By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
With college baseball in full swing and the MLB season fast approaching, I spoke with former South Carolina star Jackie Bradley Jr. recently as he prepared for the season during spring training.
As Bradley reflected on his spectacular career at South Carolina and the national championship seasons in 2010-2011, he touched on what makes South Carolina baseball so special.
"Being the first major sport in South Carolina history to win a national championship, that just kinda speaks for itself," he said. "It all goes back to the preparation and dedication and the work each and every person put in, from the staff to the president of the school … We have one of the best facilities in the world for college baseball. That alone helps guys mentally, knowing that they are going to have fans that are going to come out there every single day and support them and pull for them."
Bradley enjoyed that support, starring at Founders Park and leading South Carolina to back-to-back national championship before parlaying his success into a successful major league career.
It is that kind of tradition and success, those facilities and that kind of fan support that makes South Carolina baseball so special. And it's what makes it one of the most attractive coaching jobs in the country as Ray Tanner searches for the program's next head coach.
South Carolina entered this season with the second-highest win total in Division 1 baseball since 2000 and has been to the College Word Series 11 times, including six times since 2002. It is 32-20 in CWS games, the sixth-best winning percentage in history, and is one of just three schools to have reached the Super Regionals at least 12 times since 2000.
It is one of only six schools to win back-to-back national championships, joining such prestigious programs as Texas, Southern Cal, Stanford, LSU and Oregon State.
Few schools can match that kind of success, and South Carolina's prominence as a national power dates back to the 1970s, when legendary coaches like Bobby Richardson and June Raines consistently had South Carolina in the national conversation.
While football and basketball have put Gamecock fans through a roller-coaster of emotions over the years, the one constant has been baseball. It is the one sport and the one tradition that South Carolina fans can boast about from year to year.
It is that proud tradition that ultimately cost Chad Holbrook his job as his team failed to live up to those expectations in two of the past three seasons. But it also that tradition that will help South Carolina land a high-profile replacement, one with the track record and experience to lead it back to such lofty heights.
What does South Carolina's new coach have to look forward to?
The baseball stadium and facilities at Founders Park are second to none, consistently rated among the top-three in the country. And the Gamecocks are consistently ranked among the top five in attendance, averaging 7,178 fans per game this season.
Though the actual number of fans who show up for games was down this year, a high number of season-ticket holders boost the Gamecocks into the top five annually. And when the team is winning, the atmosphere for big games and big weekend series is second to none.
It's also worth noting that the four schools that outdraw South Carolina in attendance are all SEC schools, putting it in the greatest conference in the country for college baseball. And South Carolina routinely outdraws such prestigious programs as Florida and Vanderbilt.
That's why South Carolina is in great shape as it looks for a new coach, and why it is likely to attract one of the top coaches in the country. Names like Florida's Kevin O'Sullivan, TCU's Jim Schlossnagle, Virginia's Brian O'Connor and Louisville's Dan McDonnell are being bandied about as possible replacements. All have built elite programs, are regular participants in the NCAA Tournament and have taken their teams to the College World Series multiple times.
While luring a big name from an established program seems like a long shot, it is possible because South Carolina has a program and tradition to rival any in the nation. And if the next coach is not one of those big names, other quality coaches will be lining up to get a shot at the South Carolina job. Others names being talked about are all winning coaches who are in the process of building successful programs and establishing their own traditions. Any of them would job at the chance to coach at South Carolina.
The biggest challenge for Athletics Director Ray Tanner will be selecting the right one from what is sure to be a long list.
"One thing that is important to me is to visit with a candidate who understands who we are," Tanner said. "We've got a lot of things here to be excited about with our baseball program and I think we will have some opportunities. It is an outstanding program."
Another one of the main attractions is Tanner himself, one of the most successful coaches in college baseball history and one of the most brilliant minds in the game. Few major universities have elevated their head baseball coach to athletics director, but that's the kind of influence Tanner has at South Carolina and in the world of college athletics.
While some college coaches might balk at the pressure of following in the footsteps of a legendary coach who has won back-to-back national championships, what better resource and support system can you have?
"We want a coach who embraces this tradition, embraces our fan base, embraces the expectations, embraces a wonderful atmosphere here at Founders Park, with opportunities galore to compete at a high level," Tanner said.
Because of the tradition he helped build, he will no doubt find him.