Chad Holbrook is no stranger to criticism. Some of it isn’t of is own making; it comes from the burden of replacing a legendary coach coming off two titles and a national runner-up. That said, after another season without a postseason bid, the second one in three seasons, there is some justified questions about the direction of the storied USC baseball program.
Those arguing for a change will cite the face Holbrook has not made a single trip to the College World Series in his five seasons as head coach. They will point out the program missing the postseason twice in that span is unacceptable, especially this year’s team that was very highly touted in the preseason, but ended up dropping its final eight SEC series. This are all legitimate complaints.
No one is denying things have not gone to plan and this isn’t the standard people expect for South Carolina baseball. The question is if the fix is as simple as replacing the head coach.
Rumors of the program’s demise are greatly exaggerated
Yes, South Carolina missed the postseason, but this was not a bad team. This team did not live up to expectations, but it was competitive all season long. Yes, close doesn’t count in sports, but the Gamecocks were in position to win all 8 of the SEC series they lost this season. In many cases they were just a strike, an out of a hit away from a win. A single win probably puts them in the postseason and this discussion isn’t happening. The fact of the matter is South Carolina baseball is still a national brand, still a respected program, and is still recruiting and developing players on a high level.
You can’t ignore the injuries (sorry, you just can’t)
It is a bit of a myopic point of view to put all of the losses this season squarely on the shoulders of Holbrook and not take into account the injuries to key players. The Gamecocks didn’t have their best two pitchers, Tyler Johnson and Clarke Schmidt, for multiple games this season. TJ Hopkins, Chris Cullen, LT Tolbert and Madison Stokes were also among the walking wounded for large portions of the season. Injuries are part of the game, yes, but they also should be taken into account when assessing what went wrong in the season. If Johnson is healthy in the Auburn or Vanderbilt series, does USC still lose their late lead. Johnson did return, but it took him a few weeks to shake off the rust and return to his early season form. Meanwhile, Schmidt went down for the season when the Gamecocks were just hitting their crucial stretch of games against Florida, Kentucky and LSU.
USC isn’t the only elite program to have a disappointing season
You don’t want to hear this, but it’s true. A lot of really high profile programs hit rough patches. North Carolina is a number two seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The past two seasons before this the Tar Heels missed the postseason. Stanford, a top eight national seed this year, was not in the postseason in each of the past two years. Coastal Carolina won a national championship a year ago and did not make this year’s field.
These schools have established proven coaches and still missed the postseason. Why? Probably for many of the same reasons South Carolina did this year. A key injury, a few tough losses, a few guys not producing on a level they were expected, and maybe a couple of coaching decisions that backfired. These things happen everywhere, not just at South Carolina. No, Chad Holbrook isn’t as established as Mike Fox at North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t face the same hurdles.
South Carolina had an unmatched run at the end of the Ray Tanner era. That sort of run had never happened in the HISTORY of college baseball and it very well will not happen again in your lifetime. This doesn’t mean you need to lower the bar, but it also doesn’t mean that if you don’t have a big season it is because the coach messed everything up.
Chad Holbrook is a good baseball coach
Chad Holbrook is a well respected baseball coach. He helped Mike Fox build his program at North Carolina. He helped Ray Tanner make that incredible run at South Carolina. Many people are willing to concede Holbrook is a great assistant coach, but, they argue, that doesn’t make him a good head coach. No, it doesn’t. It does mean he knows the game. He does mean he has the tools. Holbrook took over a job that comes with as much pressure as any in the country. That is quite a pressure cooker for your first gig. There is no question dealing with that comes with a learning curve of sorts. Handling the expectations, tuning out the negativity, and not forcing things can be tough for a rookie coach. Not that Holbrook has completely failed in these areas, but there is no question he’s gone through a learning curve.
The argument here is that Holbrook has all of the knowledge and tools to be an outstanding coach. He’s made some mistakes, yes, but that doesn’t mean he can’t handle the job. The fact of the matter was no matter who took over the Gamecock baseball program after Tanner’s remarkable run, he was going to suffer the plight of a program that declined. There was no way to sustain it at that level. It was going to drop. Most rational fans probably understood that, but to them, this drop was too much too fast. However, as noted above, the program hasn’t dropped as far as many think, and the dip isn’t even out of the ordinary for some top programs.
The opinion here is this is not the ceiling for the Chad Holbrook area. The opinion here is that this five year body of work isn’t the best Holbrook has to offer. Holbrook knows how to recruit, knows the game, has been on and around successful teams, and he has the ability take this South Carolina program to the level fans want. There is a reason why he was the first hire Ray Tanner made.
The best programs in sports are the ones that have stability and longevity at the top. How many great programs can you name that change coaches every five years? Contrast that with how many programs you can name that have had the same coach for six to 10 years. Sometimes the best move you can make for your program is to trust the process and not make a drastic move. Sometimes less is a lot more.
Ray Tanner will make his decision soon. This season did not go to plan and hard questions should be asked. Not a person on earth understands the South Carolina baseball job better than Tanner. If he opts to keep Holbrook it won’t be because of his friendship and feelings for his former assistant, it will be because he knows he has a guy that can get the job done.
That said, Tanner may opt to change course. It would not be an unfair or even unjustified decision. It also wouldn’t change the fact that Holbrook is a very good baseball coach who would undoubtedly land at another program and find his way into a head coaching job again.
The final verdict will come in soon.