COLUMBIA — After two years on the job, athletic director Ray Tanner doesn’t see South Carolina’s rise in the Southeastern Conference slowing down.
Tanner said Friday that many of the school’s athletic teams have strongly achieved on and off the field. The group is led by Steve Spurrier’s football team, which completed its third straight 11-2 season and finished No. 4 in the end-of-the-season national rankings — an all-time best.
Women’s basketball and coach Dawn Staley also had a record-setting year, winning their first SEC regular-season title and gaining an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed.
Equally good in Tanner’s eyes: Both teams finished with strong marks in the NCAA’s latest Academic Progress Report, football at 994 and women’s basketball at a perfect 1,000 for 2012-13.
Tanner said he was fortunate to step in when South Carolina athletics had a strong foundation of coaches and athletic administrators who remained after Eric Hyman took the AD’s job at Texas A&M two years ago.
“I didn’t have to go through a rebuild,” Tanner said. “I recognize that. So I feel like we’ve been able to move forward.”
Tanner talked about South Carolina athletics during, and after, a University of South Carolina trustees’ gathering. The AD provided school leaders a wrap up of 2013-14 and a look ahead to next fall.
The Gamecocks stand to make $89.6 million this year, an increase of more than $5.5 million from last June’s projections. The athletic department expects hat total will grow to more than $94 million in 2014-15.
Tanner has continued facilities improvements begun by Hyman. Crews are working on new football practice fields behind a tailgate area across from Williams-Brice Stadium. The school also plans to upgrade former parking areas on the stadium tarmac with a plaza featuring a statue of 1980 South Carolina Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. Tanner said the department was vetting the project with sculptors. The statue’s cost could be up to $300,000, Tanner said.
The building will leave the department with a debt of more than $156 million, a total Tanner feels comfortable South Carolina can meet as it constructs top-flight facilities.
“I firmly believe, if don’t invest, you’re not going to get the return,” he said. “We’re investing.”
South Carolina official say the university will receive $22.3 million from the SEC. University President Harris Pastides said the conference affiliation has been beneficial and productive for the school in a trying time for college athletics.
“We’re in the swirl of a collegiate athletics hurricane,” Pastides said. “But we’re well managed” in the SEC.
Tanner understands he’s had a mostly smooth run since leaving the dugout — he spent 16 seasons as South Carolina’s baseball coach — for the head office. He knows there are decisions ahead, particularly with 69-year-old Spurrier closer to the end of his career than the start.
Spurrier has become South Carolina’s all-time victories leader in nine seasons and sounds as energized and focused as ever approaching year 10. Tanner, though, has thought about and planned for that day when Spurrier walks in and says he’s ready to head to the golf course for good.
“If that is the case when I’m the athletic director, many people feel that’s how I’ll be defined,” Tanner said. “I spend some time looking, I have the drawer” with potential candidate information.
Tanner said the next South Carolina coach could come from the staff.
“I think there’s more than one coach on this football staff that will become a head coach,” he said.
There are several assistants with head coach aspirations, including receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and offensive line coach Shawn Elliott.
But that’s not something to worry about now, Tanner said.
“Age is just a number. He’s extremely active and works out,” Tanner said of Spurrier. “Who knows how long he’ll coach?”