COLUMBIA — Shortly after Ray Tanner was named athletic director at South Carolina eight months ago, one of his first tasks was contacting former Gamecock athletes and welcoming them back into the family.

The fruits of his labors were seen on Monday when about four dozen current or former NFL players that had worn the USC uniform attended a luncheon at Seawell’s.

As a former national championship coach, Tanner is keenly aware of the importance of staying connected with former Gamecock athletes, especially those who succeed at the professional level.

“We tell them we realize life takes you in different directions, but we want you to come back as often as you can,” Tanner said. “I’m all about the student-athletes and former student-athletes. It’s very special to have these NFL guys show up today.”

Tanner emphasized that Monday’s luncheon was simply a first step, and many more luncheons are planned over the coming months and years across an array of Gamecock sports. The initial feedback has been extremely positive, he said, and maintaining relationships with former USC athletes will be a priority during his tenure.

“It’s part of our initiative to get athletes to come back,” Tanner said. “We’re probably going to average having a function every month or certainly every two months for all the sports. We’ll probably do something now for our spring sports to get the athletes to come back.”

As far as baseball is concerned, Tanner welcomed the 1977 Gamecock team back to Columbia this past weekend to receive their College World Series rings.

Perhaps a small gesture, but a significant step in the process to build bridges with former Gamecock athletes.

“It’s a big deal. I believe that,” Tanner said. “Sometimes they can help you out with resources, but just the fact this is where they got started, we’d like for them to come back and enjoy the university and the athletic department. Just because you’re a former athlete doesn’t mean you’re not a part of the program. They’re very much a part of the program.”

A representative from each of the past seven decades of Gamecock football attended the luncheon. The “old guard” was represented by former greats such as Alex Hawkins and Bobby Bryant, while Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers and Rick Sanford, the first USC player to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft, were counted among the group of players from the 1970s.

Current NFL players Johnathan Joseph (Houston), Patrick DiMarco (Kansas City), Cliff Matthews (Atlanta) and Travian Robertson (Atlanta) embodied the latest generation of Gamecocks able to reach NFL heights.

“Hopefully, we can get the guys feeling comfortable in coming back and getting more involved with the university,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “I’ve always tried to preach that the scenario and the plan for our players is to play well here, graduate and go get a good job and come back and support your old school and hang around your former team. These guys have shown that’s what they want to do, also.”

Spurrier proclaimed to the group that had USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott left for Alabama about two weeks ago, he would have quickly contacted former Gamecock offensive tackle Travelle Wharton in order to gauge his interest in the job.

Just one problem: Wharton is still playing in the NFL as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet, Spurrier contends that he was undeterred by that fact.

“Travelle, I almost called you a week ago,” Spurrier said. “Had Shawn Elliott taken that Alabama job, Travelle Wharton was the guy I was going to call. He’s still in the league, but perhaps I could talk him into coming out and coaching here at his alma mater. Travelle was on my list.”

Several former USC players told that the current administration is doing a superior job reaching out to past Gamecock athletes and welcoming them back to Columbia with open arms.

“I’m amazed we had this many guys back, and that’s a tribute to coach Tanner and coach (Clyde) Wrenn and the numerous people that have stepped forward to try to make things back right with the former players,” Sanford said. “I think it’s headed in the right direction. Things are going to turn around under coach Tanner. It will be a lot better. He’s a great people person. He makes you feel like they really do want you around.”

In addition to Monday’s event, USC hosted a luncheon for a number of former quarterbacks a few weeks ago. Corey Jenkins, who played for the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears over a five-year career, attended both events.

“This was definitely needed a long time ago,” Jenkins said. “I haven’t seen a lot of these guys in a long time. Many of these guys have fairly stable careers in the NFL. It’s good to catch up. This will certainly make the guys feel a little more welcome in coming back. I think a lot of guys felt uncomfortable at one time coming back because the university wasn’t doing a whole lot. But I think this is a great event for us.”

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