COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mark Kingston had barely crossed paths with Ray Tanner in the past 20-plus years, a couple encounters on the recruiting trail and a slight overlap of his playing career and Tanner’s coaching career in the ACC accounting for a thread of a relationship.
But a call during a family dinner outing changed that, as Kingston looked down at his phone and saw 803 — the Columbia area code — appear on his phone. He told his wife, Letitia, he thought it was Tanner calling.
She didn’t know who Tanner — indeed the caller that night — was, but a lot changed in the past month or so for the Kingstons.
“He was on my radar from the very beginning,” Tanner said. “In the college baseball coaching circles, his name is always there. …
“I believe he is the right man for this job.”
On Friday, Kingston was named the new baseball coach at South Carolina. Earlier in the day, his contract was approved by the USC board of trustees — a six-year deal worth $600,000 annually — and the culmination of a relationship started, built and fortified quickly and impressively.
Wearing a South Carolina tie and standing in Williams-Brice Stadium on Friday, Kingston said “99.9 percent” of the relationship he has with Tanner was built in the past few weeks. It began with that phone call, Tanner reaching out to Kingston to get the process started with the first of many, many phone calls.
“I would find myself saying, ‘I’ll call you in a couple days,’” Tanner said. “Then I would call him the next day. I would think about something I wanted to share with him. I was tremendously impressed with the way he approaches day-to-day things in the program. …
“All the qualities and culture that he stands for were very impactful for me.”
Those phone calls are when Tanner got the feeling that Kingston, who coached at South Florida for the past three seasons, might be his guy. There was much more, of course, that sold Tanner on the 47-year-old Kingston, who takes over after Chad Holbrook’s resignation in early June.
The South Carolina athletic director had the gaps in information and necessary details filled in by a variety of sources. He is close friends with Larry Lyons, the athletic director at Illinois State, where Kingston coached for five seasons and reached an NCAA Tournament.
He has a relationship with former Tulane coach Rick Jones, whose staff Kingston coached on, and Miami coach Jim Morris, who had Kingston on the staff in 2001 when the Hurricanes won the national title.
“The places that he has been, he has challenged himself,” Tanner said.
Kingston visited South Carolina a week ago for an on-campus interview, which seemed to be the deal-maker in the end based on Tanner’s account of the visit. Kingston impressed Tanner and current players, as he had the opportunity to meet with some of the Gamecocks while he was in town.
The result was “outstanding reviews,” Tanner said, adding he made an impact on a lot of people when he came to Columbia. He impressed with his focus on work ethic, culture, the student-athlete experience and well-rounded nature as a college baseball coach throughout the process.
For Tanner, perhaps the largest impact came during a meeting at USC president Dr. Harris Pastides’ house when Tanner excused himself from part of the conversation.
“The thing that struck me was that if I had been a candidate at the same time, I probably wouldn’t have been the guy that got selected,” Tanner said. “I’m very impressed with what he stands for and what he has already done in college baseball. I’m confident that our platform enables him to achieve at a very high level.”
Kingston was not the lone coaching candidate to be interviewed in Columbia, as Tanner said there were others that the media did not get. He also said he had an opportunity to talk to a couple coaches in Omaha, while Tanner attended the College World Series as part of the Division 1 Baseball Committee.
It was all part of the process Tanner sought to have beginning June 7, the day after Holbrook’s resignation.
“I stayed on task,” Tanner said. “I was able to get to the people that I needed to get to. I honestly did vet out a lot of candidates. … I wanted to get it right. I wasn’t concerned about it being fast.”
The process took little more than three weeks from start to finish, ending with the news Thursday that Kingston was set to be the new coach at a program that has seen recent national championships and has a long history of successful coaches.
The South Carolina program is Kingston’s now, only the third head coach in the past 20 years and the first hire from a coaching search since Tanner himself in 1997. He may not be the most well-known hire, which Tanner said his wife, Karen, noted that he probably wasn’t the most high-profile or splashy hire when he took over the program.
But it never was about splash for Tanner, who sought out Kingston early in the process and found someone who fit what he was looking for to lead the Gamecocks back to the top of the college baseball world.
“So at the end of the day,” Tanner said, “when my staff and I were talking about opportunities for the future of this program, I’m not sure there was a box he didn’t check.”