Mark Kingston Is A Builder
Mark Kingston has a spacious corner office with a breathtaking view of one of the most picturesque fields in college baseball.
But he’s not the type to stare out of windows—no matter how massive they might be.
You’re more likely to find the 47-year-old head coach a level below, in the weight room or in the batting cages, working with hitters or studying TrackMan data. Ever since South Carolina athletic director—and college coaching legend—Ray Tanner told Kingston he had the keys to the Gamecock program, Kingston’s focus hasn’t deviated from the task at hand.
He’s not wired that way.
“Has there been a time where we’ve just sat back and opened a cold one and said, ‘Hey, let’s celebrate this?” Kingston said from the leather couch in his office. “No, there hasn’t. It’s been one task to the next, to the next.”
Kingston approaches coaching like a carpenter views a stack of plywood. He loves the act of building; that’s what drives him. It’s also what’s most apparent on his coaching resume. Every program he has been a part of has gotten better by the time he left it. When he took over for the talented Jim Schlossnagle as recruiting coordinator at Tulane in 2002, he helped take an already-growing program to super regionals, and then to the College World Series. He led Illinois State to a regional his very first year as head coach in 2010. At South Florida, where he was head coach the previous three years, Kingston and his assistant Mike Current brought in an exceptional influx of talent. The shining jewel of Kingston’s first class, ace lefthander Shane McClanahan, is drawing 1-1 buzz for the upcoming MLB draft.
For Kingston, the approach at South Carolina—which is one of the most coveted positions in all of college baseball—isn’t any different. He’s still trying to build something great. The difference is that now, instead of working with Mega Blocks, he’s playing with full-fledged Legos.
“The big key here is you can’t do better than what South Carolina has done in the past,” Kingston said. “Because the best you can do is win a national championship—so we’re trying to duplicate that. . . . Wherever you are, whether it’s South Carolina or Stanford or Texas, you have to ask yourself, whatever you have, is it being maximized? And so from the day I got here, I’ve just tried to look at everything and say, ‘What can we improve?’ What is up to par and doesn’t need to be touched? What needs to be tweaked a little bit? What needs to revert back to what it was in 2010 and 2011?”
Those two years, of course, are the years in which Tanner led the Gamecocks to back-to-back College World Series titles and vaulted the program into no-doubt elite status. As the story goes, Tanner ascended to the role of athletic director at the end of the 2012 season, and his associate head coach, Chad Holbrook, took over as head coach. Holbrook led the Gamecocks to super regionals that very first year in 2013, then back to regionals in 2014. But after missing regionals in two of the last three seasons, Gamecocks fans grew impatient and all but willed Holbrook out of Columbia. He’s now the head coach at College of Charleston, which has gotten off to a 13-5 start.
For anyone who has spent any amount of time at Founders Park in Columbia, the demanding nature of Gamecocks fans is apparent. Like Yankees and Red Sox fans in the majors, Gamecocks fans have an extraordinarily high level of passion and even higher expectations for their team. The margin of error is razor thin. While that kind of pressure-cooker atmosphere is commonplace in college football, it’s a unique one in college baseball.
To this point, Kingston hasn’t done anything to garner any ill will from his fanbase—but the tide can change quickly. Known for his recruiting acumen, Kingston knows he also needs to sell fans on his vision. The Gamecocks have opened the year 12-5, but with Southeastern Conference play opening this weekend against defending national champion No. 2 Florida, the stakes are only rising.
“I just think the South Carolina people want to know that you’re working really hard,” Kingston said. “They want to know that you’re prepared and organized. They want to know that you’re giving them everything you have to make this program successful. and I think as they’ve gotten to know me. They see that I’m putting my heart and soul into this program, so I think it’s been very good. I also know, in the end, they want to see results. And they want to see us win more than we don’t. But I think in terms of them identifying “is this guy doing everything he can?,” I think they’re starting to realize I’m putting everything I have into this job.”
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From a South Carolina fan’s eyes, one of the most important measuring sticks of a Gamecock coach is how he fares against Clemson. The Clemson-South Carolina rivalry is the lifeblood of sports in the state and can make or break a coach’s reputation.
Though the Gamecocks dropped two of three to the rival Tigers in their meeting two weeks ago, there was an unmistakable positivity surrounding the club, certainly a different aura than last season.
In Game 1 in Columbia, just hours after Kingston had talked about maximizing every part of his roster, the coach found lightning in a bottle in the form of a pinch-hit game-tying home run in the eighth inning by senior journeyman Matt Williams. An inning later, leadoff hitter T.J. Hopkins hit a game-winning sacrifice fly.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity coach gave me,” Williams said after the contest. “It’s kind of surreal.”
Hopkins was more effusive.
“Coach Kingston has really changed my mindset about a baseball game, and I know it’s changed a lot of our mindsets,” he said. “And we’re never out of it. He stresses that in the dugout. He’ll come down and talk to you after an at-bat and talk to you about it. He coaches very loose and makes us feel, as players, very loose.”
That looseness carried over two days later into the hostile environs of Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, where the Gamecocks trailed Clemson, 6-0, early in the rubber game. South Carolina showed a resiliency it had seemed to lack at times last year, battling back to tie the game 7-7 against one of the game’s toughest closers in Ryley Gilliam in the top of the ninth.
Clemson wound up walking off in the bottom half, sealing a fourth straight win of the heated Reedy River Rivalry series. But even the Tigers had noticed an increased ferocity in the opposing dugout, with head coach Monte Lee praising his counterpart in his opening statement
Junior South Carolina first baseman L.T. Tolbert, who hit a key RBI double in that ninth inning, was the most direct and emphatic of all.
“Last year’s team wouldn’t have done that, and I think that starts at the top,” he told reporters outside the South Carolina dugout. “And I’m not afraid to say that.
“Coach Kingston, I’ll go to war with that guy any day, and I think everybody feels the same.”
Of course, there’s still plenty left to prove. SEC play couldn’t get off to a more difficult start than with the Gators coming to town. Outside of Clemson, the Gamecocks have yet to play another ranked opponent. While players like Tolbert, Hopkins and senior shortstop Madison Stokes are off to sizzling offensive starts, expected middle-of-the-order thumpers like Carlos Cortes and Jacob Olson are hitting below .200. The pitching staff is also a work in progress with a new-look bullpen and a weekend rotation that lost dual aces Wil Crowe and Clarke Schmidt.
Electric junior Adam Hill has stepped in to fill the Friday night void and has excelled, including two straight 14-strikeout efforts—one against Clemson. Fellow starters Cody Morris and freshman lefthander John Gilreath have shown flashes but will need to perform consistently as conference play begins.
While off to a strong start, Kingston’s focus is on maintaining an even keel—a coolness he learned from being an assistant to Jim Morris on Miami’s 2001 national championship squad. To succeed at a program such as South Carolina, thick skin is an absolute necessity.
“There’s no question: When you play in this environment, you need to be mentally tough,” Kingston said. “You need to be resilient. You need to be able to bounce back from some adversity. Part of it, I think players that come here, they already are that, so they’re attracted to being in this environment. Part of it, I think being in this environment helps to foster that, so I just think it’s a combination.
“The more you play here, the more that’s built into you.”
And though these Gamecocks have already shown the makings of it, Kingston intends to keep on building.