CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the summer of 1989, Chad Holbrook made the 180-mile trip from his family’s home in Shelby, N.C., across the state to Chapel Hill. He was enrolling at North Carolina for summer school, and he felt anxious, in need of some security.
He found it in his sister Nicole’s one-bedroom apartment.
She let him sleep on her cot, proofread his papers and showed him around the campus, where she was finishing her final year of graduate school.
Nicole is five years older than Holbrook, “so growing up, I was probably more of a mom than a sister,” she said.
Holbrook spent the next 19 years in Chapel Hill. He reveled in the joys of a college baseball player, and later found his professional calling as a coach and recruiter.
He bought his first house with his wife. He welcomed two sons into the world, and anguished through leukemia treatments for one of them. He also became lifelong friends with a coaching legend who supported his family.
In Chapel Hill, Holbrook lived life’s full spectrum — and loved what it made him.
“That place helped mold me to who I am today,” he said.
Holbrook left in the summer of 2008 to become an assistant at South Carolina, after 15 seasons as a North Carolina assistant. He returns today, in the best-of-three NCAA tournament super regional opener, coaching against his alma mater for the first time, in his debut season as the Gamecocks’ head coach.
This is mostly different than the nervous kid showing up in 1989. He is balder up top, a bit thicker in the middle, wealthy from working in his passion and not nearly as likely to drop in at a concert full of hippies.
But the things that matter endure.
On Thursday afternoon, he walked through the bowels of North Carolina’s Boshamer Stadium, a remodeled palace since his playing days. He warmly greeted Dave Arendas, once a mentor as a teammate, now his brother-in-law and the Tar Heels’ director of baseball operations. Their pitching coach, Scott Forbes, was in Holbrook’s wedding. They had already chatted five times this week before USC arrived in Chapel Hill on Wednesday.
The baseball games will come and go this weekend. This first season, in what Holbrook hopes can be his last job, will eventually end. But the memories and relationships Holbrook created in Chapel Hill will remain forever.
“I can’t cut that off,” he said. “I’m not the type of person that can just let that go.”
Fast times at UNC
Holbrook and his teammates were stunned. They couldn’t believe that Chapel Hill, with its dignified reputation, would let the Grateful Dead play two shows at the Dean Smith Center.
It was March 1993, Holbrook’s senior season. The Tar Heels had just finished beating Eastern Illinois, 10-9. Holbrook said he got the winning hit. They showered and walked across campus to see the parking lots jammed with hippies, including little kids who peddled grilled cheese sandwiches to the Tar Heels.
Then Holbrook and teammate Chris Cox watched the Dead play “Jack Straw” and “Tennessee Jed,” and encore with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Holbrook and his buddies more often spent social time drinking beer at Four Corners, eating double cheeseburger pitas at Hector’s, hanging out on Jordan Lake or watching volleyball matches.
By his senior year, Holbrook was comfortable with Chapel Hill, and what it took to succeed in college ball. His 98 stolen bases still rank second in school history, his 273 hits sixth.
During Holbrook’s first fall, Arendas showed the freshmen the importance of extra offseason conditioning. Holbrook admired Arendas, a senior who he roomed with on road trips, when two seniors got the beds and a freshman slept on a rollaway.
Holbrook had come to North Carolina as a more polished football player than baseball player, but coach Mike Roberts eventually started him in centerfield because of his speed and hustle, which atoned for his average arm.
“I always had a philosophy as a coach — my dad gave it to me — if you’re not dirty by the sixth inning, slide in front of the dugout,” Roberts said. “I never had to worry about that with Chad. He probably slid head-first into first base more than anybody I’ve ever had.”
In those days, the Heels’ batting cages had a dirt floor. Roberts made his players sprint there, kicking up dust with every step.
“I would blow my nose about two hours later and dirt would come out,” Holbrook recalled. “If I die of freaking tuberculosis, you’re going to remember what I said.”
Even though Holbrook didn’t enjoy the sprints, Roberts liked his humility — the top trait Roberts said he requires from assistant coaches.
“I want an assistant who walks in and says, ‘I’ll clean the toilet. I don’t care what I do,’ ” Roberts said. “And that was Chad.”
A helping hand
Holbrook had worked one season, 1994, as a graduate assistant at North Carolina and two as a full-timer when USC hired Ray Tanner away from North Carolina State in 1996. Holbrook attended Tanner’s press conference and handed him a note, the gist of which was: “One day, I hope to do some things that you’ll warrant me being on your staff,” Holbrook said.
When Holbrook played, Tanner used to put his arm around him after games and talk to him.
“I saw the passion that he played with on the field,” Tanner said. “I sort of respected his game.”
Holbrook’s recruiting as a coach, which laid the foundation for the Tar Heels’ College World Series trips from 2006-09, further impressed Tanner.
Columbia was an attractive place for Holbrook. At age 16, he met a Columbia girl at Myrtle Beach. In 2000, two years after new coach Mike Fox retained Holbrook, he married Jennifer Hilliard. She moved to Chapel Hill, where she became basketball coach Roy Williams’ administrative assistant. The Holbrooks’ life in Chapel Hill was grand.
In 2004, a leukemia diagnosis for their 2-year-old son, Reece, crushed them. The day after the diagnosis, Williams came to the hospital, the same one where Reece was born, a place that still “gives me chills to ride by,” Jennifer said. “I don’t care if you’re out of work for a day, a week, a month, a year,” Williams told Jennifer, as she recalled. “You’re going to have a job when you come back.”
Williams became a father figure to Holbrook. He consoled him, let him study North Carolina basketball practices in person, mentored him through the decision to leave for USC and offered unsolicited advice this week about coaching against your former school.
“We’ll forever have a bond,” Holbrook said. “That’ll go on until we both die.”
Repaying his sister
Holbrook repaid his sister for letting him crash at her apartment. Nicole attended his games, and Holbrook got an idea for the senior second baseman who had become his mentor.
“He started trying to fix us up,” Dave Arendas said.
Holbrook told Nicole she ought to meet Arendas, because they’d have a lot in common. Nicole recalled how she “just kind of blew it off a little bit. Nobody trusts their little brother to be a matchmaker for them.” Holbrook persisted, and praised Arendas to his mom, Bobbie Holbrook. Nicole relented.
Arendas was shy, but Holbrook worked around that. Holbrook, Arendas and a couple friends went to Nicole’s for dinner one night. Holbrook had everybody leave Arendas there, “so we had no choice but to talk,” Nicole said. They married in 1991. Their son, D.C., is now a backup infielder at USC.
Chapel Hill reunites them all this weekend — except Reece. He turned 11 last month and has been leukemia-free without treatments for 51/2 years. He is busy making a life of his own. This morning, he graduates fifth grade. His weekend is full, too. He has baseball games to play.