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June 14, 2012

'Fun Bunch' returns to Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. - Call it Ray Tanner's "Come To Jesus" moment.

A dozen or so years ago, longtime assistant coach Jim Toman walked up to his crusty boss and told him, in so many words, to knock it off. Tanner, taken aback, eyed Toman as if he was crazy and replied, "Knock what off?"

Toman explained that Tanner's hard-line stance with his players was alienating all of the young men that were coming to South Carolina to play with him. Kids aged 18 to 22 were still talented ballplayers, but a lot of the fun was being taken out of the game.

"I was an old-school player, an old-school coach," Tanner said on Thursday, at the College World Series opening press conference. "Not being the touchy-feely kind of guy for many years, I probably didn't have as much fun as I needed to as well.

"Coach Toman said, 'If you don't change, you're going to be out.'"

Tanner, a tender 27 when he was first named head coach at NC State, listened. Little by little, his Gamecocks started embracing the game more, loosening up a bit in the public eye, relaxing and enjoying themselves instead of marching in a straight line to the bus, necktie cinched and sportcoat on.

Twelve years later, Tanner is sitting in his sixth CWS in 11 years, with two diamond-studded national championship rings on his fingers. A lot of hard work and a lot of discipline went into those, but he also learned how to have fun.

It wasn't easy to have fun at the beginning of this year, but he's having a lot of fun with his third straight trip to Omaha.

"I guess it was 2002, my first trip here," Tanner said. "I couldn't contain myself, to be honest with you. I remember when we got here, I said, 'I can't handle this. I got to gather myself a little bit so my team doesn't see how I really am.'"

Tanner solved that problem by convincing the general manager of the team hotel to give him a quick trip to Rosenblatt Stadium, just so Tanner could look around and realize that he was about to be coaching in the game's signature event.

Even in a new stadium - the glistening TD Ameritrade Park - and after five successive trips, Tanner is still enjoying it.

"(Former shortstop) Adam Everett was probably the first person to say to me, 'You need to have fun,'" Tanner said. "I was tough at heart. I thought that's the way you did it for the most part."

Replacing several veterans from a national champion, Tanner slid back into his old ways at the beginning of the year. Working in several new players, including three freshmen who have played in almost every game, the Gamecocks struggled a bit. Tanner was tightening up again, hollering and snapping at the least little things.

One of the veterans who had helped him so much in the past two years, ace left-hander Michael Roth, mimicked Toman so many years ago. He told the coach to lighten up, that extra pressure wasn't going to help anybody.

"It was part of the growing process for the new guys," Roth said before the team left for Omaha. "We all had to stop drawing such a hard line. Nobody could relax."

If anyone could get Tanner to change his ways, it was Roth. Roth, the unconventional goofball who has been such a huge part of the past two years, has always drawn the perfect line between baseball and having fun. The dugout antics and the snazzy quotes paint a cheerful picture of a player that burns to succeed.

"Michael Roth has been a great influence on me, no doubt," Tanner said. "He's not going to do that. He's going to have some fun. Win, lose or draw, he's an amateur. He's going to have some fun playing college baseball. I just got to the point, where, 'Hey, you don't have to have stress and anxiety to win.' That usually causes you to struggle. Just have some fun and play hard, and hopefully it works out."

Tanner scaled back on the criticism and began easing up on his belittling of the "freshman moments," which are still happening, but very sporadically. USC shucked a 1-5 start in the SEC to win 12 straight in the conference and get itself back in contention; the postseason hit and the Gamecocks won five straight games, adding to their NCAA-record 21-game postseason winning streak.

Along the way, freshmen such as Joey Pankake, Tanner English and Grayson Greiner became what they were recruited to be - the guys who will take the program forward, and have the chance to earn more championships. It won't be easy once Roth leaves, but Tanner at least had another year with the senior to lay the groundwork for the future.

On Saturday, they start another stay in the CWS, one that they're hoping will end as favorably as the last two have. Either way, the pressure is intense, but Tanner and the Gamecocks will remember to have fun.

"We're probably here today because of our veteran players," Tanner said. "They had a little bit more patience than I did with the young guys."

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