Tragic is defined as “mournful or pitiful”, meaning if something is tragic it should elicit feelings of sadness from a bystander.
It’s natural for a human in any situation — this one being sports — to find it difficult mustering some kind of sympathy or even empathy for someone who they believe has wronged them. Even if this person was in a difficult position to do right from the get-go because of inflated expectations, a bad support system, etc.
The Florida football program has experienced this phenomenon twice in the last 20 years with not only Ron Zook but someone Gamecock fans know all too well in Will Muschamp. Both followed legends (Steve Spurrier for Zook, Urban Meyer for Muschamp) and were undone by fatal flaws which led to their eventual departures.
For Zook, he simply failed to take advantage of the talent around him in Gainesville — losing a bevy of winnable games during his two and so odd years on the job. Muschamp had the defense to win championships but failed to build any semblance of an offense by whiffing on quarterback and skill position recruits.
Those aren’t the only two examples of men following legends and failing. If you’re looking for a relevant college baseball example, look no further than Smoke Laval resigning at LSU five years after taking over for the legendary Skip Bertman. Laval took the Tigers to back-to-back College World Series and won 40-plus games four times.
What was his tragic flaw? Going 35-24 in 2006 and missing the tournament for the first time in 18 years. This was the price for following Bertman, whom LSU’s field is now named after and is arguably the greatest college baseball coach ever.
This brings us to Chad Holbrook. The South Carolina Gamecocks Smoke Laval. It’s hard not to see the parallels between the two of them once you really zoom in on the circumstances surrounding them.
The crushing expectations of following Ray Tanner
Holbrook was tasked with what would be an inevitably hard job when he took the reigns from Ray Tanner following the 2012 season. South Carolina was fresh off appearing in in their third straight College World Series Final — winning the first two in 2010 and 2011.
Tanner left his post as unarguably the best baseball coach in the history of the University. You could even make the case Tanner’s the best coach in the history of any program at South Carolina. He went to six College World Series, won 734 games and appeared in ten Super Regionals in 16 seasons.
Under Tanner, South Carolina saw a number of fantastic players come through their hallowed grounds. Justin Smoak, Yaron Peters, Kip Bouknight, Jackie Bradley Jr. — you could fill a page with the nostalgic names. South Carolina became a “baseball school” under Tanner’s leadership. How do you follow up the guy who made the University a baseball school?
Better yet, how many guys turned their University into a baseball school in the first place? Other big D-1 programs like Texas, Florida State and Miami have the designation of being football schools, so even their enormous baseball success couldn’t supplant the giant that is college football.
You could say Augie Garrido made Cal-State Fullerton a baseball school, or maybe Ron Polk turned Mississippi State into one — though I’ve never heard Bulldog fans refer to themselves as a baseball school. As far as power five schools go — and Fullerton is not one — how many baseball schools are there? Not many.
So in steps Holbrook, a native of the Carolinas who served under Mike Fox at North Carolina and then Tanner beginning in 2009. Holbrook had earned the reputation of being an ace recruiter, having brought in future major leaguers like Kyle Seager, Chris Iannetta, and Matt Harvey while at UNC.
At South Carolina, he picked up right where he left off on the recruiting trail. Jordan Montgomery, Kyle Martin, Joey Pankake, Tanner English, and Max Schrock are just a handful of the great names Holbrook would wrangle in as an assistant under Tanner. So when it came time for Tanner to find a replacement as the new athletic director, the choice to pick Holbrook as the next head man seemed like a no-brainer.
Sure, taking over a top-tier program as your first head coaching gig wasn’t going to be easy. But if you’re Holbrook do you even think twice about taking over a program that will pay you $400,000 a year and have access to the best facilities/booster support? Of course not.
So with expectations sky high and his mentor overseeing him from the AD role, in 2013 the world was Holbrook’s oyster. His first two seasons saw 87 wins (.696 winning percentage) and 35 SEC wins (.593 winning percentage) — good enough for a Super Regional appearance against an eventual final four team in North Carolina and then a not-so-good performance against Maryland in the 2014 Columbia regional final.
The beginning of the fall, fair or not
Then came 2015, which was lined up to be a great season even after losing so much offensive talent in 2014. South Carolina had groomed a bounty of great young pitchers in 2014 who were set to shine in 2015 and make up for the loss of offense from the year prior.
Josh Reagan, Vince Fiori, Cody Mincey, Taylor Widener and Reed Scott all posted sub-two ERA’s as underclassmen relievers in 2014. In addition, Wil Crowe and Jack Wynkoop posted sub-three ERA’s in 31 combined starts as underclassmen. The staff’s performance as a whole made it seem South Carolina would bet set on the mound for the next two seasons.
However, instead of having the incredible pitching staff like everyone projected they would — all seven pitchers would invariably regress in their new roles all at the same time. How much of the responsibility of their stalled development lands at Holbrook’s doorstep? I’ll never know for sure. But either way, how incredibly unfortunate can one guy get?
Reagan went from being a lights out freshman reliever to a disastrous starter and was eventually relegated to the bullpen. Fiori and Widener would suffer similar fates, while Mincey would see his ERA rise from 1.04 in 34 and two-thirds innings to 6.75 (!!) in 28 innings.
Wynkoop would invariably become the No. 1 starter and see his numbers drop off as well, while Crowe — who was 8-3 as a freshman starter with a 2.75 ERA — would be plagued with elbow issues all season and eventually be shut down by Tommy John surgery. Crowe would post a 4.91 ERA in nine starts totaling 51 and a third innings that season.
Because of all the regression, South Carolina never found a consistent Saturday or Sunday starter. Freshman Clarke Schmidt would wind up being thrown into the fire for ten starts, while the other starts were scattered to the other regressing pitchers. South Carolina’s team ERA dropped from 2.43 in 2014 to 4.20 in 2015.
It’d be one thing if South Carolina had lost an entire staff in 2014. But the only losses were Montgomery and Joel Seddon, who were great college pitchers. But there was plenty of talent coming in behind them to prevent such a drastic drop-off. Like I said, you can pin as much of that responsibility on Holbrook as you want. I’m not sure it’s totally fair to pile all the blame on him.
South Carolina would finish 32-25 in 2015 with a 13-17 mark in the SEC. It would be the worst season finish since Tanner’s first year in 1997, and it was the following season the heat on Chad Holbrook started to turn up tenfold.
If you’re having trouble remembering just how hot the seat got, here’s a series of articles written by The State following the 2015 season. Here’s Tommy Moody critiquing the team, two players leaving the team altogether (both whom would have been seniors in 2017) and this Neil White column discussing whether or not 2015 was going to turn into a trend.
Funny as it is, in that column by White he quoted noted college baseball aficionado Aaron Fitt as saying the following about the 2015 season:
"I think this is an anomaly," Fitt said. "Injuries obviously played a role, and certainly some key players underachieved, but I still like South Carolina’s foundation and expect it to bounce back strong next year."
And as Fitt predicted, South Carolina did bounce back strong in 2016.
2016 revival, then another anomaly?
2016 turned out to be just what the doctor ordered to put Holbrook back in relatively good standing with the fan base. Pitchers who experienced sophomore slumps like Reagan and Scott would fight back to being reliable members of the bullpen. Holbrook added strong newcomers to the starting rotation in JUCO transfer Braden Webb and freshman Adam Hill while the offense drastically improved behind developments in Gene Cone, Marcus Mooney, Alex Destino and Jonah Bride.
With all those improvements, South Carolina increased their 2015 win total by 14 and would get right back to hosting a regional. The Gamecocks would go on to win the Columbia Regional before falling to a very strong Oklahoma State squad in the Supers. Sure it wasn’t a CWS like fans long for, but it was two Super Regionals in four years.
Even if there was a rotten egg in the middle of those four years, all Holbrook needed his team to do is pick up where they left off in 2016 and the heat would stay abed.
First and foremost, the loss of Cone, Mooney and Dom Thompson-Williams from the top of the lineup was going to put a dent in the offense. The runs were going to have to come from Alex Destino, who came into 2017 as a preseason All-American after posting an .882 OPS in 2016.
Much like 2015, it was going to be up to the pitching staff — who only lost a Saturday starter in Webb — to carry the load. Everything seemed good to go. Schmidt was coming off a solid 2016 campaign as the Friday starter, Hill was set to take over on Sundays and the team was getting Crowe back from Tommy John surgery.
Add in Reagan, Scott, a rising star in Tyler Johnson and an improving Colie Bowers in the bullpen — the pitching staff alone was good enough to get the Gamecocks ranked as the preseason No. 5 team in the country. Certainly, the anomaly that was 2015 wouldn’t repeat itself.
But like a traumatizing repressed memory, 2017 started to show all the same startling traits of 2015. The injuries started to rack up as the season went along. Starting with Johnson in March, South Carolina’s bullpen would blow three saves in key, series-swinging games against Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Clemson.
Even as Johnson healed, Schmidt would be lost for the season while he was putting together an All-American caliber campaign as the Friday starter. Then add in injuries to Madison Stokes and Chris Cullen, and 2017 had all of the same injury bad luck as 2015 did. Not to mention Reagan and Scott would each take steps back again in their senior seasons, only furthering the bullpen struggles for South Carolina in 2017.
Keep in mind six of South Carolina’s top ten hitters were underclassmen. Heck, Carlos Cortes had the team’s highest OPS and he’s only a freshman. But South Carolina would drop back to 13-17 in the SEC and 35-25 overall. It was Holbrook’s second losing SEC campaign in three years, something that hadn’t happened in Columbia in 20 seasons.
Immediate speculation arose on whether or not Holbrook would stick around for a sixth season — fair or not. After an apparent meeting between Holbrook and Tanner, it was announced Tuesday evening Holbrook resigned his post — leaving room open for South Carolina’s fourth head coach in 40 years.
Holbrook’s tragic flaw was... bad luck?
Now before the “shill for Holbrook” comments start flying in, let me say there were definite missteps you can identify during the five-year Holbrook era. That 2014 class — who were all in line to be seniors this year — had its gems like Crowe, Widener, and Cone. But Reagan and Scott’s careers proved to be roller coasters, while the other nine guys in that freshman class never made a significant impact.
The 2015 class saw its number of good players like Schmidt, Johnson, Destino, and Stokes. But the other seven haven’t turned a “profit” yet, including someone like Brandon Murray. Murray was a 30th Round MLB Draft selection out of high school and was a consensus top-100 prep prospect in 2014. In three years, Murray has pitched 62 innings to post a 6.10 ERA.
I’m sure plenty of fans will point towards Holbrook’s tendency to play small ball and bunt as one of his fatal flaws. I’m with the masses here, I hate bunting. All the analytics and statistics we have today says bunting is an ineffective way to score runs and move base runners.
However, Gamecock fans are quick to forget Tanner utilized the sac bunt constantly with his signature brand of small ball to win all of his games. Need I remind you Scott Wingo advanced to third to score the eventual winning run in the 2010 CWS because of a bunt by Evan Marzilli?
I know some of you will immediately go to: “But Wingo advanced to second on a passed ball” — which is true. But on that first pitch that went wild Marzilli was squaring up to bunt anyway. We all would have killed Holbrook for that decision in such a big spot. Tanner? He gets a pass because he’s the GOAT.
But all that said, was Holbrook a victim of some misses in recruiting or bad injury luck in seasons where he needed his pitching staff to carry the team? I’m going to lean on the latter.
Holbrook will leave South Carolina as the fourth-winningest coach in the 124 seasons of the program. Holbrook won 199 games in five seasons, but it still wasn’t good enough to the mounting fan and booster pressure because we’re all still high on the fumes of Tanner’s amazing tenure as head coach.
Expectations can be a bitch, just ask someone like Smoke Laval. Remember him? Laval had to follow a guy who had five national championships in the pocket. While Laval even made two CWS of his own he still had to resign on his own accord because one bad season was simply unacceptable for LSU fans.
Holbrook gets five seasons to prove his worth and is ultimately undone by weirdly regressive pitching and untimely injuries in two of them. If that’s your tragic flaw, then I can’t help but feel sorry for Holbrook. I hope he goes out and gets another job, and I’m sure he’ll do well there.
As for what’s next for South Carolina, Tanner has a big task ahead of him. If you forced out a guy for two Super Regionals with 199 wins in five seasons, you better damn well replace him with someone who can top that in five years. The fan base isn’t getting any less irritable with the baseball program, and it would behoove Tanner to nail this hire unlike going with a questionable retread like he did with the football program.