Upon completion of his first season as the head baseball coach at South Carolina, Chad Holbrook, who served as an assistant coach at USC and his alma mater of North Carolina for a combined 19 seasons, sat down with GoGamecocks' Neil White for an interview at his Carolina Stadium office.
The Gamecocks finished 43-20 and reached the decisive game of the NCAA Super Regional against UNC before bowing out one game shy of making their fourth consecutive trip to the College World Series. Holbrook looked back at his first season as the man-in-charge and also took a look ahead.
Q: What were the greatest lessons you learned as a first-year head coach?
A: There are so many things I learned. There was the importance of decision-making, and the importance that each decision you make during the game can make a difference in you winning and losing. Whether you have to make a decision in the first inning or the eighth or ninth, they’re all equally important. Many times as an assistant, I would sit back and not think about a decision being made in the second or third inning having an impact on the game. When you move over a chair as a head coach, you think about that second-inning decision because it could change the decision you have to make in the eighth.
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Not taking any players’ feelings for granted was a big lesson. One thing coach (Ray) Tanner did such a good job of was always communicating with the players on a daily basis. I learned how important that was this year because the kids are always wanting to know where they stand, whether it’s what they want to hear or not. I don’t want a kid out on the field guessing what his role is. You want to make sure they know what’s expected of them and how they fit on the team. At the University of South Carolina, it’s all about winning, and it’s all about the team. You can’t let an individual’s feelings get in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish as a team. That became paramount for me over the course of the year with the decisions I had to make.
You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t assume just because you worked on it in practice that players are going to actually do it in a game. You have to reinforce what you work on in practice throughout the course of the game, especially in a critical part. (He mentions Connor Bright bunting to the wrong side of the field in a sacrifice situation that allowed the Tar Heels to cut down the lead runner in the final Super Regional game.)
Q: Did this season play out like you expected?
A: Yes and no. At the beginning of the year, I was very hopeful we would be a top-10 team the whole season and be a College World Series team. My thoughts and expectations were tempered as we battled injuries and a little bit of a slow start in the league. I wondered if we could keep our head above water as we got through all those injuries and if we would put ourselves in a good position in the postseason or even get there. It was in my thought process coming home from Florida (where they were swept) and looking at Kentucky and saying, ‘We’re in trouble here.’ I remember on the bus ride home from Gainesville thinking (closer) Tyler Webb might be out for the year.
Then later in the year when we started playing better, my expectations changed a little bit (again). I was very hopeful that we would not only get into a (NCAA) regional but host one. It’s always one of our goals to host a regional, and I’m very proud we got to do that. But this program’s about playing in the College World Series, and we fell one game short. I thought we would be good enough to get there if we played our best baseball.
Q: Is it strange not to be coaching in Omaha after six trips in eight seasons?
A: I’m realistic enough to know that even the great ones in the Hall of Fame can’t go to Omaha every year. But I have been lucky to be there six times in the last eight years (three each with UNC and USC), and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I feel weird sitting here right now knowing we’re not out there. It feels a little bit strange, but it’s also extremely motivating to make sure that we’re not in this situation next year ... As many satisfying things that happened over the course of the year, the most disappointing thing is not to still be playing. I can’t get that out of my thoughts, and it’s clouding some of the good things that happened. We let a great opportunity slip away, and that’s going to bother me until February.
Q: In retrospect, was it difficult to go to Chapel Hill for the Super Regional?
A: It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. Looking at the matchup when we were on the way up there, yes, I had some anxiety. But once I got there, it was fine. People were nice to me, and it was great seeing a lot of the old faces that I used to work with, from grounds-crew guys to secretaries to people that meant so much to our family. When the game started, I didn’t even think about it. And when we lost, it didn’t hurt any worse losing to North Carolina. It would have hurt the same if we had lost to Oklahoma or UConn or Louisville or Vanderbilt. The fact that we were a couple of plays away from playing in the College World Series hurt the most.
Q: Following a guy like Ray Tanner isn’t easy. Did you feel accepted by USC fans this season?
A: I’ve had an incredible amount of support. I know over the course of the season, when some bumps happened, that there were some tough things said about me and how I’m not coach Tanner. I’m certainly not ever going to be coach Tanner. One neat thing about coaching at South Carolina is that people care. People want you to win. I would tell coach Tanner, after we had lost a tough game when he was coaching, that they’re getting all over you up there, and he goes, ‘That’s nothing but a back-handed compliment. It’s because they care and they expect you to win.’ That’s the way I’ve treated some of the critics that maybe I’ve had over the course of the year.
But I feel great that the fan base and the people of Columbia have not only embraced me but embraced my family. I’m entrenched here now, and I feel a part of the Gamecock family. I’ve been embraced by the people that matter. For those still wondering how we’ll finish, I’ve got a great platform and great players to try to get us back to the College World Series. Ultimately, that’s what I want to be judged on, and that’s what I should be judged on in a program like this one.
Q: What was the most fun part of the job, and what was the most difficult part of the job?
A: The most fun part of the job is being with the kids every day, whether it be at practice or in a game. I’ve always said there’s nothing more special than being in the dugout with a group of guys trying to accomplish the same goal. Over the course of games and the fall and hanging out with the guys in the locker room and the weight room, those are the most enjoyable times. It was very much different as a head coach. As an assistant coach, you enjoy the wins a lot more. As a head coach, at least for me in the first year, the wins were more of a relief. As an assistant, I celebrated the wins like they were meant to be celebrated. Sometimes as a head coach, I took a deep breath and said, ‘Whew, we got that one. Let’s move on to the next one.’ A lot of SEC coaches have told me the same thing.
The toughest part was trying to be fair to every single player in that dugout from an opportunity standpoint. I’m a coach with a big heart. ... You can’t give every person in that dugout an equal opportunity, and that’s tough because I wanted them all to play. I wanted the ones that worked so hard and played well in the fall to play, and when they get off to a slow start, I can’t get them in there. I hurt for those kids. That was the hardest thing. As a coach, I can’t worry about being fair. I have to worry about winning. This isn’t Little League. It’s big-boy baseball, and you’ve got to put the lineup out there every day that gives you the best opportunity to win. I think I did that.
Q: How excited are you about your second season?
A: We’ve very excited. We’ve got a very strong core of our team back. We’re going to miss our nine seniors big-time. Those kids meant a whole heck of a lot to our program. I’m as excited about this recruiting class as I’ve been with any class I’ve recruited, either here or my previous job. We dodged the bullets that we needed to dodge from a (MLB) draft standpoint. It’s a big class with a lot of players coming in. And the guys we’ve got coming back should be much better players than they were their first years here, and I’m talking about (Grayson) Greiner and (Joey) Pankake and (Tanner) English and Max (Schrock). I feel great as I sit here right now that our team will be talented enough to be playing in Omaha next June. We’re going to have to work extremely hard to put ourselves in a position to do that, but we’re going to be as talented as anybody we play.