In 2003, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber walked into his team’s locker room before a game wearing a black suit and told them he was there to bury Bill Self.
Self was not dead then. He’s not dead now, in fact, still alive and well and coaching basketball at Kansas. Weber simply needed to kill the idea of Self, who had reached a legendary status in his time as Illinois’ basketball coach prior to Weber. The stunt produced some odd looks toward Weber, including from Self, but it also worked.
The next season, Illinois was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the national title game.
Chad Holbrook never buried Ray Tanner. He never could have.
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For the past five years, Holbrook has lived the sports cliché that it’s hard to replace a coaching legend. On Tuesday night, he quit trying, resigning the job Tanner gave him five years ago after Tanner gave it up to become athletics director.
“There is a challenge for that assistant stepping into that position of, ‘Here’s what I would like to do, but can I really do my own philosophy or do I have to try to be what the other coach was?’ ” said Dr. Brent Walker, a sport psychologist who is the associate athletics director for championship performance at Columbia University in New York. “That’s a danger for a new coach, because first and foremost you have to be yourself. When you are a replacing a legend, that’s easier said than done.”
Holbrook, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, was not only replacing a legend when he replaced Tanner. He was replacing the man who hired him into the program as an assistant coach in 2009 and the man who left the baseball program to be the athletics director and his boss. It can be tough to see the sun from under a shadow with that many layers.
“There’s no black or white area in terms of this is my program versus this is someone else’s program. That’s where it gets muddied,” Walker said. “You have been part of the previous regime and it is hard to establish your own.”
Holbrook took over a program with almost every advantage imaginable – a juggernaut on the recruiting trail, a transcendent home facility, an energized fan base, etc. He also stared from the top step of the home dugout across the field at Founders Park and directly at Tanner’s name and jersey number on the left center field wall.
Tanner wore No. 1.
Holbrook wore No. 2.
Tanner won 738 games as South Carolina’s baseball coach, and in his last three seasons won two national championships and played in another championship series. Expectations like that can have weight, if not literally then figuratively and significantly.
As for the legend in this particular scenario, he seems like he would put such talk into the “mumbo jumbo” file. Of the cliché, Tanner says, “Most of the time I hear that I kind of laugh about it.”
“I came here many years ago with the legacy that Bobby Richardson established and the tenure that June Raines had and the tradition and history of success of this program. I don’t think much about that,” he said. “What I think about this program is it is a great opportunity. It has tradition, has great history, a wonderful fan base. We have great opportunities here to be successful, and that has been realized and, hopefully, it will be going forward.”
This issue is not a dead topic on the USC campus even with Holbrook gone. There’s another coach in garnet and black who is making a habit of replacing legends. Will Muschamp’s first head coaching job came at Florida in the wake of Urban Meyer. That tenure ended with Muschamp’s firing. In 2015, he was hired to replace Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.
Guys like Meyer and Spurrier can be hard to bury. Even figuratively.