Officially, Kevin O'Connell is the Chief Operating Officer, just under athletics director Ray Tanner in your program and alongside Deputy Athletics Director Charles Waddell.
Unofficially, O'Connell is Tanner's rock, the ultra-talented career administrator whom Tanner has known longer than anyone else in the USC administration, dating back not just to when O'Connell came to USC and was the team administrator for baseball in 2005 but going back to when the two worked together as young assistants at N.C. State in the 1980s.
Unlike anyone else, O'Connell was in a position to see Tanner's qualities both then and now, and his own long and successful career as an administrator at N.C. State, Miami (Ohio), TCU and South Carolina has positioned him well to help spur the Gamecocks to heights and accomplishments never before seen in Columbia. O'Connell took time to sit down with GamecockCentral.com's Ron Aiken earlier this week to discuss all that and much, much more.
GC: You've been around college athletics a long time. Do you still get excited about games like the Georgia-Carolina football game this weekend?
O'Connell: Absolutely. It's what you work for. It all comes together on that day, to have GameDay up on the Horseshoe, what that means to the campus, for our institution nationally, and to come back that night at 7 o'clock with the biggest game nationally in the country. That's a special day. We all get excited.
GC: On a related note, did ESPN give any consideration to moving GameDay from the horseshoe to the stadium, given the improvements to there with the video board and the new Gamecock Park?
O'Connell: The choice was ESPN's, and they didn't even make a site visit. They said, if the Horseshoe is available, that's where they wanted to go. It was nice to see the quote that it was one of their best shows ever the last time they were there.
GC: What's been feedback on changes made around the apron of the stadium this year?
O'Connell: It's been amazing. If you stand up high and look down, those TV trucks used to be on the West side of the stadium by the elevator where the pinch point was. It narrows there. To move all the cars off and put them closer to the intersection of Bluff and George Rogers, the TV folks love it, and it opens it up for our fans. As you see thousands of people come across from the fairgrounds and the farmer's market unobstructed by vehicles, it's really made a huge difference.
The next part of that is for the architects to finish the plan and then we'll do the plaza around the stadium. That's very exciting. You see the old Farmer's Market, Gamecock Park, this beautiful finished product that'll be complete at the end of this month at a total cost of about $15 and a half million, and we'll bring the same sort of beauty to the plaza around the stadium.
GC:To complete the park, the next projects to go there are the new practice fields and indoor practice facility, correct?
O'Connell: That's right. We're doing the programming for both right now because they impact each other. Location is critical. We're looking at the different components for the indoor facility, the strength and conditioning component, the training room component.
GC: Was any thought given to putting a locker room at the indoor facility so players and coaches wouldn't have to cross Bluff Road to get to practice?
O'Connell: The main locker room at the stadium will stay where it is for the foreseeable future. We put an extensive amount of money into that locker room, so to build a new one isn't what this plan is about.
GC: With the moving of coaches and administrators into the new $11.7 million Rice Athletic Center building this summer, can you talk about how facilities such as this, ones that fan's don't necessarily get to see but are so long overdue, are so important to recruiting and retention?
O'Connell: I can tell you a quick story of what it was like before in the Roundhouse to give you a perfect example. One day I'm working in my office, which had a leaky roof when it rained, and I hear a scream from another room. Just a blood-curdling scream. I get up and go investigate, and what had happened was a family of possums had fallen through the ceiling onto a woman's desk. Things like that happened there. It was definitely time to leave that building.
If you ask any of our coaches, they didn't bring recruits to the Roundhouse. Now, they have tremendous pride in this facility [The Rice Administration Building]. I was in the lobby the other day, the grand staircase that runs from the second floor down to the lobby, and one of our coaches was with a recruit down with their family, and you know it has to have a tremendous impact on them. They come out of this building and walk across the courtyard into the Dodie, and whether they go to the soccer fields or the new tennis complex, wherever they go, the facilities make a statement. They're beautiful.
When we do our goals for the year, our two competition goals for years now have been to place 10 teams in the top six in the conference, or top three in the divisional rankings, and place 10 teams in the Top 25. In order to get there in the toughest conference in the country, you have to provide your student-athletes and coaches with state-of-the-art facilities. It's not just about facilities, but they're a huge component. So, the first building we did was the Dodie. It remains, was and is the centerpiece of the Athletic Village. The Dodie.
From the Farmer's Market, the video board, the Athletics Village, it's all about giving the absolute best facilities we can give, and it's very gratifying to see us deliver that to our the student-athletes and coaches. We have a plan, we're sticking to the plan and the plan is very important to Ray Tanner. He's out today, in fact, raising money. If you're not pushing forward, you're falling back.
GC: That reminds me, you worked with Ray first while the two of you were at N.C. State together. You worked there for eight years and saw first-hand his abilities as an athletic administrator even then.
O'Connell: We were both there as young assistants. We absolutely worked together the whole time I was there. He was the young assistant in baseball and crossed over into game operations and tickets and I was an associate A.D. We worked closely and were good friends, so it was fun to come from TCU and be reunited. Coach [Curtis] Frye was there with us, too.
GC: What were your impressions of the young Ray Tanner?
O'Connell: I say this in any walk of life. There are some people you look at and you know they're different. Ray was different right from the get-go. He was very young, in his mid twenties, so before he became the youngest head coach in D-1 at the time, he was an assistant A.D. and assistant coach. He was very serious, very hard working. You could count on him. You knew, he was always focused on what's coming down the road, on the future. He had great vision, even back then.
He was very loyal. He just wasn't your typical mid-twenties guy. You just knew when you watched him that he was going to have a special career, and he did. I told coach [Jim] Valvano, our athletic director at the time, that he's going to make a great athletic director one day. [N.C. State baseball coach] Sam Esposito was retiring then and was pushing Ray for the job. I told Coach Valvano you can give him the job and he'll do great at it, but he's going to be a terrific A.D. Someday. I'm not surprised he reached that pinnacle, and he's going to do great things here.
GC: What was it like, being so involved with baseball, to see the national championships and what they meant to Tanner?
O'Connell: It was fun professionally to be a part of it but it was fun personally because I've always admired and respected Ray so much, so to watch him have that kind of success was a lot of fun, knowing we'd had those roots together all those many years ago.
It was also fun to watch how he ran his organization behind the scenes. That was fascinating. In order to be a really successful coach or an administrator, you have to anticipate, be two and three steps ahead. That's why he was successful as a coach and is also why he's successful as an administrator, because he's always thinking two three and four steps down the road. The great ones do that.
If you look at all the different attributes it takes to perform as a highly functioning athletic director at this level, he brings all those attributes to it, and he's been doing it for a long time. He's very bright, he's extremely hard working. He's organized. He knows what it takes to build a highly successful team of players and coaches.
As the sport administrator, I can tell you he exercises firm discipline. His kids go to class. They don't cause issues. You transfer that as an administrator with vision, and he knows from the coaches perspective how important it is to provide facilities, so what is he going to do? He's going to spend a lot of his time making sure he's out fundraising. He has a great rapport with people and with the media. He can help our coaches when they do have issues, because he's been there. He has credibility. No matter how you break it down or approach it, he has been successful and will continue to be successful.
GC: Getting back to the improvements at Williams-Brice Stadium, in the last three or so years alone, you've turned what was a longstanding liability - an aging, off-campus stadium in a run-down industrial area - and turned it into an asset other programs envy.
O'Connell: We're very fortunate with what we've been able to do down there. Where does a college program of our stature at this level get to buy 53 acres of land directly across the street from the stadium? It doesn't happen. Then, to take the whole area, green it up and make it just a beautiful setting, you really make it a true extension of the campus, the brick and the wrought iron, the Sternberg lighting; you have everything there. If you go up to the Horseshoe and then walk around the Farmer's Market, Gamecock Park, you say yeah, this is the University of South Carolina. That's the same look we'll bring to the plaza at the stadium and here at the Athletics Village, too, where there's $2 million dollars of hardscape and landscape going on right now.
GC: [At this point in the interview, O'Connell walks me out to the outdoor recruiting deck on the third floor, complete with tables and chairs and featuring a spectacular panoramic view, extending from the Dodie and soccer field to the right and to the left over the entire Athletics Village, out past the new tennis facility where Sarge Frye Field was and the adjacent plot where the new basketball practice facility will go, past the new softball stadium being built, over the track and field facility that is about to be expanded when the Roundhouse gets razed this fall and continuing on out to the stadium, where the new "South Carolina" and Block-C lettering on the back of the video board is clearly visible.] Wow, this is one amazing view that has to impress recruits.
O'Connell: Recruits can come here and have lunch before they see the athletics director. What's coming down the road here is we're doing the programming now for the basketball practice facility, a three-story structure that will provide a training room for the spring sports that mirrors what we have at the football stadium, a beautiful new weight room and the basketball floors on floors two and three. You can really see from here the entire village coming together wonderfully.
Even the parking garage here, architecturally, we went to great pains so that at first glance you don't even know it's a garage because it mirrors the Dodie and the Rice building so well. They're all sister buildings designed by the same people. This area is gong to be beautiful for 20, 30, 40 years to come. All of us take great pride in it, from development who raised the funds for it, for our special donors who contributed, the architects, the engineers, everybody who had a hand in it. The vision Eric Hyman and Ray Tanner brought, that matters. And what a lasting tribute to our student-athletes and our coaches.
GC: Do you think Hyman gets enough credit for the changes he was able to bring about through some difficult times?
O'Connell: I think he does. I think people realize how hard Eric worked and the vision he had for the Athletic Village. He gets a lot of credit for it and I think he's greatly appreciated for what he did and he's very happy for us. He knows we will see it through, and Ray has embraced it right from Day One. He thinks it's a marvelous concept, and he's working seven days a week raising money to make sure we can keep it going.
GC: Having come from TCU where you worked so closely with Eric Hyman, what were your emotions when he announced he was leaving?
O'Connell: I've loved my time here at South Carolina, and I wanted to stay here. From Day One, when Eric decided he was going to go to Texas A&M, I was happy and sad. I was sad that he was leaving but happy for him because it was a new step in his career. I wanted to stay, but I didn't know how it was going to work out. Obviously I was ecstatic when Ray got the opportunity and he asked me if I would stay. I wanted to stay, so it was great for me and my family, because we've all embraced the community and we love it here.
For me personally, to be able to keep working on a project I love working on is really special. I'm thrilled. It's very gratifying to see all this come together, especially something so desperately needed. For us to attract the top recruits regionally and nationally, one of the first things they ask about and want to see are facilities. Where is your academic center? Where are your practice facilities? Where are the game fields? What is your commitment to athletics at this level?
We had to make that commitment, and worked hard on the master plan for facilities that was embraced by the president, the board of trustees and our donors. Now, they can see where their dollars have gone and can see the results on the field with football, with baseball and now with basketball and all our other sports. Our goal is for all our sports to be competitive nationally. If you can be competitive in the SEC, you will be competitive nationally.
Once you get everybody going in the same direction, anything and everything is possible. You see a No. 5 Georgia coming in to play the No. 6 Gamecocks with 84,000 at a sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium with GameDay on the Horseshoe. You can see it all come together. When you see the Farmer's Market lit up at night, you walk across the street to 84,000 screaming fans, the video board fully finished, the Block C's lit up, who wouldn't get excited?
GC: You've been working in sports administration since 1977, starting out with the Washington Diplomats soccer team. With everything coming to fruition here at USC, have you given any thought to hanging up the cleats anytime soon?
O'Connell: No, I haven't. I'm having too much fun. Whether it's to help sustain a program or help build a program, giving the coaches and players the resources to be successful is what's we're here for and what I love.
When you work at something you're passionate about, it's not really a job. So I've never approached it in all these years as a job. It's something I love to do every day. I love the team we've put together here. I love Columbia and this university. I'm as happy as I can be to be a part of it.