How South Carolina’s baseball coaching search brought Ray Tanner to Paul Mainieri

Back when South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner was still wearing a baseball uniform and winning back-to-back national championships with the Gamecocks, he coined the phrase “Win ​​Anyway.”

In the week-long search for Mark Kingston’s replacement, he came up with another slogan that USC faithful might rally behind: “What about you?”

Tanner introduced former LSU coach Paul Mainieri as the 31st coach of the South Carolina baseball program Thursday afternoon at the Cookaboose Club of Williams-Brice Stadium. The press conference capped a whirlwind stretch that began with reports and speculation about applicants and ended with an appointment that few outside Tanner and Mainieri could have seen coming.

Kingston was fired Monday, June 3, one day after the Gamecocks were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament’s Raleigh Regional. Lists of possible coaching candidates quickly appeared in local and national media.

Those lists included Wake Forest’s Tom Walter, East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin and South Carolina assistant coach Monte Lee. There was no mention of Mainieri.

Tanner, who did his due diligence on every potential replacement, knew he had a friend living in Baton Rouge with extensive baseball knowledge who could provide valuable input in the search.

So the South Carolina AD called Mainieri sometime late last week or over the weekend, he said. And Tanner expected the conversation to take a turn at some point.

Tanner shared his list of potential candidates and received feedback. Mainieri’s health was discussed. Then came Tanner’s surprising question: “And you?”

“When he opened the door, I was wide open,” Tanner said. “I was back in the mold of Drew Meyer (former USC player) when I tried to get him to play shortstop for me. When he let me know that he might be interested, it wasn’t an obstacle at the time. I did everything I could to get him in here.

“He was excited about it. It’s not like I had to convince him. … Listening to him and knowing him as I do, the last chapter was not yet written.”

Mainieri said in a radio interview with 107.5 FM that he called Tanner a day after that phone call to say yes.

“Ray still has the recruiting power. I can promise you,” Mainieri said Thursday.

News that Mainieri was even in the discussion never surfaced until Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill posted about the impending hiring on X (Twitter) late Monday afternoon. On Tuesday afternoon, the USC Board of Trustees met to approve Mainieri’s $1.3 million contract.

“A week ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would be standing here on this stage talking to you about coaching the Carolina Gamecocks,” Mainieri said. “We don’t know what life will bring you. I was born to coach… and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Mainieri resigned from LSU at the end of the 2021 season due to neck and nerve issues. He had to undergo a few surgeries, but Tanner knew his friend wasn’t completely happy with the way his time at LSU ended. Mainieri left that job in 2021 with more than 1,500 wins, one national championship and a total of six College World Series appearances in a career that spanned 39 years. He was not forced to leave or retire. It was more due to the medical issues he faced.

“I knew this time last year that he had a few other jobs,” Tanner said. “He didn’t quit LSU, he didn’t retire. He underwent the surgeries he had to undergo. There were two, so he had to step away. When he got healthy again he was ready to play, but last year he didn’t.”

This may not have been the first time the South Carolina job seemed attractive to Mainieri.

He and Tanner formed a bond and friendship despite managing two of the most successful college baseball teams in the country. We hit it off almost from the start and the relationship grew over the course of a few decades.

LSU had just opened a new baseball stadium in February 2009. The Gamecocks opened Founders Park that same season. The Tigers made the trek to Columbia in March for a three-game series en route to winning the College World Series.

Tanner walked around Mainieri and showed off the new stadium. There were two things that stood out: Tanner could see the Founders Park playing surface from his office and the state-of-the-art weight room that was on site.

“They opened a new stadium at LSU that year. He couldn’t see the field from his office. He had no view of the field. I took the opportunity to say, “What about the view?” He didn’t have one,” Tanner said. “I took him to the weight room; he didn’t have a weight room. Finally he got one. I took the opportunity to enjoy that time together.”

Now the 66-year-old Mainieri sits in that same office, at that desk, in his last coaching spot.

“The reason I came here is because of Ray Tanner,” he said. “I sincerely mean this. What a great opportunity for a college baseball coach to have a good friend as a boss, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game and a great administrator. It’s a privilege.”