For 11 seasons, no one not named Ray Tanner has been closer with or had more access to the inner sanctum of the South Carolina baseball program than Assistant Media Relations Director Andrew Kitick. Since his first season with USC and the baseball team in 2002 until now, Kitick got to watch first-hand the elevation of the Gamecock baseball program from regional to national power and Tanner from successful coach to college baseball legend and, now, director of athletics for the university.
GamecockCentral.com was fortunate to be able to sit down with Kitick, an Illinois native who earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, to discuss the rise of the program, what it was like to work for Tanner and his best moments with the team, including six trips to Omaha, two national championships and two national runner-up finishes.
GC: First, what was it like to learn that Tanner was named athletics director after having worked so closely with him for so long?
Kitick: I was very excited for him. I've seen how passionate he is about the athletics department in general. He's someone I trust, I think we all trust, so excited to see him lead everyone. I've seen him lead baseball, and I think it's cool now to see him have his handprint all over the whole department. It's neat to see him have a new challenge and bring it to everyone.
GC: What was it like for you to see Tanner finally win those championships after coming so close for so long?
Kitick: It's meaningful not just for him but for everyone involved with South Carolina baseball. I think you go back, he and I were talking the other day, it starts with Bobby Richardson on up to coach [Chad] Holbrook, there's only been four coaches here since 1970. That's a unique fact, and shows you what this program is about. It's about everybody who is a part of it. Everyone got a chance to be a part of it who helped get it to that level to enjoy what happened in 2010 and 2011.
I think that's, in sports, in my opinion, the journey is incredible. Where would it have been if Paul Dietzel hadn't called Bobby Richardson? Where would it have been if June Raines wasn't there after Bobby Richardson? I think how I view it is it's something everyone helped get there to be able to do that in Omaha.
GC: It was the first men's national championship at USC. Can you talk about what that meant?
Kitick: Being the first, it was a big day that day. A lot of people were watching it. A lot of people were into it. It's amazing how invested you get into it when you see it day by day. I think what made it so unique was in 2010 was that you had a team that lost its first game and pretty much was fighting its way through elimination game after elimination game, just like the 2002 team did to get to the national championship. The way that that happened, you go back to the players, they had an incredible drive to not want to end their run there. It was amazing.
GC: What was it like for you and the team coming back to Columbia in 2010 and seeing the reaction and response from fans?
Kitick: I can't speak for the players and the coaches, but it was something I'll never forget. I have a saying I go by in my life, "Cherish yesterday, dream tomorrow and live today," and that's kind of the way I take all that is I still cherish those memories, the memories of all the teams I worked with. It's special to remember all the fans who were in the Colonial Life Arena and the parade. It was nothing like I'd ever seen, the love they had for the players and coaches. That showed me that Gamecock Nation is incredible and how much they really love this place.
When that team came back, the people waiting, standing in line, the buses going down to the arena, people were standing outside clapping and waving to the bus, and they couldn't see anybody, they just knew who was in there. I just remember the adulation and appreciation from the players, coaches and staff and what it meant to everyone. When you get to the top of the mountain, it's a pretty cool thing to be able to witness, the view.
One thing I try to do is appreciate the journey. It's not that one day, it's the whole thing of seeing a team develop, seeing a team become a team day by day.
GC: Your proximity to the team is really almost unmatched. Do you consider yourself one of the luckiest people in Columbia to have experienced the level of success the players and coaches have achieved?
Kitick: Most definitely. The role that I have is to help them tell their stories, arranging it through whatever means we can, whether through print, television, radio or Internet. That's what we try to do. We're fortunate that this is a passionate fan base. It's incredible, the stories through the runs that we've had throughout the years. I take it back to the whole thing that it's something you have to appreciate. You see Christian Walker play with a broken hand, the tears he had before when he thought he couldn't play, Brainard Cooper and the doctors, the whole sports medicine group, who got him ready to play, you see what they all come together for. It's an incredible thing to witness. As storytellers, you can't make that stuff up.
GC: That 2011 team had to overcome so many injuries and yet was able to defy the odds and repeat as national champions.
Kitick: "Win anyway." "Battle." Those aren't just words, that's what those players and coaches believed and have always believed under all the previous coaches. It's what they truthfully believe and is what they're going to do. I think there's something about that mentality that is just right. You have to pick yourself up again in sports and do it again. It's amazing the hours of dedication I see from so many people to make it to the top. I'm fortunate I got to see it at that level. It's pretty cool, no doubt about it.
GC: What was it like working for a person as well-respected and beloved as Tanner?
Kitick: It's amazing to witness greatness. There's a lot of greatness around here. For me, it's interesting to see the ability of him to do that, to motivate, to teach. That's why I think it's special that he's trying this new thing. To watch him motivate, teach and coach was pretty impressive, and now I get to see it in a new way with coach Holbrook. Head coaches are pretty special. If you're a head coach at this level, you're pretty impressive.
To see the growth of the program, how to handle situations over the years, I think enough people realize what [Tanner] has done in this community. It goes back to his foundation work, too. Great coaches are always thinking ahead, and what he has done, what this place means to him; Columbia has become really a home for him.
GC: How has the landscape of college baseball changed over the past decade from when you started?
Kitick: Incredibly in a positive way. College baseball, there are a couple things there. The advent of the Internet, the addition of digital cable has really helped college baseball. With those tools we can get out college baseball more. It's great now that ESPNU has a Game of the Week on Thursday nights. For years, Thursday nights got great exposure for college football. It's great to see how far college baseball has come. When I started in 2002, people covered college baseball, but not on a daily basis like it is now. Now, everyone knows what's going on with the program a lot more.
ESPN has been a great partner for college baseball. They want to do great things with it, to bring it more to the public. They've done well with the College World Series and helping to promote the game. We played like 20-30 games on television this past year. By the end of the season we were probably on television 30 times. We were not near that number in 2002, and especially not on a national basis.
My family in Illinois can watch South Carolina baseball on TV now. I think it's helped sell our university, too, having the television deal our conference has. It's been fun because you get to know more of the players, now. You're getting to know Michael Roth. The world is getting to know him, to see him in that light. I wish ESPN would have been around to do the same with Kip Bouknight, who won the Golden Spikes Award. Can you imagine the publicity he'd have gotten? It's helped us tell more stories to more people. Whereas 10-12 years ago not many people would have known about us as much, it's a credit to the performance on the field and the willingness of the coaches to let people in.
GC: With so many to choose from, what moments stand out to you when you remember back over the years you got to work with Tanner as head baseball coach?
Kitick: I can give you a moment from every year that was so special to me. It's hard for me to pick one out. I can remember being out there in 2002 watching us beat Miami. That afternoon is so special to me. That was, to see the first time for coach Tanner to go to Omaha, the program hadn't been since 1985, we're down in the ninth inning 4-1, I remember how special that moment was.
They had been so close in 2000 and 2001, and I could see that day how much this program meant to people. When they clinched that, that was special. There was something about that day, there was something special when we hoisted that trophy in 2010, when we did it again in 2011 and when we went back again in 2012. There have been so many moments, so many personal moments where I just said, 'Wow.' When Christian Walker hit that home run against Coastal Carolina, a great Coastal team. When Whit's (Merrifield) hit fell against UCLA. Against Oklahoma, Michael Roth throwing a complete game against Clemson. Us being down to our last strike and Jackie gets the hit. I could go all day. I remember Justin Smoak breaking the home run record in 2008 at Auburn. I remember in 2005 Steve Pearce hitting two home runs against Georgia Tech and we won to force another regional game. I remember 2006 when we hit five consecutive home runs against Georgia in the Super Regional...one moment is really hard for me to pinpoint. There have been a lot.
GC: You're also fortunate in that you really get to know the players as well or better than anyone besides the coaches and trainers. What's it like for you working with the student-athletes?
Kitick: When you get to know these guys, to ride the buses with them, to see what they're really about, that's special, the players and the coaches. You see people deal with adversity, with injuries. It's amazing the people you still hear from.
One of my favorite things is when the alumni come back. We have an alumni game every other year, and it's great to see where people's lives have gone, how successful they are, guys from that first team I worked with, Blake Taylor, Trey Dyson, Landon Powell, Kevin Melillo, David Marchbanks, the list goes on. They have families now and are doing well in life. The best moments are when we're all together, smiling and laughing and talking about what it was like. That's as enjoyable as it gets for me. Coach Tanner always talks about the importance of the whole program about the group, the whole, and that's what is so great about him being A.D. He'll bring that approach to the whole athletics program.
I'm very lucky to have worked with him over the years. I'm appreciative that coach Holbrook will allow me the same courtesy and opportunity. I view my job as that I serve at the pleasure of the coaches, the student-athletes and the people of the University of South Carolina. It's my honor and privilege that I get to work for and with those people. This university has been around since 1801, and it's a special place. I'm blessed and lucky to be here and be a part of it.