By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner spent countless hours talking to South Florida's Mark Kingston before introducing him Friday as the Gamecocks' new head baseball coach.
They were long, deep conversations that told Tanner a lot about the man he wanted to take over one of the top baseball programs in the country.
Tanner did not have to emphasize the culture and expectations of Gamecock baseball. He did not have to talk about the need to win. He made his point briefly but very succinctly.
"I did not put much pressure on him during the process about winning," Tanner said. "All I said was, 'We have to beat Clemson, and I would like to go to Omaha.' I didn't get into any more detail than that."
That's pretty much all the new head coach needed to know.
Kingston, who led South Florida to the NCAA Tournament twice in his last three years, was introduced as South Carolina's new head coach Friday. He replaces Chad Holbrook, who resigned after this season after South Carolina missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Kingston understands the enormous expectations at a school that won back-to-back national championships in 2010-11 under Tanner and is accustomed to challenging for a spot in the College World Series every season.
"We will embrace your expectations," Kingston said. "I know what the expectations are. Coach Tanner made sure I knew what the expectations were many, many times. We won't run from the expectations, we will run toward the expectations. Trust me, they are the same."
Kingston, who finished 42-17 at South Florida this season and has helped lead 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament as an assistant and head coach, was thrilled to be considered for the South Carolina job by "one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history."
He said he was attracted to the opportunity for several reasons, including the program's rich history and tradition, some of the best baseball facilities in the country and a loyal fan base that expects to win.
"The support of the fans is unbelievable. The attendance is unbelievable, the season tickets are unbelievable," he said. "When you have that much passion that is shared by the coaches and players, when you know that if you put everything you have into this sport at this school, it is nice to know that you have so many people who support that mission."
Having coached in a college baseball hotbed, Kingston also understands the importance of beating rival Clemson, which also has one of the nation's top programs. His South Florida team knocked off both Florida State and national champion Florida this season.
"I know how important the in-state rivalry is here with Clemson. I get that," he said. "We will work very hard to do the absolute best we can to win those games."
He also understands the history and tradition of Gamecock baseball, which made the NCAA Tournament 15 straight seasons under Tanner and Holbrook and went to the College World Series in Omaha six times under Tanner.
"We want Omaha as much as you do, and we will work hard to get there," Kingston said. "Only eight teams get there every year, but we can work every day to make sure that is our focus."
As a player, Kingston was part of the 1989 North Carolina team that won the ACC and advanced to the College World Series. After playing in the major leagues with Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs, he was an assistant on the Miami team that won the national championship in 2001 and also helped lead Tulane to the CWS as the top seed in 2005.
His mission is to return to Omaha.
"I've been to Omaha three times with three schools. I want to get there a fourth time with a fourth school, wearing these colors," he said. "I know that's what your goals are. Those are our goals, too."
Tanner considered and interviewed several other candidates before selecting Kingston, who was considered one of the top up-and-coming head coaches in college baseball.
Kingston toured the university and Founders Park last week and met with several university officials, including President Dr. Harris Pastides. Throughout their conversations, Tanner was impressed with Kingston's knowledge of the program and the student-athlete culture at a major university.
"It was very apparent that he understood a lot about the dynamics of our baseball program, even though he had never been very close to it," Tanner said. "He had followed us, he knows all about what goes on here.
"When you talk about the world of intercollegiate athletics today and what it means to be a student-athlete, I'm not sure that I have ever been with a coach that understands the culture as well as Coach Kingston does."
Tanner said he was impressed with the path Kingston has followed as a college baseball coach. A former assistant at Purdue, Illinois State, Miami and Tulane, he took over as the head coach at Illinois State in 2010 and led the Redbirds to a school-record 39 wins in 2013 and to two NCAA Tournament appearances. His 42 wins at South Florida this year were the most at the school since 1996.
"At the end of the day, when my staff and I were talking about opportunities for the future of this program, I'm not sure there was a box that he didn't check," Tanner said.
In his first meeting with the media and Gamecock fans and alumni, Kingston said there are three things that are most important to him.
"Faith, family and baseball. That is 99 percent of what you see with me," he said. "… That is where my focus will always be. … If you wonder what I am doing, I will be involved in one of those three areas.
"I have old-schools values. I believe in work ethic, I believe in discipline, I believe in accountability."
Kingston takes over a team that had made the NCCA Tournament three times under Holbrook, a former assistant under Tanner, but had a disappointing season in 2017. Considered a top-five team in preseason rankings, the Gamecocks finished 35-25 and 13-17 in the SEC. It finished 10th in the conference during the regular season and just missed the NCAA Tournament after winning three games in the SEC Tournament.
It lost the bulk of its pitching staff to either graduation or the MLB Draft, but returns most of the starting position players. It also has a top-10 recruiting class coming in.
What can those players expect from Kingston?
"Practice and preparation must develop confidence and toughness," he said. "The great teams have both. They have confidence and they have the toughness that carries them through the tough times.
"If you want to know what the (key) is on teams that are talented and go far, it's confidence and it's toughness, mental and physical. That is something we will focus on on a daily basis."
Kingston met with some of his players Friday and addressed others on a conference call. His message was simple.
"The first thing I told them was to prepare to work, there are no short cuts," he said. "We will get there, we will reach our potential because we work. That's the culture that Coach Tanner had here for many, many years and I share that. We will get there because we work."
Kingston said he has three goals for all of his players: graduate; play in the College World Series in Omaha; and develop and prepare for an opportunity to play professionally.
"Those are the three goals and the vision we share with every recruit, and that's what we are working toward on a daily basis," he said.
On the field, Kingston expects his players to "play hard, play smart, be disciplined."
"That's something we put up in the locker room in USF when we first got there and that is something we try to stand by every day. You do those things, the game usually goes your way if you deserve it. We are going to play hard, we are going play smart and we are going to be disciplined," he said.
"This is a hard game that is designed to break your heart over and over again, so we will be there to support our players. We will be there to help them make adjustments and we will be there to make sure that when they do get down, they get up quickly. We don't yell and scream at our guys for physical mistakes. We make sure they are sharp mentally, but if they make a mistake that is just part of the game, we will be there to help them correct the mistake and move on from the experience.
"Winning will be a byproduct of everything we have talked about. I don't want guys focused on winning, I want them focused on the commitment it takes to win. Winning becomes a byproduct of doing things the right way every single day. That will be a focus."
Kingston had another simple message for his players.
"Stay humble and stay hungry," he said. "I am very humbled to be here as a coach, and I am hungry to get to work."
And how does he plan to meet those lofty expectations of fans and big goals laid out by Tanner?
"Win. Win. Put everything in place so that you are successful and you win. That's how you manage expectations," he said. "People want to win, fans want to win. I understand that.
"We understand the best way to get everybody excited is to win games."