COLUMBIA -- It was quiet as South Carolina’s scrimmage ended Sunday until a low but stern voice broke the silence. It spoke calmly and swiftly as clouds circled the group of players kneeling on the mound, listening intently.
Mark Kingston finishes talking and with two claps, leaves the huddle and walks off the field as his players crowd on the dirt behind him and end the meeting with a loud “Family!” chant.
Kingston purposefully walks off knowing the next time he takes the field with fans milling in the stands the games will count.
The Kingston era has officially arrived in Columbia. He will coach his first game at Founders Park at 4 p.m. Friday after eight months on the job and over 15 years preparing for this moment.
The lessons he learned on fields in Coral Gables, in New Orleans, in Normal, Illinois, come together at Founders Park with the first pitch against VMI. No more scrimmages, no more preseason.
The jovial but intense coach was never a “me guy,” said his former boss at Tulane, Rick Jones.
“He was very sincere, very humble, but you could see in his eyes that this is what I’m born to do. It’s the truth,” Jones said. “I just could tell.”
The former Tulane head coach was looking for a new assistant prior to the 2002 season.
He didn’t look further after sitting down for lunch with Kingston, who was a volunteer assistant at Miami at the time.
He hired Kingston, starting the process that ended 15 years later with the 47-year-old getting ready to take over the reins at South Carolina.
As opening day nears, Kingston is taking the information he’s gained over the course of that time, spanning four schools, to maximize the Gamecocks’ talent.
“The successful programs that I’ve been a part of all were very motivated and very organized and prepared. There’s no substitute for those,” Kingston said. “You have to be motivated every day you have to be organized every day and you have to make sure everybody is working extremely hard. There’s no secrets: it’s preparation, it’s organization and it’s motivation.”
Master's in baseball from Miami
It started in Coral Gables working as an assistant for Jim Morris, a legend in the coaching ranks. Wanting to come somewhere warmer to work with a coach ripe with connections, he opted to give up a paid position at Purdue to become an unpaid volunteer helping the Hurricanes.
He worked off campus in the morning to make some money, but Morris said, “by 1 o’clock he was here ready to be on the field.”
“I learned how to run a program; I learned how to do everything necessary as a head coach. ... I just learned how you run a baseball program at the highest level,” Kingston said. “Being there was the equivalent of getting a master's degree in college baseball.”
In Kingston’s two seasons there, Morris saw a healthy work ethic from an assistant just wanting to make it as a head coach one day. He saw a loyal worker willing to do anything it took to turn his dreams into reality.
“He gave up a full-time job to come down here as a volunteer with limited resources,” Morris said. “I saw that commitment in him on the field and off the field to get to a position where he could be a head coach at a really good school.”
“Hey, this guy gets it.”
Ryan Copeland’s first conversation with Kingston came over the phone. A pitcher at Illinois State, Copeland was pitching in a summer league when Kingston arrived in Normal.
It was in that conversation he sensed the Redbirds had something special with the new assistant coach, who arrived after a seven-year stint at Tulane.
Once Copeland got back on campus, he saw it with his own eyes.
“The practices were better, the organization stuff that was better. The expectation changed for our strength and conditioning; that was better,” Copeland said. “In my head, I was saying, ‘This guy gets it. He’s got the resume; he’s won a national title before; he’s been a big-time assistant. If I’m not going to listen to Coach Kingston, who am I ever going to listen to?”’
Kingston took over a program with two previous tournament appearances and one Missouri Valley Conference tournament title to its name in 120 years of baseball.
It didn’t take him long to change that.
The team that couldn’t buy series victories against perennial contenders in the conference — Wichita and Missouri State — started to rattle off win after win.
In his first full season as head coach, his team finished 15-6 in the conference and won the MVC Tournament, clinching a postseason spot for the first time since 1994.
When he was in Normal, Kingston met Redbird volunteer coach Mike Current, who eventually turned into his right-hand man.
An assistant just looking to keep his job, Current remained on Illinois State’s staff with Kingston and ultimately went with him as an assistant to South Florida and then South Carolina.
“It was obvious he knew what he was doing. He had a ton of success in the past at a lot of really good programs. I think I knew and everyone else knew that he knew what he was doing,” Current, now USC’s recruiting coordinator, said, “It was pretty easy to buy into it and follow along.”
But Illinois State wasn’t the only program he helped turn around. After a 170-101 record in five seasons there, he went to South Florida.
There, he took a team whose last postseason appearance was in 2002 to two tournaments in three years. At South Florida, Kingston changed the word Omaha from a joke to an expectation.
“At the beginning, my freshman year it probably wasn’t talked about a whole lot just because if you would have brought it up to us, we probably would have laughed,” former Bulls player Kevin Merrell said. “But later on, junior year, it was definitely talked about more. And that’s a byproduct of some good players and having a good leader.”
Sincerity paves the way
Brad Emaus was an admittedly cocky freshman in Tulane’s starting lineup but playing a little too timid for Kingston’s liking.
That’s when the then-assistant and recruiting coordinator under Jones pulled him aside and brought him back to reality. Emaus finished that season hitting .321 with 13 home runs, 56 RBI and was first-team All C-USA.
It wasn't a physical altercation, but more of a pep talk to get the young hitter back to playing like his old self.
“It was a direct sternness that I really hadn’t seen out of him. It wasn’t an angry sternness,” Emaus said. “Enough to wake you up and get you back into the moment.”
Emaus was part of Tulane’s 2004 recruiting class that finished top in the country and the Green Wave’s 2005 College World Series team that included six eventual big-leaguers.
There was a sincerity about him that connected with recruits, Jones said, and that helped land elite talent at a private school.
That same personality trait helped spark an All-American career for Kevin Merrell. After Merrell’s first fall on the team, Kingston approached him and said if the season started tomorrow he wouldn’t be in the starting nine.
Merrell took that, used it as motivation and played in every game his freshman season en route to a great career at South Florida that ended getting selected No. 33 overall in last year’s draft.
“He’s that kind of leader and he loves to win and he’s passionate about that,” Merrell said. “He has a way of communicating with his players and motivating them to play together and compete. Thinking about it, it doesn’t surprise me that he has a job at South Carolina.”
It’s been more than 15 years since he had that lunch with Jones, the moment that started all of this.
Since then he’s been in the dugout for almost 900 games, about half of those coming as a head coach, but his first at South Carolina comes Friday.
“It was pretty much destined that he was going to get a job like this at some point in time,” Current said. “Because he’s very good at what he does. This is the type of place where he can do some special things.”
A rising star in the coaching ranks since moving down to Miami, Kingston has always shown an eagerness to learn and get better, a trait that didn’t go unnoticed by one of the first coaches that gave him a shot.
“I always felt that King was very loyal and he always asked questions and he always did what he was supposed to do and worked very hard,” Morris said. “Loyalty is something that’s very, very important in my book. I always felt and still feel like he’s a very good friend even though we aren’t around each other very much.”
He’s known by those around him as King — a simple but apt shortening of his last name — and his brand of power and pitching will take shape this season as the Gamecocks start their season.
He’s not a national name, but a name that’s been on the minds around coaching circles for a while and has finally made his way to Columbia.
A baseball mind, winning has followed him throughout his career. He’s changed the mentality and the culture around programs in the past.
Now he’ll tackle the challenge of taking South Carolina back to the promised land it hasn’t reached since 2013: the College World Series.
It’s something that he’s not shying away from with the journey to Omaha less than a week away.
“You’re getting one of the best in the country. Just because he didn’t coach at Clemson before or North Carolina or Florida, so nobody knows who he is. But I’m telling you, Coach Kingston, he’s going to do everything in his power to get that program back to where they were.”