By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
Tim Corbin had just watched his Vanderbilt team suffer a heartbreaking loss to South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, yet Corbin's disappointment was tempered a bit when asked about his good friend, Chad Holbrook.
"You hate to lose … (but) I'm happy for Chad and his kids," Corbin said.
The longtime Vanderbilt coach has known Holbrook and his wife for years. He felt good for him because he knew the pressure the South Carolina coach was under. He knew that Holbrook entered the SEC Tournament in a must-win situation, with his season and his job on the line.
"It's a tough environment," the soft-spoken Corbin said. "They have high expectations, which is good, but at the same time, it's difficult to operate under those constraints sometimes … where there is a lot of pressure applied."
That's what Chad Holbrook faced at South Carolina — enormous expectations and constant pressure. Pressure from a fan base that expects a national championship-caliber team every season. And when things go wrong, the pressure becomes almost unbearable.
Finally, it ended badly, with South Carolina missing the NCAA Tournament and Holbrook losing his job.
Regardless of how you feel about Chad Holbrook as a coach, June 6 was a sad day for South Carolina. The university and its athletic program lost a good man and a good coach, a high-character guy who put his heart and soul into the baseball program.
"He did things the right way, with character and integrity," said Athletics Director Ray Tanner, who hired Holbrook to replace him in 2012.
Unfortunately, Holbrook didn't win enough. Despite winning more than 40 games three times and leading South Carolina to the NCAA Tournament three times in five years — including two Super Regionals — Holbrook resigned after his team stumbled to a 35-25 finish this year.
Think about that for a minute. He was the only coach in school history to lead South Carolina to the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons. He made two Super Regionals in four years and won the SEC East just a year ago.
Those numbers would be acceptable at almost any other school. But not at South Carolina, which has one of the richest baseball traditions in the country.
Only three schools in the past 28 years have won back-to-back national championships — LSU, Oregon State and South Carolina. Only one has more College World Series appearances since 2002 (Texas).
That is the standard at South Carolina, and because Holbrook did not lead the Gamecocks back to the College World Series, he had to step aside.
Holbrook understood those expectations and knew what was on the line as the 2017 season unfolded.
"I love the fan base at South Carolina. They want to win and they expect to win," he said. "I understand their disappointment."
The sad part is that Holbrook is a good baseball coach. You don't recruit top-notch players year after year and win 46 games, 20 in the SEC, like he did last season without being an elite coach. He was instrumental in Tanner's national championships and had proven he could make a deep postseason run.
But in 2017, things spiraled out of control. The Gamecocks suffered some devastating injuries, costing it several games. Even Tanner admitted that injuries played a big part in the team's disappointing performance.
Holbrook admits that he made some mistakes in the dugout, some moves that backfired or simply didn't work. Some of those moves — the frequent lineup changes, the questionable pitching decisions — were dictated by injuries and the unavailability of key players, forcing him to over-manage at times. Some of those moves didn't work because of poor execution — for which the players must take some of the blame — or bad breaks or simply the unpredictable, quirky nature of baseball.
Had just a few of those moves worked, had just a few more players come through in the clutch, had pitchers Clarke Schmidt and Tyler Johnson not been hurt, South Carolina likely would have won some of those close games and made the NCAA Tournament, and Holbrook would still have his job.
But they didn't, and fans have a right to be upset. That's the natural reaction when your team fails to meet expectations. And when things go bad, it is the head coach who must bear the brunt of the blame and responsibility.
It's hard to argue with the fan angst and pressure that forced Holbrook to resign. His team simply didn't get the job done in two of the last three years. In five seasons, he didn't reach the ultimate goal of leading South Carolina back to the College World Series.
Tanner made the right decision in seriously evaluating the program, and he and Holbrook reached the only conclusion they could. Maintaining the status quo would have put both under even more extreme pressure next season.
But before the search for a new coach hits full swing, before Holbrook lands a new job, we should all pause for a moment and give the former head coach the respect he deserves.
Holbrook walked away the same way he handled his success and failures at South Carolina — with dignity and class.