OMAHA, Neb. -- Chad Holbrook still has plenty of work to do to become one of the Kings of Omaha, joining the likes of Rod Dedeaux, Augie Garrido, Skip Bertman and Mike Martin, who's here yet again this week.
But, after four trips to the College World Series in five years, South Carolina's associate head coach is on his way. Just call the 39-year-old, all but a lock to be a head coach in the next five years, the Prince of Omaha.
South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner hired Holbrook two summers ago for a whole bevy of reasons. The North Carolina alum and longtime assistant's strong reputation as a recruiter and hitting coach were at the top of the list. At least in theory.
"After we had him for a while we told him we didn't think he was that good of a recruiter and we really didn't think he was that good of a coach," Tanner said, the "we" referring to the other assistants, Mark Calvi and Sammy Esposito. "But we thought he did have a big horseshoe with him. We thought that was a big reason to get him."
Tanner laughed at his own joke.
"We decided to humble him a little bit and say we just wanted him for the horseshoe factor," he said. "And here we are, already. Look at the impact he's made on this program already."
The list of coaches who have been to Omaha with two teams is a short one, and now Holbrook's on it. Garrido has won national titles with Cal State Fullerton and Texas, but even he didn't make it this year.
"Personally, it means a lot," Holbrook said. "It means a lot to go once. It means a lot to step on that field one time -- a whole lot. To do it at two great schools is something I'm extremely proud I'm a part of.
"We work every day to get to Omaha, to get an opportunity to go there. I'm just glad I'm getting to go as part of South Carolina's program."
If there's a difference in the two, between North Carolina and South Carolina's appearances, he said it's in the fans' reactions. As much as the Tar Heels love their baseball, he said it's nothing compared to the Gamecocks' faithful.
"They're so passionate about it," he said. "Their want-to is about as much as our want-to. It's neat we were able to accomplish something that's so important to those in and around this university, city and state. We're making a whole lot of people happy."
Tanner's joke aside, it's pretty clear Holbrook has brought more with him than luck. That's why Tanner was persistent in getting his man.
He called Holbrook in the summer of 2007, after Jim Toman left to become the head coach at Liberty, to ask if Holbrook knew of any good replacements.
"What about me?" Holbrook said, shocking Tanner.
The timing wasn't quite right that summer, but the following year, after Monte Lee left to become Charleston's head coach, the job was open again. Tanner reached out to Holbrook again, sensing that things might've changed.
"Just the fact that Ray Tanner had called and asked me to help, that was something I couldn't turn down this time," Holbrook said. "I guess what put it over the top was the opportunity. I didn't think the opportunity would come back, especially a year later."
Enter Holbrook, charged with the task of taming USC's perceived gorilla ball. Now it's something much more level, consistent. The approach at the plate as changed. You can see it, on the field and in the box score.
Tanner told Holbrook he wanted his hitters to be aggressive, so he hadn't previously been getting mad at them for swinging at pitches in the dirt and out of the strike zone. Holbrook shook his head.
"You can be disciplined and aggressive," Holbrook told Tanner. "We want to have our cake and eat it, too. I think he was open to that, and he started believing in that."
The telltale sign of success on that front is South Carolina's ratio of walks (and hit batters) to strikeouts. It means the Gamecocks are having good at-bats, and getting on base more frequently because of them.
Entering the College World Series, they have 354 combined walks and hit batters to 389 strikeouts. (At this point, after 61 games, anything sniffing 1-to-1 is strong.)
Additionally, Holbrook is a natural recruiter. Why? Because he's a genuinely good guy, friendly and honest.
Some are already wondering if the Gamecocks can hang on to Holbrook, whose name has already surfaced in connection with the Notre Dame job. For now, he seems content.
And don't underestimate the things, on and off the field, that brought him to Columbia.
"Players have dreams. Coaches have dreams," he said. "Right now, I could be an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina for a long time."
In the years since South Carolina's last trip to Omaha, in 2004, the Gamecocks were continually knocking on the door. That included 2007, when USC lost in the deciding game of a super regional against Holbrook's North Carolina club.
So, when Holbrook arrived prior to the 2009 season, he recognized that the Gamecocks were close, so close, to a return.
"This program wasn't broke," he said.
Holbrook would never say it, but maybe he was the very nudge the program needed to get back here.
"The way he coaches and recruits?" junior outfielder Whit Merrifield said. "He's the best I've seen at his job. Without him, I don't think we'd be here right now."