kid out – Webb – called him out in the paper. He had a mediocre outing. They beat us in the rubber game. We won the first game and they beat us in the second game and Will Lamb said that – they won. They interviewed him. He had a hit or something. He said “well I felt good about the middle of the game where they brought Webb in, Webb and I played against each other in high school and he is a little bit soft.” He called him soft.
Cain: In the paper.
Tanner: Yeah. Well we had a meeting the next day. Our players were pissed. I said “gentleman your comrade has been called soft.” Of course they are going “that motherfucker.” I go “you know what we are going back over there” because we were rained out in the third game we were going back to play in Greenville. I said “we are going back there, that is uncalled for and blah blah blah, we win on the field, you go back and do it with class you win on the field.” We all love T-Webb and T-Webb handled it great. He didn’t retaliate what the media said to you, he called you soft and you said “whatever.” You kept going, you didn’t add insult to injury. Just do it the right way. Don’t engage in that activity. Things like that where you have a little bit of a bond.
Then that next game as fate would have it we will have hits triple. And late in the game we had a one run lead I’m changing pitchers. I had that kid Morales. Morales had no business playing at this level, cut and run. Couldn’t hit, couldn’t throw, couldn’t do anything. The ball is this big. So Will Lamb is at third doing a pitching delay, a pitching change. Will Lamb is 6’4, Morales is 5’9. He gets over to third, Lamb is standing over there, Morales goes – he is . You don’t do that. Bush league. You’re bush league. So we had to separate them. Although Lamb didn’t want much of it. Then I brought in Matt Price the kid I had an closed it out. But it’s crazy stuff. I wish that I knew what I know now when I started coaching. I don’t know if we would have won any more necessarily but I would have had a lot more joy out of it and my players would have.
Some of my former players come back and they go golly were you tough on us. Adam Matthews tweeted out 2-3 nights ago. It was my birthday and somebody had it on Twitter so he tweeted out “Happy Birthday.” Adam is in the Kansas City organization this spring training. His tweet read “Happy Birthday to Coach Tanner, I have never been yelled at as much by any human being alive but I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for him.” It was one of those backhanded compliments. So I tweeted back at him publically instead of one-on-one. I tweeted back at him and I said “Adam it was complimentary criticism in a loud voice, it wasn’t yelling.” He tweeted back “ah now I understand” and of course it got retweeted like 100 times. And the next day people were telling me “boy did you get mad at these.” I used to yell at him all the time.
He was a tough kid. A great kid though. You’d let him marry your daughter. It ain’t like he was a wuss. He had some ability. He was always holding back a little bit instead of letting it fly. I used to wear him out. But he is tremendous. He is like Michael Roth’s best friend.
Cain: Did he get picked? Where is he now?
Tanner: Roth? Going to Double A with The Angels. These guys are funny. They were best friends. One night we’re doing curfew check on these guys. This was a couple years ago. I did a curfew check on the road. That was 11:30. I’d walk around.
Cain: You’d do it?
Cain: You’d do curfew check?
Tanner: Yeah. I did it. I knew they’d be in the room I just wanted to bond. I just wanted to see them. But I’d do curfew check. My rule was if you’re ever not in your room at curfew check I would put you on a plane or a bus and I’d see you back in Columbia. No questions asked. You don’t have to be there but you are going to be leaving.
So I go to check their room. That particular night I think Callie – I can’t remember. I was behind it all a little bit. They were in the bathtub together. Just because they’re knuckleheads. Then a few months ago they are here in the offseason and we’re down at the beach one weekend and they were standing like the ocean is out here and they are standing next to each other holding hands and somebody took a picture for them. It’s like Michael and Adam enjoying the sunset on the beach. They were just freaking knuckleheads. They chased more girls than anybody. But yeah, they were just knuckleheads.
Cain: That is beautiful.
Tanner: And of course that was Roth in the dugout.
Tanner: But he was loosey-goosey and that helped their cause too. I had a blast with those guys. I’m going to shoot you over there.
Cain: Yeah. Well I’ll appreciate it.