Holbrook Homecoming: All in the Family

Chad Holbrook is one of the finest assistant coaches in college baseball. He is an excited and happy family man today, despite his six year old son's continuing cancer watch and his departure from his long time job at his alma mater. Read on to find out why Holbrook is raring to go, to then almost immediately leave the place his wife has longed to live, and where he just arrived.

"It just wasn't possible to hire anybody in this capacity better than Chad Holbrook," said Gamecock head baseball coach Ray Tanner, who calls Holbrook the best assistant baseball coach in the country.

Holbrook is excited in many ways. He said so several times at his introductory news conference in Columbia, S.C. "I can't tell you how excited I am to get started and how excited my family is to be here," said Holbrook. He said he was ready to get on the road and recruit baseball players, something he is considered to be among the best in the country at doing.

Holbrook also said he was also excited about a number of other things, such as working with and under Tanner; working with Assistant Coaches Mark Calvi and Sammy Esposito; coaching in front of an expected 8,000 fans at the new South Carolina baseball stadium to be opened for the 2009 season, and especially reuniting his wife with her family in Columbia where she grew up.

But she was probably more excited than he.

"She jumped in my arms and cried like a baby," remembered Holbrook of wife Jennifer's reaction to the news this past weekend that they were moving to the "other" Carolina.

"I'm ready to go on the road and recruit," said Holbrook, who repeated that feeling later and added, "today."

It's not that Holbrook wanted to leave Chapel Hill so much as he wanted to come to Columbia. He spent 15 successful seasons as an assistant coach there after playing in Tar Heel Blue from 1990-93. UNC had just made its third straight trip to the College World Series and was ranked in the top five in the country most of the season. He had great responsibility and received lots of credit for his accomplishments as an assistant coach. Holbrook handled most of the recruiting duties, so he "had the program on my back, so to speak, as far as whether or not we were going to be successful and put a good team on the field."

As expected, Coach Tanner asked UNC Head Coach Mike Fox for permission to talk to his friend after assistant Monte Lee left the USC staff to take the College of Charleston Head Coach's job. As expected, Fox agreed. Unexpectedly - at least to Fox - Holbrook took the offer.

Holbrook said Coach Fox was shocked, but has handled the departure "great." "I owe everything to Coach Fox for him allowing me to get my start," said Holbrook. "I would be remiss if I didn't thank the people at the University of North Carolina. They gave me my start. I got to play there. And they took care of my family during some difficult times. I'll always be grateful to the people at North Carolina. But now I'm here."

The chance to work under Tanner was the most enticing professional lure. "It's the only job as an assistant I would take," said Holbrook. "It was an opportunity that was just too good to be true. Being able to work under him (Tanner) is something I couldn't pass up."

He became friends with Coach Tanner while the N.C. State grad was coaching his alma mater before USC, and they talked frequently through the years. After the 2007 season, Holbrook and Tanner had one of their frequent baseball talks and the conversation turned to replacing Jim Toman, just departing Carolina to be the Head Coach of Liberty University. Tanner asked if Holbrook was interested. Holbrook turned down Tanner. It was not a rejection, but an acknowledgement that Holbrook's then five year old son Reese needed to be just a few minutes away from his Doctor as he fought a form of leukemia. Holbrook thought that would be his only chance to bring his wife home to Columbia and work with Tanner. One year later Reese's cancer was in remission and the chance for his wife Jennifer and children to watch him coach within a mile of where she grew up - and work for Tanner - became a dream fulfilled.

Tanner first asked Holbrook this June about some other assistant coaches who could replace the departing Lee before Tanner said, "What about you?" That was the opening Holbrook wanted to uproot Jennifer from her job as an administrative assistant to Tar Heel basketball coach Roy Williams and the family from Chapel Hill. This time around, "I had to recruit him a little bit," said Holbrook of Tanner.

The difference between declining the offer last year and taking it this year was Reese's improved condition. "I'm a Dad first," he said in explaining why he couldn't make the move in 2007, but could in 2008 when Reese is in remission and Jennifer still longs to be with family. "I told Coach Tanner he was hiring a family and not just hiring a coach."

Chapel Hill will always be a special place to him, but he has respect for Coach Tanner like no other Coach in the country. Holbrook says "only an opportunity of a lifetime" would make him leave Chapel Hill. He says the opportunity to work for Tanner, who involves his assistant coaches in every facet of the program, is the opportunity of a lifetime.

Tanner said it was a friendship first with Holbrook, then they added a collegial relationship revolving around baseball, but it was always like a family type relationship between them, especially as Jennifer made frequent visits to Columbia to visit family.

Holbrook does not expect Jennifer to work outside the home for now, concentrating on what excites her most - being a Mom. Athletic Director Eric Hyman's public assertions that coaches' pay should rise to bring success will probably help the Holbrook household. Tanner said after his talks with Hyman that he expects the former UNC graduate to be "fair" to Holbrook, Hyman's fellow UNC alumnus.

Holbrook will recruit, coach third base, work with the hitters, and "be heavily involved in what we do offensively," said Tanner. "He brings so much expertise to this job. Experience and expertise, it doesn't get any better," said Tanner.

Holbrook speculates that his hire will continue to make it unlikely UNC and USC will meet in a "Battle of the Carolinas'" regular season game in the near future. He hopes they meet on the field at the College World Series, if anywhere.

Holbrook's excitement is also focused on the playing field and recruiting trail. He was excited abut the challenges of coaching in the SEC, which he calls, top to bottom, the most competitive baseball conference in the country. He is excited about trying to recruit a team be among the nation's best, but he intends to have the players focus on a consistent, superior performance, and not a destination.

"We're not going to talk to our players about Omaha. We're going to try extremely hard to be the best we can be every single day," said Holbrook of the philosophy he and Fox shared in Chapel Hill. "If you put an extreme amount of pressure on a player, say ‘Omaha, Omaha, Omaha. Omaha or bust.' When it gets that time - Super Regional time - when we need that pitch, the pressure that a kid could feel could be unbearable. We just want to play the best we can play every time we step on that field, and hopefully we'll have the players to take care of that (reaching the College World Series)."

Holbrook is excited about the challenge of returning the Gamecocks to the spotlight of college baseball in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, which USC reached three straight seasons from 2002-04, and where the Tar Heels have been the last three seasons. His focus while recruiting will be the in-state players.

Holbrook thinks that there is "an extremely fine line" between teams that make it to the College World Series and the successful and accomplished teams that do not. In Holbrook's view, the most talented team does not always make it to Omaha. He cited Vanderbilt as the most talented team in the nation in 2007, and its failure to make it to the final 8 teams, and this season's Fresno State team. Several teams across the country could legitimately show they were more talented and accomplished than the NCAA champion Bulldogs, who had to win their conference tournament just to get into the tournament.

The media were quick to question whether Holbrook had an informal, or even formal agreement, to succeed Tanner as Head USC baseball coach.

"I came here to work for Coach Tanner, learn from Coach Tanner, and try to help his players be the best players they could be," said Holbrook.

"I'm only 28," deadpanned Tanner from Holbrook's side when the question was asked about succeeding Tanner.

Later, Tanner was still smiling about the addition of his fellow family man to the staff. "It's the cradle of coaches," smiled Tanner, as a reporter listed the assistants under Tanner who recently left to be head coaches at other colleges: Toman at Liberty, Jerry Meyers at Virginia Commonwealth, and Monte Lee at his alma mater the College of Charleston.

"One thing I do is I do not exclude my assistants from what is going on," said Tanner. Tanner said soon schools will start calling to talk to Holbrook about being a head coach, and that there is a reason for his protégé's moving up.

"My coaches are very, very intimately involved in what goes on in this program," he said when asked about Lee's relatively quick rise from part time assistant to head coach.

"I think people understand in collegiate baseball that my assistants understand the program and not just their concentration. When they work for me they learn the entire operation, and they are prepared to become head coaches," which is why some speculate that Holbrook would only leave UNC to be the eventual coach at USC.

But Tanner sounds like he thinks he hired a valuable addition, not a replacement. "I plan to be here for a long time," said Tanner, "and a part of my goal is to keep Chad Holbrook at my side for a long time."

Tanner called it a compliment for people to speculate that Holbrook would be ready to succeed him and that such talk and indicates the quality of coach that Holbrook has become. But he added quickly, "I think I've got some good years left."

Holbrook's family considerations parallel those of new USC Women's Basketball Coach Dawn Staley. She left her hometown of Philadelphia and the head coaching job at Temple to live near her mother, a sister and brother-in-law in Columbia, and nearer a sister in Raleigh, North Carolina. USC Head football coach Steve Spurrier has been publicly credited with passing along her interest to the Athletic Department because of his agent's relationship with the Staley family. The family tree now grows larger with the addition of Holbrook to Tanner's staff.

"We're here because we are supposed to be here. It's the right time," said Holbrook. "It all worked out well, and I'm so fortunate our family is in Columbia."

Spoken like a true family man.

"I got a feeling we will have some family outings among the Tanner's and Holbrook's," said Tanner, father of three young children who are frequent visitors to the ball park. His oldest, daughter Gracie is aged right between the Holbrook's six year old Reese and four year old Cooper. "He may be on the road for some of those outings," joked Tanner. "Yeah, I got a feeling we'll have some outings."

Spoken like a true family man and Head College Baseball Coach. One day Chad Holbrook should be both, too

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