Ten years ago, before there was a Michael Roth, Ray Tanner called on a brainy left-hander to make an unlikely postseason start against the highly favored Clemson Tigers in a critical elimination game in Omaha. The year was 2002, the starter was Steven Bondurant and the result was the same: a complete-game victory that sent the Tigers home and propelled South Carolina to the NCAA Championship game to face Texas.
A decade later, Tanner still relies on the 32-year-old Bondurant - or "Bondo", as he was affectionately called by his teammates - for help, only this time in his capacity as USC Athletics Academic Advisor for baseball, men's soccer and volleyball, in addition to several other duties.
Sitting down with GamecockCentral.com's Ron Aiken in his office at the Dodie Academic Center surrounded by memorabilia from his successful collegiate and professional baseball career (he spent five seasons in the Oakland A's organization, making it all the way to AAA before repeated injuries led him out of the game), Bondurant spoke about his time at USC as part of Tanner's first CWS team, his professional baseball career and what it means now to be back at his alma mater and making a difference in the lives of student-athletes during one of the most exciting times in athletic department history. And oh yeah, maybe a bit about that Clemson game.
GC: Being here at the new Dodie Academic Center, what a showpiece for the university. Can you talk a little bit about what a difference that has made to what you do as an academic advisor?
Bondurant: Sure. It's a huge difference from where we were. The Dodie opened in February 2010; our old academic center is where sports medicine is now, and it's night and day to what this facility offers us and offers student-athletes. It's unbelievable what we're able to do here that we could never do before and how much of an impact it has on recruiting and success.
For example, our tutoring program has blown up here. We have more than 100 tutors and in every subject. We spent $250,000 last year on tutoring. It's a lot of money put into tutoring and mentoring. And we have three learning specialists in our department, too, which is pretty rare. I think it has a huge impact on positive outcomes. We have eight advisors who work with our sports. We try to keep it limited to under 100 student-athletes per advisor, three advisors for football, so you can give them as much individual attention as possible.
Space, too, is so important. We had computer sessions happening on the floor in the old building. We had a lot more group sessions over there because we didn't have the space for individual sessions. We have like 30 tutor rooms here with three computer labs, 100 computers. We're also starting to use, this semester, Skype tutoring, for guys on the road. That's a first for us. We had issues before where guys would go on the road and need help and couldn't get it. Now we can do that.
The space and this building in general promotes learning. This quiet, open setting, is amazing for learning. When you're cramped, in a small building with small rooms, it's just harder to learn effectively and not be distracted. We lead the SEC honor rolls every semester, the GPAs just keep going up, and every year we keep setting higher standards. The resources we have here, there are no excuses anymore.
GC: One thing that's obvious is that success in the classroom has to have a direct correlation to success on the field. How do you manage that?
Bondurant:That's the whole accountability issue. We hold people accountable. We get them into routines, showing up for appointments. If they don't show up for appointments, they're punished in certain ways. It translates to the field, it really does. We see it every year.
The guys who are struggling in the classroom struggle on the field. It's almost 100 percent of the time that happens. When you see guys like Michael Roth who take care of business in the classroom, they do the same thing in practice and on the field. We try to get that message across, and me being a former student-athlete, it helps them buy into it. Guys that really follow that plan are successful.
GC: You were successful in the classroom, graduating Magna Cum Laude, and also had
success as a player, compiling a career 14-7 record and going to the College World Series in 2002 and 2003 and winning an SEC championship in '02.
Bondurant: I took pride in doing well in the classroom. You see some student-athletes, they're here to play a sport. A degree is not the main thing on their minds. We try to change that mindset. My mindset was that I was embarrassed if I did poorly in a class. I took pride in doing well there and on the field.
It's all related. If you're slack in one area, it's going to affect every other area of your life. That's where life skills and community service come in to make well-rounded people, not just athletes. I focus on academics over here, but I talk to them about their sport, their personal life. I try to build a relationship so that they can tell me when they're struggling and we can get them the help they need. We have two sports psychologists here, a nutritionist here, we have everything they need in life.
GC: What's the most gratifying aspect of your job here?
Bondurant: Seeing the development, seeing the progress student-athletes make over their careers. We have some guys, I won't name names, but who came in their freshman year and could not do the work by themselves. Then seeing by that sophomore, junior year where they've taken ownership and have bought into the program, doing the study hall and the work and seeing the grades improve steadily and the person develop individually where they don't have to have someone calling or texting them constantly to remind them of tutor appointments, they're asking you and coming to you for help, that's huge.
And to see them graduate, guys who when they came in struggled and who thought maybe they'd only be here three years and go pro, it's tremendously gratifying. We still have plenty of people who come in thinking that, it's only natural, but we're here to prepare them for the rest of their lives and give them a foundation they can rely on if the pros don't work out.
GC: And it has to help when you have other successful student-athletes who are leading by example in those areas like a Roth you can point to.
Bondurant: When you have these junior and senior leaders who are doing unreal things on the field and taking care of things in the classroom, the other guys follow suit. When they speak up in meetings or get on the young guys, it happens a lot, they'll call a team meeting and get on the guys for not going to class and constantly getting into trouble, those guys listen. The young guys listen to me, but it helps to have those seniors say the same things. It helps them realize we're not just blowing smoke. We're trying to help them in life.
GC: It wasn't that long ago you were one of those young guys around here.
Bondurant: It's not, though each year it gets farther and farther away. The coaches reiterate that to the players, they remind the guys of what I did and where I came from. I don't harp on it too much, but I let them know I've been there, I've done the pro thing. I know what it takes to prepare for that. You get to Triple-A, you blow your labrum out, one day you're playing and the next day you're on a flight home. It's huge to have that degree in your pocket.
GC:I actually have your Triple-A stats here in front of me...
Bondurant: Oh no, they weren't too pretty!
GC: Well, I also have your Double-A stats, on the other hand, which were very good. That's a very very high level of baseball.
Bondurant: When I was with the A's, our low Class-A and high Class-A were very similar, almost interchangeable. Double-A was a big, big jump. The Texas League was a very offensive league; not that I'm trying to justify my stats [laughing], but an ERA in the fours - I think our league leader was 3.50 - doesn't look great, but in those parks it's pretty good. I played in Midland, Texas, and it's a smaller park with 30- to 40-mile-an-hour winds every day. And they weren't blowing in. You had to dodge bullets every day. And it was 100 degrees about every day, no trees, so it was like having a blow dryer in your face all the time.
In Triple-A, those were some distorted stats [19.29 ERA in 2007 in four appearances]. I came out three times with the bases loaded and two outs, and I don't like talking about it much, but every one of those got cashed in. You go from having no earned runs to three in one inning, and that makes a huge difference in your ERA. I was a situational guy up there, I made several appearances but not that many innings, and they took me out with guys on base. Every one of the guys I left on base scored. It's not a pretty ERA to look at. It was fun, though. I enjoyed it. Double-A and Triple-A were very similar. I was used very differently in Double-A than in Triple-A. I was a lefty specialist in Triple-A.
They put me in Tucson one day in Triple-A, the score was 20-18, we were up, it was one of those nights where, if you get an out, you're doing a good job. I gave up a couple runs in one inning, and right there your ERA is 18. Towards the end there, it was a grind. I'd gone through two labrum surgeries, had come back and felt pretty good, but my stuff wasn't quite the same. In college I was more of an 84 to 87-type pitcher, while in the pros I was 86 to 91. In pro ball you establish your fastball more, you throw fastballs inside more - the bats were different in college back then, too, so it was hard to throw inside to anybody because they could hit one out, especially at Sarge Frye. Balls flew out of there. I think I might have led the country in home runs my senior year! It was a running joke, I'd give up a home run in the first inning. I'd give one up, a solo home run, then settle in and be good the rest of the way and cruise. I think I gave up like 15, 16 home runs that year, almost all of them solo shots in the first.
I made the adjustment in pro ball, and I had an unbelievable career early on. I was a 15th round selection for the A's and went from "We'll see how you do" to doing very well, and that's how it happens. You're a senior, you're not going to get much money, you put together two to three solid years and you get yourself on the radar. My low-A was a good year, and I went from low-A to Double-A and had a good year and went to being one of the top prospects in the organization.
GC: Can you talk about the injuries that led you to leave the game?
Bondurant: I was going to the fall league after my second year in Double-A and my shoulder was bugging me a little bit. I missed a couple of starts and pitched in the playoffs and thought it was just tendonitis. I had it checked out and found out I had a torn labrum. I got it fixed and rehabbed it, then went to Spring Training and was going with Double-A again and it was bugging me big-time and I had torn it again.
I had anchors put into my shoulder to stabilize it and a couple of the anchors had blown loose. The second surgery was better, I was throwing again in a couple months and then that's when doing rehab, went to High-A for first time, Double-A and Triple-A, I was throwing 88-89 still but there wasn't as much life on the ball. My curveball had the same velocity but there wasn't as much snap on it. It was just different. The ball wasn't coming out of my hand like it used to, and it became a grind. It was a lot of travel. Pro ball is great and you'll love it, but if you're not in the big leagues in five years, you need to look hard at where you're at. Not to discourage you, but your shelf life is limited. Not many people make it to the pros from being in the minors for 10 years.
GC: How'd you transition to the job you have now at USC?
Bondurant: When you're in the minors, in the off-season you don't get paid so you try to find jobs. I was working in athletics here doing some mentoring, working as an advisor and helping out the program and enjoyed it. I enjoyed telling my story and having them buy in. When I got released from Triple-A, the baseball advisor had left to take a job at Indiana. So it opened up, I interviewed and got the job. I just fell into it, honestly, and didn't know this was what I wanted to do for a while.
I got my master's in human resources, and realized I really didn't want to go into the H.R. field, so this really worked out for me staying in athletics. It keeps you young working with the student-athletes on a college campus every day, and it's a great feeling to see these guys develop and get them ready for life. I love it.
GC: I'd get killed on the message boards if I failed to ask you about the Clemson game. Do you think about it much still?
Bondurant: I do. It's been unreal. Every week I see someone who'll say something like "Clemson-killer" or something like that. That was my, I won't say 'claim to fame,' but it put me on the map. I was having a good year my junior year but that was the exclamation point and got some scouts looking at me because it's a huge stage. Yeah, I think about it all the time.
GC: Do you remember that day, how it unfolded?
Bondurant: Yeah. I wasn't sure if I was going to start. The night before we'd had a team meeting, coach [Jerry] Meyers was there, they were saying, "Be ready. We don't know yet. We have a couple of guys in mind." We didn't want to overlook Clemson, but we had to prepare for Texas, too, if we won. They were looking at match-ups, because we'd thrown quite a few guys the night before, Blake Taylor, Matt Campbell, those guys had thrown and done a great job, and we were about to get on the bus to go to the field that day and he told me, "Get mentally ready, you're going to start."
So I said, "OK." I got off the bus, and it was typical Omaha, 30-mile-an-hour wind straight out, and I'm thinking [sarcastically], 'This is going to be good. Going against their murderer's row with Khalil Greene, Michael Johnson, Baker and Schmidt, this is going to be a task.' But honestly, after the first inning, the first inning I was definitely nervous, because they told me, 'Give it all you got,' but I knew I was on a short leash. We had everything to lose. They told me to do everything I could do, and after that first inning, I really started having fun. The fourth through eighth innings are really a blur, because they were all three up, three down-type innings, quick outs. I don't remember the middle innings.
I watched the tape a couple months later, and I didn't remember those innings at all. A couple pop-ups and a ground out and I was out of an inning. It was hot as all get-out, too. I remember that. I think about it quite a bit, mostly because people remind me and want to talk about it.
As an advisor, I go to Omaha with the team every year, too, so I get to reminisce. I talked with Roth that day before he pitched in the same situation against Clemson. I gave him a little bit of advice - I'm not taking any credit there, it was all him - but I think it helped a little bit. I told him I was starting at the time and he had maybe one start, and I said listen, I was in the same boat, go as long as you can go and see what happens.
The same thing that happened with me happened with him. He got in a groove and started rolling. You got these lefties throwing in the mid 80s, a lot of off-speed, it gets in people's heads, especially big-hitting teams. They start kind of beating themselves, to be honest with you. It was eerily similar, our two starts.
GC: Some other similarities between those two teams was chemistry, having fun, in contrast to Clemson.
Bondurant: Absolutely that was the case. I'd say our 2001 team was our best team, for sure, the one that didn't make it. We had great chemistry then but caught a team that got hot and lost two one-run games. It was crazy, because talent-wise, that was our best team.
In '02 the chemistry was unreal, and '03, honestly, we weren't as talented. That was my senior year. We had a good club but we'd lost several guys from the previous team and we weren't as good. We started off pretty slow, something like 18-9, and had one of those bonfire team meetings and got all the demons out and started having fun again. We expected big things from ourselves. We came back and made a good run. We weren't the best team, even the best SEC team, but we were scrappy and we found ways to win.
We kind of took on coach Tanner's mentality, not that other teams disrespected us, but that they didn't think we're that good, and I think it's carried over. These most recent teams were a lot more laid back, they've had so much fun. They've used Roth's mentality, act like you've been there and done it and have a good time.
GC: You were there for Tanner's first ever trip to Omaha. Was he nervous?
Bondurant: I think so, a little bit. In 2002, he was taking everything in like we all were. He was having the time of his life. In 2003, it was more business-like, and that's the way he's been ever since. But he always lets the players enjoy themselves. The new stadium is great, it's second-to-none, but I love the old Rosenblatt.
GC: What were your emotions seeing him finally win the title?
Bondurant: I was ecstatic for him. He's put so much into this program. He stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning thinking about losses or how to beat teams. He doesn't show it too much emotionally, but he's very emotional about the team and wins and losses, and he takes it to heart, which is what you want. Especially as an AD now, he understands the coaches side of things and what they're going through.
It was so great to see him win it, because he has so many wins, SEC championships, he had everything except the big one. It was a huge monkey off his back. He'd never say it, but you could tell, not that he's content now with what's he's done, but everything after that was gravy.
He's also done so much for me personally. When I first came to Carolina, I didn't pitch that much. I was the two-time state player of the year in North Carolina, and I was like, 'Alright, I'm going here and will start,' and that's not how it works. You get a guy like Aaron Rawl get an opportunity, but I came in and it was like, [Kip] Bouknight, [Michael] Bauer, [Scott] Barber, the Killer Bs, all these guys, I'm not getting any innings!
It wasn't like I hated [Tanner], but I was always pitching to prove myself. That's the way he coached early on. He didn't try to get you mad, but he wanted you to prove him wrong. If you want to pitch, then you needed to convince him why. I've always been really competitive, and he taught me I needed to learn from the guys ahead of me and wait my turn. Now, we're great friends. When he was coaching, we'd talk almost every day asking me about how his players were doing.
GC: What were your emotions when Tanner was named AD?
Bondurant: I was excited. It's a great step for him. He'd been thinking about it for years, and with the success he was having it was hard to step away from. But he was getting [Chad] Holbrook ready. I think a change for him is great and he's perfectly suited for it. He's been on some committees and things getting ready for this. He's ready. What's he's done is incredible; everybody loves Ray Tanner. Well, except Clemson, maybe.
GC:What's your relationship with coach Holbrook like?
Bondurant: He actually recruited me out of high school when he was at North Carolina. He's a player's coach. We've gotten to know each other real well over the past few years. I'm excited for him to get his chance. He has his own style and you'll probably see some different things this year in terms of more stolen bases, less home runs, more gap to gap, but that's the way Arizona had their team built, and you saw how successful that was. Still, it'll be very similar in how the program is run. It's only all positive for me!
GC: What does the future hold for Steven Bondurant?
Bondurant: This is my fifth year here, and I'm very happy to be where I am doing what I'm doing. I'm also hopeful to be able to move into athletic administration. Like coach Tanner did, I'm trying to take on more responsibilities so that I'm prepared should something come up. That's my end goal, and I'd love to be able to do that here. I'm a Gamecock for life.