Last summer when Ray Tanner made the jump from the baseball dugout to the athletics director’s office, he had to make an immediate hire.
It didn’t take him long to decide that he would promote Chad Holbrook, his associate head coach of four seasons. Although Holbrook never had served as a head coach, his run of success as a top assistant with the Gamecocks and for 15 seasons at North Carolina made him an obvious choice.
His peers around the Southeastern Conference viewed it the same way.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who served as an assistant to Clemson coach Jack Leggett for nine seasons before taking over the Commodores in 2003, said Tanner made the right call.
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“His best resource was the guy coaching third base. That made complete sense to me,” Corbin said. “You can recycle head coaches, but sometimes the best choices you’ll have are the one sitting right underneath your nose. The university obviously knew it, and Ray knew it. I don’t think it was a difficult decision.”
Corbin, who guided Vanderbilt to the 2011 College World Series and whose team enters this season ranked No. 2 in the Baseball America Top 25, has known Holbrook for a long time. Corbin, who was the coach at Presbyterian when Holbrook’s wife, Jennifer, played basketball there, can cite the qualities that will make Holbrook a successful head coach.
“It’s a transition, but he has been around for such a long period of time. He’s just got a great way about him. He’s got an even disposition. He’s great with people. He’s great with kids,” Corbin said. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s in it for the right reasons. He wants the kids to have a good time. He’s a family person. All of that is conducive to making him a tremendous college coach.”
Another Eastern Division colleague, Georgia’s David Perno, views Holbrook as a Tanner disciple and “a good baseball guy” who has the ability to keep the USC program operating at the game’s highest level.
“Obviously, he knows how Coach Tanner did it and how he wants it done. He’s probably going to follow a lot of what Coach Tanner did,” Perno said. “Of course, he’ll do his own thing and make his own choices. He has probably been molding (his style) ever since he got into coaching. He’s going to run a great program and always have a good team.”
Perno served as an assistant at Georgia, where he also played, for five seasons before taking the head job for the 2002 season. After guiding the Bulldogs to three CWS appearances, he understands the pressures of keeping a program competitive in a conference as strong as the SEC.
Perno said having to follow Tanner is Holbrook’s biggest challenge. Tanner’s two national titles, six CWS appearances, 14 NCAA tournament trips and 738 wins in 16 seasons have raised fan expectations to the highest levels.
Following a legend isn’t easy, as former LSU coach Smoke Laval learned after taking over for Skip Bertman, who won five national titles with the Tigers. Despite a winning percentage of 66 percent and two CWS trips in five seasons, Laval resigned under pressure.
“Coach Tanner, in my eyes, is the best that I’ve gotten to know. There’s no question about that. So it’s tough any way you spin it,” Perno said. “Chad had to take the job because they wanted him, but at the same time, is it the right timing to follow a guy like Coach Tanner? It’s a difficult task because there are always going to be comparisons.”
Perno said the biggest adjustment for Holbrook — whose background as a top recruiter is similar to that of Perno’s — will be giving up the smaller tasks to concentrate on the bigger picture. Corbin said Holbrook will set aside the pressure of following Tanner and embrace the decision-making while providing a positive experience for his players and an entertaining product for the fans.
“That’s where his focus will be. I don’t think you can get caught up with a lot of the factors that really have nothing to do with what you’re trying to do,” Corbin said. “I’m sure he thought about it going in, but after that, he’s just going to grab the wheel and drive. When you’re the head coach, you drive the bus and you can’t take your eyes off the road. That’s the way it is.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, whose Razorbacks back were knocked out of the CWS by the Gamecocks last season, has no doubts either. His third-ranked team comes to Columbia in March to face USC’s new coach and the No. 7 Gamecocks, who open the season Friday against Liberty at Carolina Stadium.
“I think Chad’s track record speaks for itself,” Van Horn said. “I’m sure he won’t skip a beat moving into the head coach position.”