Chad Holbrook insists that he isn’t concerned about replacing a legend in Ray Tanner as South Carolina’s new head baseball coach.
As he stood at the Williams-Brice Stadium podium Monday morning at a news conference to announce his hiring, Holbrook took comfort in the fact that he was promoted by Tanner, the new athletics director who won 738 games and two national championships while taking the Gamecocks to 14 NCAA tournament appearances in his 16 seasons.
“It’s an honor that a legend is asking you to replace him,” Holbrook said. “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received as a baseball coach. I can’t fill his shoes. No one can. I can’t measure up to Coach Tanner. I can only do the best I can do. I hope in time that will be good enough.”
Holbrook, the associate head coach the past four seasons under Tanner, brings his own successes to the job. After a solid playing career at North Carolina from 1990 to 1993, Holbrook, 41, spent 15 seasons as assistant on the UNC staff before being recruited by Tanner to come to USC after the 2008 season.
The Tar Heels made three consecutive College World Series appearances from 2006-08 with Holbrook playing a key role, and the Gamecocks have made three consecutive appearances in the CWS title series, which includes national championships in 2010 and 2011. Holbrook has served as the recruiting coordinator, hitting instructor, and third-base coach over that stretch.
Tanner’s first official move in charge of the athletics department was to name his replacement. He called the decision an easy one.
“Had we opened this up, we probably would have attracted some head coaches from schools that would have surprised you a great deal. But he is the right man, and he’s the right coach,” Tanner said.
He added that was a consensus viewpoint from those above him at USC as well as among those who have played for and worked with Holbrook.
“Our new head baseball coach is a man of tremendous character and great experience. He will successfully lead our Gamecocks for years to come,” Tanner said. “Having been in the game for more than 30 years, I feel like I know who the good coaches are and the ones who make a difference. We have one who’s a difference maker.”
Holbrook’s salary and the length of his contract will not be announced until the terms are approved at the USC Board of Trustees meeting Aug. 3. He was making a base salary of $176,000.
Holbrook’s excitement at taking over the top spot was obvious. He relayed the story of sneaking into Tanner’s 1996 news conference to watch his friend take the USC job after leaving N.C. State. He even left a note at the time for Tanner stating that he hoped to work for him one day.
Their compatibility eventually led to a job offer for Holbrook to join Tanner. Holbrook turned down the first offer because he didn’t want to pull his young son Reece, who was being treated for leukemia, from the medical support system in Chapel Hill. A year later, with Reece’s cancer in remission, Holbrook took the next offer in the summer of 2008.
That friendship has grown stronger over the past four years, as the two have guided the Gamecocks to a 198-73 record and three straight trips to the CWS finals. While many fans viewed Holbrook as the coach-in-waiting, he said there was never anything in place past his desire to work with Tanner.
“I wanted to learn from him. There was nothing expected. There was nothing guaranteed,” Holbrook said. “I knew if I did the best I could every day the right opportunity would come along. This isn’t just the right opportunity. It’s the perfect opportunity. I tried to remain patient, and Coach Tanner encouraged me to remain patient. That’s really all the advice he gave me.”
Holbrook’s first mentor in the coaching world was his father, Eddie Holbrook, the former basketball coach at Gardner-Webb (1969-78) and Furman (1978-82) who attended Monday’s event.
“I grew up in a gym watching his teams practice basketball,” Holbrook said. “I knew then as a young kid that I wanted to coach and I wanted to recruit. I did that because I wanted to be like my dad.”
He grew up to be a standout three-sport athlete at Shelby (N.C.) High, where he earned a spot on the Shrine Bowl football team in 1988, before taking his baseball talents to UNC, where he was second-team All-ACC in 1993. He stayed at UNC after his playing career as an assistant coach, first under Mike Roberts and then under current coach Mike Fox.
He also developed a strong relationship with UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, who employed his wife, Jennifer, as an administrative assistant. Williams also has served as a mentor in Holbrook’s coaching career and a supporter of the family while it was dealing with Reece’s cancer.
But Holbrook understands that he’s going to become his own man with his promotion. He does like the idea, however, of having Tanner close by.
“The trust he has shown in me is tough for me to explain. He has always told me that I’m not short on confidence. But (Tanner) is the one who gave me the confidence to tackle the challenge ahead,” Holbrook said.
Holbrook plans to keep doing what he has always done, which is recruit top-level talent and coach it deep into NCAA tournament. He is not afraid of lofty expectations as he assumes the job of maintaining a 40-year tradition built by Bobby Richardson, June Raines and Tanner.
“This program is about winning. It’s about competing for championships. The expectations are not going to change just because Coach Tanner is not the head coach,” Holbrook said.