Travis Bell

Column: Ray Tanner's seat is as warm as ever

The 2019 football season did not start off like students and fans thought it would. 

Instead of starting off the season 1-0 for the fifth-straight year, the Gamecocks fell to the Tar Heels in Charlotte, adding an unexpected wrinkle to the season right out of the gates. 

While the Gamecocks were able to get back to their winning ways over Charleston Southern, the loss to North Carolina still looms large, and it most likely will for the remainder of the football season, specifically for football head coach Will Muschamp and athletics director Ray Tanner. 

Many fans will be quick to criticize the head coach, but fans have also started to question if Tanner is the right man for the job. 

Tanner, who became athletics director on Aug. 2, 2012, saw his share of success on the baseball diamond, guiding the Gamecocks to the College World Series championship in 2010 and 2011, which are the only two national championships for the South Carolina baseball program.

However, Tanner has not been as popular in his office at the Rice Athletic Center as he was in the dugout at Founders Park, especially with how this football season started. 

Tanner will be and is judged by football, one of only two revenue-generating sports at South Carolina. Plus, it goes without saying that football is the most popular sport with fans and is the most culturally relevant sport in Columbia. 

When Tanner first became athletics director, the Gamecocks were in the middle of a historic stretch on the football field. They had just had their first ever 11-win season in football, and in the year before, South Carolina won the SEC East for the first time in school history. 

For the next two seasons, the Gamecocks would continue to break records, winning 11 games two more times. Head coach Steve Spurrier would eventually break the record for most wins as a South Carolina head football coach.

However, once Spurrier announced his resignation in 2015 following a 2-4 start, Tanner was given his most difficult challenge yet: replacing a legendary coach for the football team, which carries the most weight of any sport on campus.  

Tanner eventually hired Muschamp to lead the Gamecocks, despite Muschamp's tenure at the University of Florida, where he was fired after four seasons and a 28-21 overall record. Understandably, many fans were anxious about the hire. 

Muschamp has had some good moments as head coach, such as winning nine games in 2017 and guiding the Gamecocks to a handful of exciting victories over teams such as Tennessee and Ole Miss. 

However, there has been a lot of criticism. Most notably, there has only been one win over a ranked opponent since 2016, last year's Belk Bowl and this year's opening game against North Carolina. Muschamp also has yet to beat Clemson or Georgia, two of the Gamecocks' biggest rivals. 

All of these criticisms have built up to a lot of angst among Gamecock fans, especially in a results-driven business. 

If Tanner is the one who let the South Carolina football program go from winning 10 or more games every year to losing to Kentucky on a consistent basis, even more questions will arise about his leadership.

His critics can also go beyond the football field. 

In men's basketball, the team under his watch has not returned to a postseason game since 2017, when they went to the Final Four. To put that in perspective, freshmen during that game are now starting their senior year. 

In addition, his once proud baseball program has fallen as well. Tanner, as a coach, brought College World Series titles to Columbia in 2010 and 2011. However, the Gamecocks have not been to Omaha since 2013, and just finished one of the worst seasons in program history in head coach Mark Kingston's second year in the dugout. 

But despite all of these criticisms, Tanner still has a chance to redeem himself. Football can still turn the season around and beat a team such as Alabama or Clemson. Basketball and baseball can return to the postseason this year. There are definitely opportunities left for Tanner to win back the trust of the fan base. 

At the end of the day, Tanner getting fired is unlikely. Firing him would be up to the board of trustees and would be a complicated decision with a lot of moving parts, but it is not out of the question for fans to start thinking about it. 

However, in the event that one of the "Big 3" sports does not improve, fans have a reason for questioning him. Most fans probably won't get their wish, but with a results-driven business, it's a conversation that can and will be had.

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