Back in 2004, a moment of failure and frustration at South Carolina had a significant impact on Chad Holbrook’s development as a coach. At the time, Holbrook was the hitting coach at North Carolina, and his Tar Heels faced off against the Gamecocks in a regional in Columbia. UNC hitters struck out 14 times in a game started by South Carolina ace Matt Campbell.
“I don’t know how many of them were on breaking balls, but it was a lot,” Holbrook recalled. “After that, I said, ‘We’ve got to change the way we hit.’ College baseball in general is not loaded with mid-90s arms. The way college pitching coaches go after college hitters is usually with a lot of offspeed stuff, because of the bat and because the parks we play in are usually more offensive. When they get you to two strikes, they try to get you out with offspeed pitches. We wanted to instill in our hitters that they can trust their hands and not be afraid to sit on offspeed pitches.”
That philosophy helped North Carolina reach four straight College World Series starting in 2006, and Holbrook took it with him to Columbia when Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner hired him as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator after the 2008 season. Tanner and Holbrook—along with fellow assistants Mark Calvi (now at South Alabama), Jerry Meyers and Sammy Esposito, all of whom Holbrook is quick to credit—led the Gamecocks to back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011, giving Holbrook the cherry on top of what was already one of the most impressive assistant coaching resumes in college baseball. Now he can add one more accolade—Holbrook is the 2011 American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year.
Both Holbrook and Tanner have long been regarded as among the nation’s best at their jobs, and once they joined forces they helped each other reach new heights.
“I tell him, ‘You’ve been to a lot of World Series, but you had to come here to get the rings,’ ” Tanner said. “And he says, ‘You’d been to a lot of World Series, but I had to come here to get you the rings.’ We have a lot of fun.”
Moving South, With Success
Tanner said he and Holbrook had been friends before Holbrook came to Columbia, often exchanging phone calls and text messages just to talk baseball—never with any expectation that they might work together. So Tanner had a healthy respect for Holbrook’s philosophies by the time Holbrook became a Gamecock, which made it easier for Tanner to modify his own aggressive, fastball-oriented offensive approach at Holbrook’s behest.
“Sitting on offspeed stuff was a little bit of a foreign language to coach Tanner, because he was one of those guys who was never going to come off the fastball,” Holbrook said. “But he’s let me coach the hitters in that way. If you don’t come off the fastball, and you face a guy that throws some great offspeed pitches, boy, you’re going to look like a fool. I think our hitters, for the most part, have a sense of discipline. They take pride in a good at-bat. The value of a walk is very important. I want you to be aggressive but be intelligent as well.”
Holbrook considers Tanner a sort of older brother and a mentor, and he said he also learned a great deal from North Carolina coach Mike Fox, former coach Mike Roberts and basketball coach Roy Williams, for whom his wife Jennifer worked in Chapel Hill. All of his bosses in baseball have stressed the value of discipline, and Holbrook’s laid-back, player-friendly mentality has been a great complement to the styles of his head coaches.
“Coach Tanner gets on me all the time—he says I’m too much of a player’s coach,” said Holbrook, who played at North Carolina from 1990-93 and was the school’s all-time hits and stolen-base leader when he graduated. “I just try to treat players the way I’d want to be treated. I’ve had great relationships with players I’ve coached. Do they need to be pushed from time to time, do they need a foot in their rear ends from time to time? Absolutely. But I also understand I’m not the head coach, I’m the assistant coach—I think I understand that better than most.
“Players may come to me with things they wouldn’t come to the head coach with, and I think coach Tanner likes it that way. I think one of my greatest traits is that I know how to be an assistant coach, and I enjoy being an assistant coach.”
Holbrook’s ability to connect with players makes him a premier recruiter. He has landed six ranked recruiting classes since 2003, when his UNC class ranked as the nation’s best. His latest class at South Carolina checked in at No. 6 in BA’s recruiting class rankings.