Q&A with Ray Tanner: College sports entering new era

jkendall@thestate.comMay 24, 2014 

USC athletics director Ray Tanner

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

Most of the major players in South Carolina’s athletic department, not to mention school president Harris Pastides, will convene this week in Destin, Fla., for the SEC’s annual spring meetings.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner took time before leaving for Florida to talk with The State about the business at hand for the league and several other topics concerning his athletics department.

The most pressing issue already has been handled with the release of the football schedule model. Among the other topics Tanner addressed: the future of the NCAA’s restructuring, Jadeveon Clowney’s selection in the NFL draft and the school’s six-year, $19 million deal with apparel maker Under Armour.

Q: Do you expect any major news out Destin this week?

A: I don’t think so. I guess you never know, but because football is all settled and the schedule got released, there is some legislation that we will review, but I don’t think there is anything that is earth-shattering. I know there have been years where a pretty good media contingent has gone, but I don’t expect anything that is going to be big news out of Destin.

Q: What did Jadeveon Clowney being picked No. 1 by the Houston Texans mean for South Carolina?

A: I will back up a few days to when he did the workout in Columbia at Williams-Brice. The impact just the workout had for our university and our football program was very special. You don’t get that in most circumstances, and then the draft unfolds and he becomes the No. 1 pick. I don’t think you can put a price on the exposure you get and the way he represented himself and the school. There are so many aspects of him being No. 1 that I thought were positive for our school, but the fact that he came out of high school as the No. 1 player in the country and he left our football program as the No. 1 player in the country, that to me is a statement about the coaches and the program and the university.

Q: Are you excited about what appear to be the coming changes in the NCAA? Do you have any reservations about them?

A: I think it’s good. I think it is time. Many times, you hear we are concerned about the well being our student-athletes. Sometimes I believe it’s more rhetoric than anything else. Now it is going to become reality moreso than ever before, and I am a proponent. There is going to be some angst because there are going to be more financial pressure put on schools to do certain things, but I am a huge proponent of what might be the opportunities for student-athletes down the road as far as further development as undergrads, maybe job placement, insurance opportunities, benefits beyond their playing days. I think there are some things that could happen that would be good for our student-athletes. There is going to be some financial pressure put on all of us, but that’s OK. We will make the adjustments we need to. Change is good. I am not saying the system is completely broken. I think there is some strength in the model we have, but that’s not to say we can’t enhance it also.

Q: Has there been a commitment made yet by the Big Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big-12) that any changes to the structure will apply to all athletes, or is there a chance we could see changes that affect only football and men’s basketball, the revenue-producing sports?

A: I think it will be consistent across all sports. It may be based on scholarship value, the amount of scholarships you have in a sport. My personal opinion, and I am just speculating, I don’t think it’s going to be a football-only situation at the end of the day. I think we will cross all sports, men and women. That’s what I am in favor of. I am all for change, but I want it to affect all our student-athletes, not just a small population.

Q: From where you sit, does this feel like a natural and gradual improvement to the college athletics system or are we on the verge of a major change?

A: I would just be speculating and being an administrator at this level for only two years, there are a lot of people with more knowledge than me, but I think it’s a natural and gradual change. I don’t think it’s going to be upside down. I don’t think our model is completely wrong. Men and women come in as student-athletes, and they have the opportunity with scholarships to get degrees and life after sports so there are a lot of positive things to the model we have, but there are certain things we can do to enhance it and improve the opportunities. I just don’t think it’s going to be a situation where you look at it six years from now, and you say, ‘This is not what we thought six years ago.’

Q: How happy are you with the Under Armour deal?

A: I think it’s been a very good deal for us. When Eric Hyman did that deal with the university a number of years ago, it gave us an opportunity on a national stage. Our exposure has been really good for them as well with football and what happened in baseball. I think we have been good partners. Their service and product has been very good. That contract has two more years on it. I think that our brand is maybe different than it was when we signed the contract. That being said, Under Armour has been a good partner for us.

Q: Did you think you have benefitted by being one of the first major Under Armour schools?

A: I think that was big for us, and I think it was big for Under Armour. They did a great job of putting us out there and making a statement about their brand and our university. We reciprocated their commitment by having some successful programs that helped their brand in a big way. It was good for both of us.

Q: There were some concerns among basketball programs at Under Armour schools during the NCAA tournament? How have Frank Martin and Dawn Staley liked the deal?

A: I know that Under Armour has spent a lot of time with coach Martin and coach Staley about their shoes and trying to maybe enhance the quality of the shoe from a basketball setting. I will go back to when we started with them and they were new in the baseball business, and they got it right in a hurry. I think anytime you embark on something new, it is hard to be right out of the gates. Football has been pleased as well. There were some growing pains as there would be with anything. There were growing pains many years ago with Nike, but they worked hard to improve their shoe, and because of our relationship with Under Armour, they have spent a lot of time with coach Martin and coach Staley to make sure they are putting out a quality shoe for basketball.

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