WeePre: The Friendliest Of RivalriesColumns
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Legendary former South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner, now athletic director, won’t ever forget the time he met a young man named Monte Lee.
Tanner, the Gamecocks’ head coach at the time, was out on a recruiting trip during the summer watching some select baseball when he noticed a head-strong, impressive, young man coaching a bunch of 15-year-olds. Tanner had questions about one of the players on the team, so he struck up a chord with Lee. He came away more than inspired, and that encounter would help Lee eventually land a position on Tanner’s staff as an assistant for six seasons following a two-year stint at Spartanburg Methodist. It also helped propel Lee into one of the college baseball’s rising coaches at College of Charleston before finding his way to perennial power Clemson this past offseason.
That young man that left a glowing first impression on Tanner will take the field Friday night in Columbia as what might be best called a friendly enemy encounter.
“I had gone over there that summer to watch his team, and I had some questions about a player. I was extremely impressed with, as a young guy, how he was handling his young players,” Tanner said. “How he taught him, his demeanor. I had known Monte from his days as a player at College of Charleston. Heck, he hit two homers off of us in one game one year. He was really impressive as a player, and he was even more impressive as a coach that day. That day really impacted me when it comes to Monte.
“He was at Spartanburg Methodist at the time, and expressed that if we ever had an opportunity, he’d love to be considered,” Tanner continued. “I called him about a volunteer position, initially, and explained to him that it wasn’t going to be a paid position. He didn’t hesitate. It was basically a situation where he was going to make it work no matter what. He didn’t want to worry about the logistics, he just wanted to be at our place as a coach. He was just one of those guys.”
With the help of Lee and other assistants, the Gamecocks built a national power and brand in college baseball. In Lee’s six seasons with the Gamecocks, he helped the program to postseason appearances in all six campaigns, while also aiding in the program to a pair of College World Series appearances. It wasn’t until two years after Lee left for Charleston that Tanner and the Gamecocks got over the ultimate hump and won back-to-back national titles, almost winning a third, but coming up short against Arizona.
Tanner gives much credit to his assistants for the program’s success. Jim Toman, now at Liberty, and of course, Chad Holbrook, deserve some serious praise, while Lee, too, was an integral part of the Tanner process.
“From day one at our place, he just had a tremendous repertoire. From a player, administrative and knowledge of the game standpoint, he was just a great coach. You could tell he was a real natural,” Tanner said. “He was a great communicator and we had great dialogue.
“Now, he’s on the other side,” Tanner joked. “But he’s wonderful. I’m not surprised he won big at Charleston, and I’m not surprised Dan [Radakovich] hired him, because I know what a guy like Monte is made of and what he’s all about. Dan made a great decision.”
Lee’s time at Clemson is still in its infancy, but his relationship with Tanner hasn’t tapered off. This past January, Tanner was inducted into the ABCA Hall of Fame, and many coaches were there to support him. Holbrook and Gamecocks pitching coach Jerry Meyers were in attendance, Toman, now the Liberty head coach, made the trek to see his old friend get inducted. And there, too, was Lee, making the rounds through the Opryland Hotel with a purple shirt on, orange Tiger paw proudly on his chest. But despite the rivalry, he was there primarily to support his friend, mentor, and now, his friendly enemy in Tanner. The bond was that special.
“You know, I had a bunch of my former coaches there [in Nashville], including Monte, and that was very special to me. I did tell him soon after getting the job to quit drinking the Kool-aid,” Tanner said with a laugh. “A lot of coaches out there need perspective and advice, but not Monte. He’s just one of those coaches who win or lose, won’t change his attitude. It’s not the end of the world if he loses, and it’s not everything if he wins. He’s patient, he doesn’t get out of control, and he’s got perspective beyond his years. He’s going to have his teams ready to play.”
Lee’s Tigers will head to Columbia on Friday for the series opener before going to a neutral site in Greenville, S.C., and wrapping up the series Sunday afternoon at home in Clemson, S.C. Clemson is 6-1 and has a potent offense with a youngster in Seth Beer helping lead the way, while the Gamecocks are an unblemished 9-0 and have the hot bat of John Jones leading the way, while also having a decisive advantage on the mound, where righthander Clarke Schmidt is creating some serious buzz in the scouting community.
Tanner looks forward to seeing his old friend and new rival. He has a busy Friday ahead, as he’ll fly to Florida to watch the highly-ranked Gamecocks women’s basketball team before immediately flying back for the opener of college baseball’s premier rivalry series.
There, on the field, he’ll see two former assistants that helped him earn the status as one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history.
Tanner will always remember that young man coaching summer ball, he just might not root for him all the time.
“He’s one of my guys, and I’ll always root for him, except when he plays us,” Tanner said. “But, remember, I didn’t say Clemson. Just Monte.”
Tanner Reflects: Thoughts On Clemson-South Carolina Rivalry
“I think it would have to be when we had to beat them twice in Omaha to advance. That was the greatest memory. People always forget that they took the series from us earlier in the year. We had to play them five times, and for us to advance against the stacked lineup they had that year was pretty special. For us to to come back like that and be able to do that on the grandest of stages in college baseball, it was special, but it was also really tough on both of us [Jack Leggett as well].”
“I remember along the way, I was talking to Coach Leggett before one of our games, and we just both said we’d love to play this game every game of the season. We didn’t enjoy the media scrutiny that came with it, but lining up and playing with these incredible players and the rivalry, and just feeling the sense of urgency. Nothing was better. It was one of those things you just loved to put on a uniform for.”
“The players, when you think of Clemson-South Carolina, they don’t really hate each other. Do they want to beat each other up on the scoreboard? Sure. But I don’t think it’s a hate deal, we just love to beat one an other. We’re going to have three sellouts this weekend and it’s going to be special.”