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February 15, 2013
Everybody had a story, and many told theirs between innings of Friday's 4-3 season-opening win over Liberty.
Chad Holbrook, the man who replaced the man of the hour, saved his for last.
Returning from a 2-1 series loss to East Carolina near the start of the 2010 season, Holbrook watched in amazement as Ray Tanner ordered all of the players off the bus and into the locker room after South Carolina returned to Columbia. He "undressed a team like I'd never seen a team undressed before," Holbrook said, and then kicked a trash can on his way out.
Holbrook had to stifle giggles walking behind his clearly torqued boss, who was limping down the hall with a nearly broken foot. A few games later, after USC had lost another series to Clemson and was trailing 3-0 to Valparaiso, Tanner turned to Holbrook on the dugout bench and growled, "I was due one of these."
Holbrook asked what he meant, then adopted Tanner's gruff tone.
"'Horse(crap) year,'" Holbrook said, mimicking Tanner. "'We're gonna have a horse(crap) year.'"
USC, of course, went on to win the national championship, starting the greatest run of success in program (school?) history. It also was the beginning of the end of Tanner's 16-year reign as coach - after playing for his third consecutive title, Tanner decided to call it quits and accept an athletic director position that many always thought he would have.
Friday was about opening the season, but it was more about honoring Tanner for everything he did at USC. As luminary after luminary read congratulations or shook Tanner's hand, the emotion of the game swelled as the Gamecocks' fans cheered the man who had finally given them a consistent winner.
The crowning touch came when USC unveiled Tanner's retired jersey No. 1 on the left-field wall. As Tanner was welcomed back to his seat - as a fan, not the coach - the rest of the day proceeded well.
The Gamecocks won. And between nearly every inning, after a stunningly well-produced video tribute played, some of Tanner's former players - Justin Smoak, Blake Cooper, Matt Price, Scott Wingo - and even SEC Commissioner Mike Slive appeared on the videoboard to wish Tanner well in his new endeavor.
"What happened here today was quite overwhelming, to be honest with you," Tanner said afterward.
A sold-out Carolina Stadium greeted Tanner and his family as they stood on the field and were presented with several gifts. First of all, Williams Street, which borders right field, was renamed "Tanner Way" and had the new signs unveiled. USC President Harris Pastides spoke on a video message, and then Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin read a proclamation recently written by the South Carolina state legislature.
USC will begin selling commemorative license plates honoring USC's back-to-back national championships, and Tanner received the first one, with No. 1 on it. That led to the videos, and then the lifting of the cover over Tanner's retired number.
Tanner thanked predecessors Bobby Richardson and June Raines, labeling himself a "by-product" of carrying on their success, and headed back to his seat. He has intentionally stayed away from Carolina Stadium during the fall as Holbrook settled in, not wanting to cast more shadows over what is now Holbrook's team.
Friday was special, though. He enjoyed every bit of it, and naturally offered the Tanner wit.
"I had a pretzel in the middle of the game today. Never done that before," Tanner cracked. "It's been a wonderful ride here, it's been a great journey. It was a lot of fun to see coach Holbrook well on his way to a great career."
Holbrook, who has never been shy about how important Tanner has been to his development as a head coach, doesn't mind his past and future boss hanging around at all. In fact, he wants more of it.
"He means a lot to this place," Holbrook said. "And I think we did it right (today)."
South Carolina NEWS