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November 16, 2012

On the record: Toni Karl

Toni Karl is a woman who has worn many hats at the University of South Carolina since she first began working for the athletic department in 1998. Currently in charge of all team travel for the school's 18 athletic teams, Karl also spent six years with the Gamecock Club and before that was the cheerleading coach under Brad Scott and then Lou Holtz.

A North Charleston native and Newberry College graduate who earned her master's in higher education from USC, Karl has spent nearly her entire professional career wearing the garnet and black. From her office in the new Rice Athletics Center, Karl sat down to discuss all that and more with Gamecock Central. Read on and find out what makes the school's travel office go and what it's like to coach a squad cheering for teams so bad - 0-21 from 1999-2000 - fans actually turned on the cheerleaders.

GamecockCentral.com: What brought you to USC professionally after you got your master's degree?

Toni Karl: Well, I got my degree in the student personnel services tract, which was a lot of fun; I absolutely loved being at Carolina. I had cheered all my life growing up in Charleston and at Newberry, and after I graduated I got a job with a cheerleading company I had worked summers with that took me to Memphis. It was a great opportunity and I enjoyed it, but a year later they had a position come open back in Charleston, so I went home.

It was while working there and helping out with Charleston Southern's cheerleading team - I'd sold them their uniforms - that a year later Carolina had a position open as a cheerleading coach. The company said I should interview for it, so I did and I got the job. I was hired by Dr. McGee, and I coached here from 1998 to 2004.

GamecockCentral.com: Why did you leave in 2004? You just missed the transition to Steve Spurrier!

Karl: I know! But I'd gotten married in 1999 and in 2004 when I left, my kids were growing up. I wanted to not miss the time with my family at that crucial time, so my priorities changed.

I came back to work in January of 2006 in the Gamecock Club, and I've been here since. Before, I had coached, and I thought, "This is really great. I get to impact student-athletes, be a part of their lives." You almost felt like a mom at times, and sometimes you were.

So then when I came back to work in the Gamecock Club, I thought, "This will be awesome, because now I'll get to work with boosters." And it was great. With the Gamecock Club, I was stewardship coordinator. I planned all our events such as our Hall of Fame, Signing Day, I did all the "Lunch with Lou" events each week, just tons of different things, which was awesome because it really kept me going. I loved the staff down there and working with them, they're amazing people.

GamecockCentral.com: What do you most enjoy about your cheer coaching days?

Karl: Well, the great part now is when I see them and they have children - that's why I have gray hair! The fun part was making an impact on their lives. Cheerleading here is considered part of the athletic department, and they were treated just like the other student-athletes. So it was fun seeing them mature - some quicker than others! - and grow. It was fun helping them through things, times when they didn't want to call their parents but would come to me such as if they'd gotten into a car accident or just were sick or had boyfriend or girlfriend issues. It was a lot more than just coaching.

And of course going to nationals and doing well was fun, too. I grew up in Charleston, cheered all through, got my little "Cheerleader of the Year" award and never thought it would amount to a career. Even my brother, he still jokes with me. He'll say, "Only Toni could make cheerleading a career!" I'm just blessed. I could never have planned that. The stepping stones just worked out that way.

GamecockCentral.com: And now you coordinate all team travel. What all does that entail for people who aren't familiar with how things work for an SEC schedule?

Karl: I have a huge spreadsheet with all 18 of our teams for every trip they go on. It breaks down by team, by opponent, departure date, how much they need and when they request it.

I make sure before they leave they have what they need, and most of the coaches that have been here a while, the administrative assistants, most of them pretty much know where they want to stay, what bus company they want to use, those kinds of things. They have those relationships, and I don't try to overstep them. I just try to assist.

It's very specific, and it's a little different with each sport. I ask them to complete their requests in advance of their season beginning. I then provide them with the amount of money they need when they travel, their emergency expenses, their food if they're going out to eat or it they're providing a per diem. It's all per-trip. I give the team the check from the bursar's office after they've filled out the correct forms ahead of time, they cash it or deposit it, go on the trip, use the money as they need it then bring us the remainder after they're done along with the receipts for reconciliation. It then goes to the specific sport administrator, the office of compliance, then me. If they've spent a little more I'll process that for reimbursement, or as often is the case they'll have some left over and will write a check back to us. Usually the overestimate so they're not in a bind.

GamecockCentral.com: What got you interested in working with team travel?

Karl: When I was in the Gamecock Club, I was always meeting with caterers, planning events to make sure they ran well and was all over the place for six years. I had worked with student-athletes, I had worked with boosters, so I thought it'd be fun now to work with the coaches. It's been a lot of fun.

GamecockCentral.com: Are you the person who finds hotel deals and books flights?

Karl: That's actually what I thought when I was interviewing! But no, unless they need me to. Each sport has someone within their sport that handles finding hotels and transportation and all that. If they need help with something they can call me. Some of that will change as we go forward a little bit to help them more. Me being dedicated to do this will help that process go smoothly for everyone, because these duties had been split between people with other duties before, people who have since retired. I'm trying now to make a list of where everyone is going and everyone is staying and everywhere we have direct billing set up so it'll make it smoother for us down the road, which hadn't been done before.

We're very fortunate that we have a lot of coaches and administrators that have been here a long time; our retention is incredible. Each coach, as I've talked to the administrative assistants, has someone who is their right hand and knows their needs better than I ever could. They like having a handle on it.

GamecockCentral.com: Who decides where teams stay and where they eat, those kinds of things?

Karl: There's a certain amount you get for food, so say if you're at a certain restaurant, you have to stay at a certain level. With hotels, football can stay at a Marriott, for example, and so can tennis. It all goes through compliance. The coaches have budgets, and they know what they're allotted for travel and accommodations, equipment needs and those kinds of things.

GamecockCentral.com: When you left the cheerleading position, the job was filled by a former cheerleader of yours, Erika Goodwin, who is still there now. What was that like for you?

Karl: It was wonderful! My first year coaching here was her senior year, so it was a perfect fit. She got her master's from Louisville, cheered there and she happened to be coming home, so the timing was right when I was leaving. It worked wonderfully. I was thrilled when she got it. In cheerleading, with all the traditions, it's hard coming in. I cheered in college but not at Carolina, so when I came in and did that first football game, I was nervous. I remember thinking, if we don't spell out the letters to "CAROLINA" correctly I'm going to get fired! But with Erika, she knew all that. She gets it, definitely.

GamecockCentral.com: Your coaching years at Carolina included some lean times on the football field, especially to begin with.

Karl: It's funny, when you work in an athletic department, when you're winning, everybody is happy, and when you're losing, everybody is miserable! Just like the Florida game this year. Our seats were terrible, I've never been flipped off so many times in my life, the student section was horrible, but I thought, "If we would have won, none of that would have mattered." That's how it goes, because two years ago, my Florida trip was much better.

My first two years coaching the cheerleaders, we were 1-21. Lou Holtz came in, and I was like, "We're going to win now!" Nope. We went to Vanderbilt, and I remember telling them, "Don't worry, we're going to win this one!" And we didn't, and everyone was in a terrible mood. I was like, "Oh my God."

When you lose, people start blaming everything. People were complaining about us! They'd say, "The cheerleaders need to do the wave more! They need to get the crowd more involved!" I was like, "Nobody's here! And the fans that are here don't want to be involved because they're mad!" They blamed the band, too, if you remember. Oh, it was tough. We survived, though. Our fans are loyal, but it's so much nicer to be on the winning side. Everybody is in a much better mood.

GamecockCentral.com: And now you get to see all that come full circle as you send out teams to compete at the highest levels of the Southeastern Conference and the nation.

Karl: It's all been so much fun to be a part of it, so much fun to try different things and learn as much as I can. I'm a Gamecock for life!

- On the record: Raymond Harrison Jr.
- On the record: Clark Cox
- On the record: Erika Goodwin
- On the record: Steven Bondurant
- On the record: Kevin O'Connell
- On the record: Jeff Crane
- On the record: Andrew Kitick

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