USC Gamecocks Baseball

Chad Holbrook still trying to escape shadow left by Ray Tanner

University of South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook is ill, and it’s too early to tell how serious his condition might become.

Holbrook is not actually physically sick, but he is suffering, and suffering mightily in some sense, from a more existential ailment. It is referred to commonly as NotRayTannerItis. The more formal scientific name for the disease is theguyafterTheGuy Syndrome.

The symptoms are obvious and seem to worsen each day. There’s the lack of championship rings as a head coach. There’s the too tepid applause when his name is called in pregame introductions at Founders Park. The subject is strongly advised not to listen to local sports talk radio lest the condition, and the subject, become aggravated.

NotRayTannerItis is the only real explanation for the ire directed at Holbrook at the moment. The 2016 Gamecocks are 37-11 and ranked No. 8 in the nation by Baseball America. They are tied with Baseball America’s top-ranked team, the Florida Gators, for the top spot in the SEC East with a 16-7 conference record.

There is every reason to be happy with this baseball season, but so many people are not.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to coach at a school where the fans love baseball,” Holbrook said Tuesday night after his team beat Presbyterian 3-1. “We have 7,000, 8,000 fans come to our games, and there are some that get mad when you lose. That’s OK. They care.

“If they get mad, they get mad. You know what? They ain’t madder than I am. They are sitting on their couch eating chips and drinking cokes and they’re mad. We’ve invested every single ounce of energy we’ve got. We’re a lot madder when we have a tough one.”

What gets lost thanks to the symptoms of Holbrook’s condition is that this team has only lost 11 games. South Carolina’s .770 winning percentage would lead every division in Major League Baseball at the moment save the NL Central, where the Chicago Cubs are off to a blistering start. As a point of reference, no MLB team has ever won 77 percent of its games for a complete season.

From a public relations standpoint, the fact that The Guy is still around, and not just around but now the boss, makes life harder on Holbrook. There are plenty of fans who wish Tanner would return to his old post or at least take a break from athletic directoring for a while and come back to the dugout to show Holbrook how it’s done.

From a real world perspective, though, having the last guy to do the job as the boss probably makes life easier. Tanner understands the vagaries of the game, and the challenges of advancing in the postseason.

“We talk daily,” Holbrook said. “I know that he understands what we go through on a daily basis, and I know that he has appreciated the heck out of this team this year. Ray Tanner taught me about everything that I know. I’m glad I got to follow him to be honest with you because I got to learn from him. Without following him, I wouldn’t have been able to learn from him so actually I consider that an advantage.”

Through four years, Tanner had a .691 winning percentage (168-75). Through Tuesday night, Holbrook has a .677 winning percentage as a head coach (156-74), although it’s fair to point out that he inherited a program that was in better shape than the one Tanner inherited.

“I’m here because of Ray Tanner. I wasn’t worried one iota about following him,” Holbrook said. “That’s for you guys and the fans to say, ‘You don’t ever follow a legend, too big of shoes to fill.’ I just want to coach. I consider it a feather in my cap that I get to follow him because he gave me a wealth of knowledge to go on. I have never looked at that as a burden.”

The best cure for NotRayTannerItis is the college baseball postseason. An actual national championship would result in complete remission of course, but the subject can continue to live a normal, healthy (and very well-paid) life simply with a booster shot in Omaha, Neb., home of the College World Series. Holbrook has never been there as a head coach. (Tanner first made an Omaha trip in his sixth year in Columbia.)

This year’s South Carolina team could make it and being a national seed would help a lot in that pursuit. If the Gamecocks are going to be a national seed, they likely must start by taking at least two of three from Texas A&M (ranked No. 2 by Baseball America) starting Friday at Founders Park.

“You hear people talk about the pressure. There’s pressure if I follow Ray Tanner or follow anybody,” Holbrook said. “If you coach anywhere in the SEC that has as $40 million stadium and great success and great tradition, there’s pressure.”

The other way to treat the disease is for Gamecock fans to judge Holbrook exclusively on his own merits and let the comparisons, and the past, die.

After all, nobody wants an outbreak of NotSteveSpurrierItis this fall.

Following a legend

The next coach doesn’t always last long:

Bear Bryant, Alabama: Ray Perkins (4 seasons)

John Wooden, UCLA: Gene Bartow (3)

Bobby Knight, Indiana: Mike Davis (6)

Vince Lombardi, Green Bay: Phil Bengston (3)

Dean Smith, North Carolina: Bill Guthridge (4)

Knute Rockne, Notre Dame: Hunk Anderson (3)