Tanner Homecoming: Joy and Irony

Coach Ray Tanner coached or played at NC State for 20 consecutive years. When he spoke Monday about going back to Raleigh for an NCAA Regional, it was clear he still had feelings for his alma mater. So why did he ever leave to come to South Carolina and become a Gamecock? Keep reading.

This year's regional has three of the four teams the Columbia regional did last year – USC, NC State, and Charlotte. South Carolina and NC State did not end up facing each other in last year's regional in Columbia, but they do share one thing – Ray Tanner. Tanner spent four years as a player at NC State where he still ranks among the team's all-time leaders, and then spent the next seven years as an assistant to then head coach Sam Esposito. He succeeded Esposito as head coach in 1988, and coached the Wolfpack for nine seasons before departing for Columbia after the 1996 season. He left with a record of 395 wins, 173 losses, and four ties.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I had a chance to talk one on one with Coach Ray Tanner about his history at the two schools as we walked out of the final press conference of that Columbia regional. Tanner was in a good mood after the Gamecocks had won their regional and were preparing to move on to the Super Regional in Chapel Hill.

While discussing playing his alma mater at today's press conference, he said that he is not a touchy feely kind of guy, but it was as clear in his voice today as it was when the two of us talked a year ago that he still cared about NC State. I asked him why he left Raleigh, with all the obvious ties there. He said it came down to one thing – NCSU at that time was not willing to host an NCAA Regional. They wouldn't even submit a bid.

And that is how a coach who twelve years later is acknowledged as one of the greatest coaches at South Carolina, regardless of the sport, became a Gamecock.

So for the first time in its 42-year history, Doak Field, the home of the Wolfpack, will host an NCAA Baseball Regional and Tanner couldn't be happier for them. It is, however, with some irony that the first time he ever gets to play an NCAA torunament game there will also the Pack's first time as well.

He talked Monday about returning to Raleigh this weekend. "I'm excited about going back to NC State," he said. "My roots were there. I've got deep roots there. I say "we" as an alum, we've come a long way. I'm excited for NC State to be hosting right now. That's one thing that stands out for me emotionally is we, the Wolfpack, finally got a chance to host. It's been a long time coming, and there were probably other years they probably deserved to host. They did host one year in Wilson."

Tanner expounded today on what he had told me a year ago. "I think the thing that stands out most with me is as an assistant coach for (Sam Esposito) and then being a head coach there – we did not once bid for a regional. Not once. And we had some pretty good teams. It was a matter of the administration at that time not being committed enough, and maybe the facility wasn't good enough."

"I'm excited about going back there, and hopefully our team will play well."

Tanner is loyal to his roots. One of his assistants at South Carolina is Sammy Esposito, one of his former players from NCSU and the son of his former coach there. He shared that he and Esposito were laughing and talking today about going back to Raleigh. He also spoke to the elder Esposito by phone today.

Tanner made it clear, though, where his current loyalty lies: "I'm a Gamecock. I've been here for a long time. Hopefully I get to stay here a long time in the future."

Tanner had some rebuilding to do when he first got to Columbia, but has taken the team to the NCAA tournament ten times in his twelve years in Columbia, and has led his club as one of only two teams nationally to make seven trips to the Super Regionals in the last eight years. He has also won two outright SEC titles, one SEC tournament title, and four SEC East titles, and been the national runner up in Omaha.

State has had the same coach that succeeded Tanner for the 12 seasons he has been in Columbia, and with three more seasons than Tanner had in Raleigh, Elliott Avent has passed Tanner as the second winningest coach in Pack history, behind Esposito. Tanner and Avent are also long-time friends. Like Tanner, he has led his club to ten NCAA appearances, including the last seven straight.

In addition to the Tanner connection, the two teams were both members of the Atlantic Coast Conference together for many years, but they share a lot of NCAA baseball tournament history together as well. State has been to the tournament 22 times, USC has been 24 times. In addition to being in the same regional together the last two seasons, the two teams have played each other in some key games in the national tournament over the years. In the 1974 District 3 Championship held in Starkville, MS, the Gamecocks defeated State 9-0 in the opening round. The next year in the 1975 Atlantic Regional held in Columbia, South Carolina defeated the Wolfpack 4-3 to win that championship. They played again in the 1992 Atlantic Regional held in Coral Gables, FL, and the Gamecocks again won, this time by a score of 9-6. South Carolina fans hope their club can continue their winning tradition this weekend against the Pack.

Tanner closed by saying, "Coach Esposito and I were part of that program for many years. I think it's kind of neat to be in a situation to go back there and play."

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