South Carolina fans watching Thursday night’s ACC men’s basketball game between North Carolina and Miami, Fla., might have noticed a familiar figure wearing a light blue shirt while sitting on the end of the Tar Heels’ bench.
No need for a double-take. That really was USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook.
But the UNC alumnus — who played and coached baseball in Chapel Hill from 1990 to 2008 — hasn’t switched teams again. He joined forces with his longtime friend and mentor, UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, as they continue their efforts to fight pediatric cancer.
Holbrook earned his spot on the bench as an unofficial coach for the game thanks to a $6,500 bid he made at the eighth Fast Break Against Cancer breakfast, a charity auction that Williams hosts annually during mid-October in the Dean Smith Center. It was held the same day basketball practice tipped off.
That bid came a few months after Williams bid $3,000 at the Reece Holbrook Win Anyway Foundation benefit to sit in Holbrook’s dugout this spring for a game yet to be determined. Holbrook’s 10-year-old son Reece was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 2. After more than three-and-a-half years of treatment, Reece’s cancer went into remission five years ago, and Williams was instrumental in providing emotional and financial support for the Holbrook family.
Williams’ annual breakfast had even more poignancy after he had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed from his kidney in September. As for Holbrook, who grew up in a basketball environment as the son of former Gardner-Webb and Furman coach Eddie Holbrook, this opportunity to join the Tar Heels for a night represented something special.
“If you’re a North Carolina fan, you dream about the basketball program. You dream about either playing or coaching for that team,” he said. “I was the son of a basketball coach and grew up watching Coach (Dean) Smith’s teams and wondering what it would be like behind the scenes.”
Yet even his time at UNC, where his wife, Jennifer, served as the administrative assistant for Williams in the basketball office, didn’t allow the same proximity to the program that Thursday’s game did.
“I got to see the ins and outs that I never expected to see,” he said. “It was a great experience. I felt like a kid in a candy store all day. I felt like my 8-and-10-year-olds did on Christmas Day. That is one of the best things I’ve done.”
For a man who has coached in the College World Series six times, which included a pair of national titles with the Gamecocks, that says a lot. He got a big kick out of following the detailed game-day routine for the UNC coaches and players. That included witnessing the pregame speech, the halftime adjustments, and watching how Williams helped his players handle the disappointment after the game ended in a 68-59 Miami victory. Holbrook understands losing, but he realizes the stakes can be higher in basketball, which plays half as many games as baseball.
“Each game is magnified more. There isn’t a series, there’s just a game,” he said. “So after a tough loss, especially a home one, the raw emotion is much easier to see, not only from the players but the coaches, too. You see how much they care. You don’t realize how important the head coach is to the kids until you get to see some of the things I got to see last night.”
Holbrook also knows how superstitious Williams is, and he’s hoping his friend doesn’t view his presence on the bench in the loss as a bad sign. Williams also was wearing a new suit Thursday.
“He told me, ‘If we lose tonight, I’ll never wear this suit again,’ ” Holbrook said. “And I said, ‘Coach, make it just the suit’s fault and not my fault.’ ”
After the game, the loss was a little too fresh to assess blame.
“Last night wasn’t the time, but in June, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, you’re not sitting on my bench again,’ ” Holbrook said.
The USC coach still wouldn’t trade his experience despite the result. And although he didn’t call any timeouts, design any plays, or unleash any Frank Martin-like stare-downs on the officials, he did have the time of his life.
“It’s a great experience in college athletics, and I got to see it up close,” Holbrook said.