COLUMBIA — On a late January morning, Chad Holbrook arrived at his Carolina Stadium office and walked through a lobby that doubles as a shrine to South Carolina baseball’s remarkable recent accomplishments.
Chad HolbrookJob: South Carolina baseball coach Age: 42 Family: Married his wife, Jennifer, in 2000. Their sons, Reece and Cooper, are 10 and 8. Notable: Holbrook was an assistant coach at North Carolina, his alma mater, from 1994-2008, then spent 2009-12 as a USC assistant under Ray Tanner. Holbrook went to the College World Series from 2006-08 with North Carolina, which finished second in the first two years. He helped USC win the national title in 2010 and 2011 and finish second in 2012.
The 2010 and 2011 national championship trophies shined inside a glass case. Framed newspaper front pages hung on the wall, their bold headlines proclaiming the title victories. In other glass cases were a base from the College World Series and mannequins dressed in full uniforms from the back-to-back championship teams.
Holbrook’s spacious office is filled with framed World Series pictures, many still waiting to be hung, but all placed for now at the base of a wall of windows, and within plain view of his desk. Holbrook looked out the windows on this morning and admired his postcard view of the field where he will chase more trophies for the lobby.
The sun shined, the outfield grass was bright green, and for a moment, Holbrook took it all in. Then he snapped back to reality.
“It might not be so comfortable after we lose a few,” he said with a chuckle.
Holbrook, 42, had just finished one of the best years of his life. Last January, he moved to a house on Lake Murray with his wife and two sons. In June, the Gamecocks played for a third straight national title. Though they lost to Arizona, Holbrook was promoted from associate head coach three weeks later, after his boss, Ray Tanner, became South Carolina’s athletic director. In November, Holbrook’s oldest son, 10-year-old Reece, reached the critical five-year mark of being free of leukemia without the aid of chemotherapy.
His quest for a successful 2013 begins in earnest this afternoon, when USC opens the season against Liberty and Holbrook works his first game as a head coach. As Holbrook replaces one of college baseball’s all-time greatest coaches, he knows he cannot hide from the lofty expectations surrounding the Gamecocks. He isn’t trying to. But he wants to create his own identity as a coach — the only job he ever wanted — while still embracing Tanner’s influence.
Holbrook made this clear in his first meeting with USC’s players as their head coach.
“Hey, coach Tanner is not walking through that door,” he recalled telling them. “I’m the head coach now. You’re my responsibility.”
Raised in coaching
The lightning flashed on the horizon. Little Chad Holbrook watched it through the window of the tiny airplane. He was terrified. The lightning was the only thing Holbrook didn’t enjoy about accompanying his father on recruiting trips.
Eddie Holbrook spent 14 seasons as Gardner-Webb’s basketball coach and four at Furman, then decided to quit coaching after the 1981-82 season, because he was burned out at 42. But by that time, his only son had spent most of his first 11 years absorbing a coach’s life.
After his elementary school in Boiling Springs, N.C., let out, Holbrook walked across the street to Gardner-Webb’s gym and spent three hours sitting in the bleachers, watching practice until it ended. At home, while other kids rode bikes around the neighborhood, Holbrook sat in front of the television, engrossed in whatever sporting event was on.
He jumped at the chance to hop in the car or school plane when Eddie made recruiting trips. As a five-year-old, he sat in the living room of a recruit named Al Wood, who would play at North Carolina and become the fourth pick in the 1981 NBA Draft.
“He would just sort of sit there and soak it in, rather than being a typical kid, running around all over the place,” Eddie said.
Holbrook became a cerebral athlete. He was an option quarterback at Shelby (N.C.) High, tasked with reading defenses and making split-second decisions. He played baseball at North Carolina from 1990-93, and in those days, if you wanted to study videotape of your swing, you could do it only in the coach’s office.
“That’s where you could always find Chad,” said Chris Cox, a college teammate and roommate. “He was one of the few that wanted to watch his at-bats.”
After Holbrook’s playing career ended, he immediately became a North Carolina assistant. He continued to do what he always did best — watch — and developed a keen recruiting eye.
“He seemed to be determined that he wanted to make an impact (with recruiting),” said Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams, who worked with Holbrook at North Carolina.
Williams said Holbrook had “a good knack for trying to find the guy that obviously had ability, but maybe the best was yet to come.” That was evident in Kyle Seager, who arrived at North Carolina in 2007. Seager was not an elite recruit, said North Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes, but Holbrook loved his versatility as a multi-position infielder.
“I think this kid is a baseball player,” Forbes recalled Holbrook saying.
Holbrook landed an early commitment from Seager, who wound up being a third-round draft pick in 2009 and was Seattle’s starting third baseman last year.
Tested by trauma
As Seager helped North Carolina to its second straight national runner-up finish in 2007, Holbrook spent much of his non-baseball time dealing with Reece’s leukemia treatments.
He was diagnosed as a two-year-old, in 2004. Though he went into remission within two weeks, he still had to endure three years and two months of chemo, and its brutal side effects. It made his legs ache so badly that he couldn’t walk for several weeks. One morning, he woke up and could only open one eye halfway.
“He was so young that he didn’t understand what the cancer word meant,” said Holbrook’s wife, Jennifer. “I think he just thought every kid goes through it.”
The adults around Reece understood the gravity of his situation. Eddie watched Holbrook’s mother, Bobbie, succumb to colon cancer in 2000. Now, he had to see Reece lie there in an oncology center with IVs snaking out of him.
“I can remember to this day almost walking out of the room because I could hardly bear the thoughts of looking at him,” Eddie said.
Holbrook likes to say that he is “not a good poker face guy on the baseball field,” and he expects he won’t be able to mimic Tanner’s stoic demeanor during emotional moments in games. But Reece’s ordeal revealed Holbrook’s steadier side, whenever he returned from work and caught up with Jennifer after she spent all day tending to Reece and holding back her own emotions.
“He would have to be strong for me, because once I got away from Reece is when I would have my meltdowns,” she said.
Not going it alone
Life changes again today for Holbrook. He reached this moment after thousands of hours of observing and studying — including the past four seasons as a USC assistant after 15 at North Carolina — and after years of far greater challenges with Reece.
Holbrook’s experiences made him very much his own man, but he doesn’t want to tackle his latest mission alone. He still talks often to Tanner, mostly about roster moves such as who to redshirt. These are the conversations they had often over the past four seasons.
Soon after Holbrook arrived at USC, he became Tanner’s consigliore. Between innings, Tanner asked him about pinch-hitting possibilities. After practices, Tanner told Holbrook to contact a frustrated player.
Holbrook knew Tanner liked his approach after Holbrook’s first season, when Tanner told him, “You’re like me. You don’t have any problem making decisions.”
Holbrook decided immediately after taking over the program that he would not dismiss Tanner’s influence. At North Carolina, where Jennifer worked as an administrative assistant in the men’s basketball office, Tanner noticed how coach Roy Williams relied on the legendary Dean Smith’s advice far more than Williams’ unsuccessful predecessor, Matt Doherty, did.
“I would be foolish not to tap in to the wealth of knowledge that he has,” Holbrook said. “Being a first-time coach, really, I’m not going to listen to Ray Tanner? I’m not that stupid. That would be awful shallow of me not to lean on him for help.”
But this is Holbrook’s program now, and one potential change he envisions is more stolen base attempts — the type of aggressive approach he has long favored.
“There’s going to be a little bit of a difference here and there, because I’m not Ray Tanner,” he said. “I can’t be, even though I wish I could.”
Being himself has always worked fine for Holbrook, and in 2012, he could enjoy the successes of his life more than ever before.
Reece and his eight-year-old brother, Cooper, have fallen in love with wakeboarding, and last summer you could often find them on Lake Murray, riding behind the family’s boat, with their mom or dad at the wheel.
“With Reece’s situation, I spoil him rotten because I don’t know what the future holds,” Holbrook said. “I want to make sure that his life is a fun one for him.”
The day before preseason practices started, Holbrook’s college roommate, Cox, came to Columbia to visit. As Holbrook began a new year and journey, his old friend sensed a peace about him, with so much darkness now in his past and a bright view of what’s ahead.
“He seemed like: ‘This is finally our time to enjoy everything that we can enjoy,’ ” Cox said.