By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
When it became clear that Mark Kingston would be South Carolina's new head baseball coach, I was …
Well, I don't know what I was. Perplexed? Nonplussed? Skeptical? I was not exactly sure what to think.
Like most fans, the little-known coach from South Florida was not whom I expected. I expected Ray Tanner to land a big name. A Kevin O'Sullivan. A Jim Schlossnagle. A Brian O'Connor. A coach who routinely leads their teams to the College World Series.
Not a coach I had never heard of before. A coach from the SEC or ACC, not a mid-major school not known for baseball.
But that was before I knew much about Mark Kingston. Before I learned that he is one of the most highly regarded young coaches in the game. Before I learned that he has been a big part of three College World Series teams as a player and coach, including a top national seed and a national champion.
Before I learned that he has taken two mid-major schools and turned them into championship-winning, NCAA Tournament teams.
Before I learned that he had a top-five recruiting class just two years ago — which led to South Florida's 42-win season this year — and that he recruited and developed dozens of players who were drafted to play professional baseball.
And that he beat in-state rivals Florida and Florida State — one the national champion, the other a College World Series participant — both this year.
We should have known Ray Tanner would uncover a gem. If you're searching for a college baseball coach, there's nobody better leading the search.
Tanner, who interviewed multiple candidates for the job, including some big names, undoubtably knew something the rest of us didn't. That was plainly evident when Kingston was introduced as South Carolina's new head coach Friday.
While Gamecock fans may not have known much about the South Florida coach before, they should know plenty now and feel confident that Tanner hired the right man.
Kingston, a Virginia native who played on North Carolina's 1989 College World Series team, was highly impressive in his Gamecock debut, saying all the right things and laying out his game plan for success. Kingston made it clear that he understands the lofty expectations at South Carolina and fully expects to meet them. He assured university officials that he is a man of integrity who puts the academic success of student-athletes first.
He let his players know what to expect on the field and vowed to sustain the winning culture and proud tradition that is Gamecock baseball.
For fans, players and supporters unsure of or on the fence about the new head coach, they should have come away encouraged and inspired after seeing and hearing Kingston for the first time.
With his wife Letitia and their three children in attendance, Kingston looked and talked more like a college professor or a successful CEO than a college coach or former major leaguer. He was polished, professional, confident and determined to convince Gamecock supporters that he is the right man for the job.
"He's a pro," Tanner said.
The well-prepared Kingston had a very succinct message for everyone associated with the baseball program, from school administrators, alumni and fans right down to players, recruits and their parents. And the message to each was positive, upbeat and encouraging.
As Steve Spurrier, the Head Ball Coach, used to say, he won the talking game.
The most impressive thing about Kingston is that he is a man of integrity and character, which fits the culture South Carolina has established throughout the history of its vaunted baseball program, from Bobby Richardson and June Raines to Tanner and Chad Holbrook.
Kingston said there are three things most important in his life.
"Faith, family and baseball. … That is where my focus will always be," he said.
He stressed the importance of developing his players both academically and athletically. His top priority, he said, is making sure they graduate, regardless of whether they are good enough to play professional baseball.
"We will represent USC with class and we will support the mission of student-athletes," he said. "We will support the academic vision of this school."
And he assured parents and coaches that their kids would be in good hands.
"If you send one of your kids to our program, they will be respected and they will be developed," he said. "…. We will treat them the right way and we will push them to reach their potential."
Those are the things that should be most important at any university, with any athletic program. We often lose sight of that as we get caught up in wins and losses and whether our team makes the postseason or has a shot at a national championship.
Winning is important — vitally so to fans who pour their heart and soul and money into their school and team — but it is more important and so much more satisfying to win the right way. When you win with character and integrity and in a manner that makes everyone associated with the program proud.
Dawn Staley and Frank Martin both demonstrated that this past season. Ray Tanner did when he was head coach. And so did his successor, Chad Holbrook.
Mark Kingston appears to have those same traits. That's what convinced Tanner that he had his man.
"He is a family-first man," Tanner said. "He is all about the student-athlete experience, he's all about embracing the culture that we have here.
"All the qualities he stands for were very impactful for me."
More than his winning track record and dugout expertise, that should convince Gamecock fans that they have the right head coach.