Sky-High Expectations Doomed Holbrook

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The Chad Holbrook era at South Carolina came to an end Tuesday night when the Gamecocks announced his resignation after five seasons as head coach. But it’s worth noting that the Holbrook era at South Carolina actually began in the summer of 2008, when he left North Carolina to join Ray Tanner’s staff as recruiting coordinator and hitting coach.

In that capacity, Holbrook was instrumental in constructing the teams that won national championships in 2010 and 2011, and finished as national runner-up in 2012. Gamecock fans should not forget that. Without Holbrook, the South Carolina dynasty might never have happened.

But in a sense, Tanner did Holbrook no favor by leaving his post as head coach that summer to take over as South Carolina’s athletics director — and then hiring Holbrook to be his replacement.

“I’m not here to replace Ray Tanner,” Holbrook said at his introductory press conference in 2012. “No one can.”

Those words proved painfully prophetic. South Carolina fans very quickly became spoiled by three straight years of incredible success, and just as quickly forgot the six-year College World Series drought that preceded the 2010 run to the national title — a drought that Holbrook’s arrival helped end.

It’s never easy to replace somebody who has attained legendary status, as Tanner had by delivering a couple of championships to a university starved for athletic success prior to 2010 (in fact, its only previous NCAA championship in any sport came in women’s track and field in 2002). That transition is particularly difficult when it coincides with the end of an era for a once-in-a-lifetime group of players. Guys like Michael Roth, Matt Price and Christian Walker don’t grow on trees. Those 2010-2012 South Carolina teams had a magical, generational mojo that every college baseball program in America can only dream of bottling.

But their careers ended before Holbrook ascended to the top job. His impossible task was to keep the magic going, even though the cast of characters would never be the same.

And it’s not like Holbrook fell on his face. That first year in 2013, he led the Gamecocks to 43 wins and a trip to the super regionals, where they pushed No. 1 national seed North Carolina to the brink of elimination in Chapel Hill before ultimately falling short.

The next year, South Carolina won 44 games and hosted a regional, but was upset by Maryland. A disappointing end, for sure, but ultimately the postseason is a crapshoot — why do you think the No. 1 national seed hasn’t won the national title since 1999? Why do you think none of the top eight national seeds have won the championship since 2011? Those are the best teams every year, the most consistent teams, the most talented teams — but anything can happen in the postseason. All a coach can do is put good players on the field, win consistently in the regular season, and hope his team gets hot and gets lucky at the right time in the postseason.

The Gamecocks got hot and lucky a couple years in a row, and their fans suddenly believed championships were their birthright.

South Carolina took a step back in 2015, when they failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. But many power programs have had similar setbacks over the last decade. Arkansas had its 14-year regional streak snapped last year. LSU missed regionals in 2011. North Carolina missed back-to-back regionals in 2015 and ’16. None of those programs stayed down, and neither did South Carolina, which rebounded to win 46 games, host a regional and a super regional in 2016. But that season ended shy of Omaha, so in the eyes of many South Carolina fans, it was a failure.

Former South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook (Aaron Fitt)

But this was supposed to be the year. The Gamecocks entered 2017 ranked No. 4 in the D1Baseball Top 25, with one of the nation’s most talented pitching staffs. Expectations were set — Omaha or bust.

And then injuries intervened. Closer Tyler Johnson, one of the most important players on the team, missed time for a good chunk of the season, and the Gamecocks dropped one heart-breaker after another in the late innings. One can only wonder what could have been if Johnson had been around to get that last out in the Clemson series, or the Auburn series, or the Vanderbilt series, or the Florida series. The Gamecocks lost all of those series two games to one, and they were in position to win every one of them in the ninth inning — but they just sustained one gut punch after another.

Then ace Clarke Schmidt went down with Tommy John surgery, and shortstop Madison Stokes went down, and catcher Chris Cullen went down… and still the Gamecocks fought until the bitter end, going 3-2 in the SEC tournament (with wins over Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky) to play their way back onto the bubble, even after their eight straight series losses. Ultimately, that run proved too little, too late in a year where the bubble was shrunk by more conference tournament upsets than we’ve seen in any year in recent memory.

So Holbrook’s tale of the tape in five years as South Carolina’s coach reads this way: three seasons of 43-plus wins, two super regionals, three regional hosts — and two years outside the NCAA tournament. It’s hard to imagine very many coaches in college baseball receiving the kind of heat Holbrook endured after three 40-win seasons, three home regionals and two super regionals in a five-year span.

But that’s the reality nowadays at South Carolina. Holbrook is surely more disappointed than anyone that the Gamecocks couldn’t make the CWS in the last five years. They’ve had talent in that span, just as they had from 2005-2009, when the Justin Smoak/Reese Havens/James Darnell teams produced exactly zero trips to Omaha. Because getting to Omaha is hard.

And make no mistake — the intense pressure at South Carolina had clearly taken a toll on Holbrook, who has been under siege from South Carolina fans for the last two or three years. You didn’t have to be Dr. Phil to see that the strain was wearing on Holbrook. You had to wonder if the tension was taking a toll on the clubhouse.

But considering how much Holbrook has done for South Carolina’s program — dating back to the summer of 2008 — and how many games he won in his five years as head coach, you have to wonder how many premier head coaches in this business would really find it appealing to put themselves in the crosshairs of the Gamecock Faithful.

Maybe the time had simply come for Holbrook and the Gamecocks to go their separate ways. From the outside looking in, Holbrook seemed miserable by the end of this thing, and it’s hard to blame him, with fans calling for his head after every loss and even after every win. This is a high-profile job, and you need uncommonly thick skin to survive as the head baseball coach in Columbia. Tanner had uncommonly thick skin, which helped make him a great fit as South Carolina’s coach — but I wonder if even Tanner could have endured the pressure of replacing Legendary Coach Ray Tanner.

Holbrook has a lot of good coaching days in front of him, and I have a feeling he’ll find much more peace of mind and plenty of on-field success wherever he goes next.

It falls upon whomever Tanner taps next to “restore” South Carolina baseball — a program that won 46 games and hosted a super regional just last year — to its former glory.

The Gamecocks have the tradition, the top-notch facilities and the fan interest to compete for championships regularly. This is a marquee job in college baseball.

But the Holbrook era should serve as a cautionary tale to prospective candidates: Omaha or bust isn’t just a figure of speech in Columbia. Fan interest can cut both ways.

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