November 30, 2021

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A look inside South Carolina’s athletic department during the coronavirus pandemic

South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner summed up the predicament, the reality of these days for the USC Athletics Department.

“We’re working from home right now,” Tanner said last week.

With the university campus shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, the business of the department keeps going. It might require video conferencing, but the day’s worth of meetings hasn’t ceased for Tanner or for many other staffers.

Even if the chances to duck out and see a game are on hold through the spring.

“We have a daily conference call with the Southeastern Conference with the ADs and commissioner (Greg) Sankey,” Tanner said. “That’s every single day that we do that as a noon call. I’m on with the university two times a day. I’m on with my staff in one capacity or another, one department or unit, at least once a day. I’m talking to coaches in small groups instead of having 15 coaches, 16 coaches on the line. I’m talking to coaches in groups of four.”

The AD noted he even spoke three times this past week to equestrian athlete Madelynne Herlocker, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representative on the NCAA level.

He joked he’s had to advance in the tech world just learning to video conference as often as he had.

“Even though we’re sheltered in place and we’re working remotely, this day and age you know you can almost run your office from home except the face-to-face meetings,” Tanner said.

It had been three weeks since the sports world shut down. From the Wednesday afternoon when conference tournaments were set to be played without fans came a 24-hour whirlwind: The NBA being was suspended, conference tournaments were canceled and finally the NCAA tournament was as well. Tanner was in Nashville those two days. Before what would have potentially been the Gamecocks’ second game at Bridgestone Arena, Tanner was back in Columbia was addressing a situation that saw SEC activities on hold and the College World Series canceled.

After 21 or so days, a good deal remains unknown, both in the world at large and as a result in college sports. Questions loom about the status of football season in the fall. Classes won’t even resume on campus until August at the earliest.

Students are doing distance learning, something Maria Hickman, the senior associate athletics director who oversees the academic staff, said has created some changes but not too much adversity.

“I think our students and our staff had such a great working relationship before this happened,” Hickman said. “That made it easy to just roll over to the changes that came with with this pandemic. So, it’s not like there’s something new or, you know, they’re going to buck the system because now we’re asking them to do something that’s a little different.”

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard got his higher-profile coaches to take pay cuts. Tanner said conversations had not gone in that direction in Columbia. The school will assuredly see a drop in the funds distributed by the SEC, money that includes already-cut NCAA distributions.

There’s a financial deadline three months out, and Tanner has a goal on that front.

“I’m on the phone multiple times daily with our CFO Jeff Tallant,” Tanner said. “Our fiscal year, you may know, is July 1 to June 30. So our main priority right now is getting to June 30 in the proper fashion as in operating in the black. And then simultaneously, we’re getting our budgets solidified for the 2021 academic year.

“Well, obviously hanging over us is this pandemic. And what kind of effect that it will have, as we move forward, we don’t have the answers to that. I don’t think anybody does.”

One situation he has only partially been pulled into is playing the role of teacher.

Like parents across the country, Tanner has kids in the house with schools now limited to remote learning only. His three are in eighth grade or high school.

Tanner spent years as a coach, a role often likened to a teacher. But the head of Gamecocks athletics isn’t giving himself a top grade on that front.

“To be honest with you, I’m not completely, maybe a D, but I’m about a C-minus,” Tanner said. “My wife is more like an A-plus. But my kids have been pretty diligent.

“Because they’re so tech savvy, they’re pretty good about handling their duties. So, I’ve been somewhat impressed.”

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