Chad Holbrook debuts today as South Carolina’s baseball coach, and this morning’s print edition included a profile of him.
Here now, the interview with Holbrook that formed the basis of that story. Holbrook touches on the things he learned from Ray Tanner, the changes you might see in USC baseball in the Holbrook Era, and how his son, Reece, continues to be free of leukemia …
** Did you ever set a timetable for wanting to be a head coach?
“I never said, ‘Hey, I have to be a head coach.’ My situation at North Carolina was a good one and when I got here and started working for coach Tanner, my situation was something I could have done for the rest of my career, as an assistant coach working for coach Tanner. That’s really all I thought about. I didn’t think about being a head coach. I knew I would have an opportunity if we kept doing well and I kept doing my job at a decent level. I never consumed myself with it. My father gave me advice one day. He said, ‘If you spend your day and time thinking about your next job, you won’t do your current one.’ It made a lot of sense. I really didn’t think about (head coaching) much. I was happy as a pig in mud being an assistant coach.”
** What was it like growing up the son of a college basketball coach?
“I grew up in a gym and I was a little basketball rat. I just knew then, watching my dad recruit and coach, that it was something I wanted to do. But in this profession of coaching, you have to get lucky. I got my foot in the door. I was lucky that the coach I played for in college (at North Carolina), Mike Roberts, hired me and wanted me to be on his staff. That kind of got me into it. I was very lucky and fortunate that when Mike Fox came along at North Carolina, that he wanted to keep me on. I got to work for some great coaches. I was honored that coach Tanner asked me to come down here five years ago.”
** What did you gain from going on recruiting trips with your dad?
“I started kind of realizing the importance of (recruiting) probably when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I’d go with him. I’d get on the plane with him, a two-seater, and we’d fly over the mountains to watch a kid in Tennessee or I’d get in the car with him and drive to Georgia. I remember those nights very clearly. I sat in Al Wood’s living room with him. I remember the days of my dad – I was four or five – and my dad when he was the coach at Gardner-Webb was essentially a couple miles away from David Thompson, so I remember all that hoopla. It was something I was brought up in, and it was something I wanted to do because I knew I couldn’t play forever and coaching gave me the avenue to stay in sports. I’m a pretty competitive guy, and I was brought up in a household that all I did was watch my dad coach and recruit. So it was something I wanted to do.”
** You’re a successful recruiter. Have you always liked that aspect of the job?
“I like the recruiting. But I didn’t get into coaching because I wanted to recruit. You get into coaching because you want to be out on a field or a court or a dugout with a group of guys trying to win a game. I get way more enjoyment … not that I don’t love recruiting; I do … but the enjoyment of coaching is being out there with your players and trying to win a game or trying to help them in practice. That beats recruiting any day of the week. But recruiting, you’ve got to do it, and I enjoy it. But I didn’t get into coaching because I wanted to recruit. I got into coaching because I wanted to coach. I have been lucky to recruit some really good players. That made me look like my forte was recruiting and that’s where people talk about me, in recruiting, but that’s just because we were lucky to get some good players and they played well.”
** Did your dad give you any advice as you became a head coach?
“He’s kind of steered clear. He’ll come and watch and observe our games. He was here for the press conference in July. But he’s really never called and said, ‘Hey, you need to make sure you do this or that.’ My dad coached a long time ago, so the time is a little different. And obviously, I coach a different sport. If I need something or I’m in a dilemma or I need to run something by somebody, I run it by coach Tanner.”
** What advice have you sought from Tanner?
“He prepared me even when he was the head coach. He was daily allowing me to be in important meetings. He was sending me to speak for him. Any time a difficult decision had to be made, he always included me. If one of our players got in trouble. I felt like, ever since I got here, that he was trying to prepare me for this day. Since the transition took place, he hasn’t been around here much. I thought he would be here a little bit more, but he hasn’t, just because I think he wants us to make our own way. But he also knows that when I need him, I call him.
“Just little things right now. It’s nothing about practice. He’s shown us all that stuff. Maybe a scheduling conflict comes up here or there about a game that I might need to ask him what he thinks, or a personnel decision if one of our kids got in trouble. I talk with him often more about our roster and who we’re going to redshirt and who we think is going to be able to help us this year. I talk with him about that more than I do anything. That being said, he hasn’t watched us practice, and he doesn’t really know the personnel like we know it. But it’s always great to get feedback from a Hall of Fame coach that’s had to make difficult decisions. Very comforting for me and our staff to know that if I need him over here, he’ll come over here right away.”
** Some guys would want to put distance between themselves and their predecessor. Why have you taken the opposite approach?
“I would be foolish not to tap in to the wealth of knowledge that he has. If we can be almost half as successful as he was, we’re going to be OK. I would be foolish not to talk to him about certain dilemmas or certain situations on the field. That would be foolish of me. Being a first-time coach, really, I’m not going to listen to Ray Tanner? I’m not that stupid.
“But also, I got to see first-hand. I was at North Carolina and my wife was working in the basketball office when Matt Doherty was there. My wife was working in the basketball office when Roy Williams was there. She was both of their administrative assistants. I got to see how coach Williams leaned on coach (Dean) Smith and coach (Bill) Guthridge and how coach Doherty didn’t when he was a first-time coach. So I’ve learned along the way. I try to watch and see how different coaches handle different things, what’s successful, what’s not.
“I’m not saying that prepared me for this moment. What prepared me for this moment was working with coach Tanner for five years. I tried to pick and choose some things along the way during my coaching career that I’ve had access to, so I think I have a few different ideas just from maybe different places I’ve been and different coaches that I’ve seen work.
“I’m not saying I’m leaning on coach Tanner because Matt Doherty didn’t lean on coach Smith. I’m just leaning on coach Tanner because I have a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips. I have the smartest guy that I’ve ever met at my fingertips, who’s done it at this school. Boy, that would be awful shallow of me not to lean on him for help.”
** Did Tanner entrust you with more decisions as your time at USC went along?
“When I was coaching third, he had to put on some plays without having a conversation with me. Between innings, he would always ask me (about pinch-hitting stuff), and he would ask me pitching decisions as well. That’s one thing that coach Tanner did. He wanted his staff to have responsibility and he wanted them to make decisions. Coach Tanner in a funny way will test you from time to time. He’ll throw something out there and see if you can make a call, because he’s one of those guys that he wants people in his camp that can make decisions and not look back. That’s just who he is. I knew that coach Tanner kind of liked the job I was doing (when), after my first year here, he brought me in and we were sitting here talking and he goes (and here Holbrook changes his voice to a gravely tone, to imitate Tanner), ‘You’re like me. You don’t have any problem making decisions.’ When he said that, I felt good. I have no problem with that (making decisions). They might be wrong, but I have no problem with making a decision.
“All eyes are going to be on me, how I handle personnel, how I handle discipline, how I handle a situation that pops up. (The players) want to see what the differences are and what the similarities are between me and coach Tanner. That’s part of transitioning.”
** What are the differences between you and Tanner?
“Coach Tanner, he’s probably smarter than I am. He’s very intelligent – with how to handle a game, how to handle media, to what buttons to push to motivate players. Those things, he’s incredible at. My personality is a little bit different than his. I wear my emotions on my sleeve more than he does. All heck can be breaking loose on the field, and he’s calm and stoic, whereas I’m going to be either going crazy or yelling at something. I’m not a good poker face guy on the baseball field. He was. So that’s a difference.
“He was personable and he communicated great with the players. I think I do that as well. I hope at the end of the season, you’ll look at our team and our product and the way that we played and the way we handled ourselves and you’ll see a lot more similarities than differences. And I think you will. I don’t know if we’ll be playing in Omaha, but I think that when you see our team play this year, you’ll still see coach Tanner’s fingerprints all over our baseball program, and I like it that way.”
** What style changes do you envision with the team under your watch?
“I could sit here and say, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that.’ And all of a sudden, you get there in the game and it’s different. I’m going to give our guys freedom on the bases. I want our fast guys to have the green light to run. I’m sitting here saying that and it’s January. I might change my mind come March 1. But I want Tanner English to steal a lot of bases. I want TJ Costen to have a chance to steal bases and Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson if they’re in there. I want to utilize speed if we have it. That’s just kind of who I am.
“I don’t want to play station to station if we don’t have to. You play station to station with big guys that can hit it out of the park. We don’t have that. So I hope I’m a coach that you think pushes the envelope a little bit and hit and runs and lets the guys run the bases. I think I’m a pretty aggressive guy and I think our team will be aggressive. I don’t want them to be passive. That’s for sure. But our teams were aggressive with coach Tanner, too, so that’s not much of a difference.
“He might utilize the sac bunt a little bit more than I will. Who knows? I’m not a big bunt guy. I got a reputation around here as a small ball guy. I wasn’t a big small ball guy. I like to hit home runs, too. But we just haven’t had a lot of home run guys. Thousands of decisions are made between the first inning and the ninth inning. So I’m not going to make all the same decisions that coach Tanner would make, because there’s too many different people, but I did learn the game from him, a lot of the game, and how to manage the game.
“So I would think that the product is not going to be too different, other than a couple subtle differences here and there. Maybe stolen base attempts is maybe one that you’ll see. Who knows? I might get cold feet once the game starts.”
** What’s the most important thing you learned from Tanner?
“I thought he was incredible at the way he handled the media. I learned a lot from him in that regard. He was always very gracious to everyone, not only to you guys (the media), but to professional scouts, high school coaches, alumni, former players, season ticket holders. The speaking engagements, he taught me a ton about that. I said that on the day of our press conference (that) he gave me a great blueprint to follow and I’m going to try to do the best I can following the blueprint that he gave me.
“He also taught me a lot between the white lines on how to motivate the team, when is the right time to push a button, how to make them feel good. That was one of the biggest things I took from him – You’ve got to make your team think they’re better than they are, even if you don’t think they’re very good.”
** But didn’t Tanner have a reputation for being hard on the players?
“Very hard. I probably won’t be as hard. He was very hard. That was more of a personal deal. He was hard on them for missed classes, academic stuff or behavior issues. Extremely hard. And I’m going to be hard in that regard, too. But when it came to playing and it came to performing, he had a knack of: ‘Hey, we’re the Gamecocks and the team in the other dugout fears us, so don’t do anything to make them think they can beat us.’ He just had a way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re the favorite here, no matter who we’re playing, where we’re playing.’ And our kids bought into that.
“He told me he learned that lesson from Skip Bertman, working with him on the USA team. Always make your players feel good about who they are and make them feel like they’re really good players and make them feel like they’re the favorite every time they step onto the field. He taught me that and that was something he was a master at. It was incredible to watch and hear him speak to a team before a game or after a game, the buttons he could push because his intellect was at such a high level.”
** Tanner always spoke in a very convinced tone of a voice, too, and always seemed sure of himself, didn’t he?
“The players see that. Whether he’s right or wrong, they obviously were convinced about what he was saying. There was a time he could motivate and he would tell players … he was very good at (how) he would never tell a player what they necessarily wanted to hear either individually. If a player came in here and said, ‘Coach, why am I not playing?’ Well, you be careful with that one, because you’re going to hear something you don’t want to hear, not because you’re disagreeing with him. He loved open dialogue, but boy, he wouldn’t sugarcoat anything. I took that from him as well. If you’re going to talk to coach Tanner, you better be prepared to hear the good and the bad because it won’t just be the good.
“That was something that he was obviously very good at. He knew how to stoke. (Closer) Matt Price, he told Matt Price before his sophomore year that he wasn’t going to be on the traveling team. Well, no one believed that. (Tanner told Price), ‘You’re no good. You’ve been hurt since you’ve been here. I put you in here these games and you haven’t done anything. You haven’t gotten anybody out. You can’t get anybody out in scrimmages. How are you going to travel? You’re not on the travel team.’ He told him that in the fall. Well, Matt stewed over it all November and December and worked and worked and obviously the rest is history. He would just have a way of saying things to motivate his players in an incredible way.”
** Now that you’re moving from assistant to head coach, do you have to change your coaching style?
“There’s no doubt that my style’s had to change. I told the team that the first day – ‘Hey, coach Tanner is not walking through that door. I’m the head coach now. You’re my responsibility.’ I want our assistant to be good cops, and I’m not necessarily a bad one. Coach Tanner wanted me to do that, too – ‘Go take care of him. He’s a little down, he’s depressed, I was on him hard today, go lift him up.’ He would tell me to do that in an office setting.
“The players knew, I think, from the first practice on that it was going to be a little different and that I’m not coach Tanner and I’ve made that point very clear. I’m not him. It’s not coach Tanner’s program anymore. It’s ours. Not just mine. Our players’, our coaches’ and we’re going to do the best that we can. We’ve learned so much from him and obviously we’re going to have some similarities, but Ray Tanner is not in charge anymore. I am. So there’s going to be a little bit of a difference here and there, because I’m not Ray Tanner. I can’t be, even though I wish I could. I think they got that right away. I’ve had no problems. Our kids did very well academically this semester, the highest (team) GPA ever. We haven’t had anybody in trouble off the field. I think our players have given us the utmost respect.”
** How often have you thought about the pressure of this job?
“Really not once. I’m not really in a situation that I can appease people. I can’t follow Ray Tanner and that success. Some of the things that this program has accomplished are insane. We won more games than anybody the last four years in college baseball. Twenty-two in a row in the NCAA tournament. Really? That’s something that may never be broken. We’ve done some things that might be difficult to match.
“I told somebody the other day when they asked me the same question – have you thought about the expectations and the pressure? – and I’m like, ‘Well, we’re going to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to win and succeed, but this university has been in existed now 212 years, and we’ve won two national championships. I’m not a math major, but it’s not a yearly occurrence.’ And as much as it’s happened in the past, I understand that people think it is. They expect us to be in Omaha.
“I understand it doesn’t happen every year. Our players understand it doesn’t happen every year. We don’t talk to our players about it. I think that’s one of the things that we do a decent job of – we just try to be the best that we can today. We don’t talk to them about the College World Series. We haven’t the last five years. Our players buy into that. I can’t look to May 15 and say, ‘I wonder where we’re going to be May 15.’ Look at the opponents we have. It’s too difficult. That would paralyze me. So the pressure, there’s always pressure. I felt pressure last year as an assistant. But people here want us to be good. We want to be good.”
** How is your son Reece doing after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, when he was two years old?
“He was in remission the first year, the first week actually that he was in chemotherapy. He’s been off treatment. He had a three and a half year treatment plan and he got off of that in November of 2007. This year was his fifth year. November of this year (2012) was his fifth year off treatment, which means … I don’t know if you are ever cured, but it is the big hurdle that you try to get to. You read online and they say the cure date is five years off treatment. Well, he’s past that. But we know about the disease a lot more than most. While we feel very good that he is cured, cancer doesn’t have a timetable. It can come back whenever it wants. But obviously, the further that he makes it off treatment and his own body has fought off the disease, the better his chances are. So his chances couldn’t be any better than they are now.”
** So you moved out to Lake Murray last year, right?
“We were living in Lexington. I think we were about three or four miles from the dam on the Lexington side. We weren’t on the lake. We were just in a community there. Our kids got all enthralled in the water sports. They got addicted to wake boarding and the jumping and flipping. So with Reece’s situation, I spoil him rotten because I don’t know what the future holds. I want to make sure that his life is a fun one for him, and for (eight-year-old) Cooper, too, but Cooper has been very healthy and he hasn’t had the same problems that Reece has had. When we had the opportunity to move out there, we took advantage of it. It’s nice. It’s peaceful. I kind of have a place where I can get away from the stress of my job and be with my kids and they love the water.
“We really enjoy it. It takes a while to get home (about a half an hour). It’s a two-recruit phone call trip home. That’s how I gauge it. To be honest with you, it’s been a blessing because I can handle those kind of things on the way home and I don’t have to handle it at home when the kids want me. So that actually has been good that I can do those things on the way home, and when I get home I’m all Dad for them. I don’t have to say, ‘Reece, I’ve got to take this call.’”