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July 16, 2012

Cloninger: The guy after the guy



"Because you're there."
--------------------- GRATEFUL DEAD

Chad Holbrook has waited for this chance, and he was finally rewarded on Monday when it became official - in February, for the first time in 17 years, South Carolina's baseball team will take the field without Ray Tanner.

It will be Holbrook in the captain's chair, his gift for faithfully serving as an assistant coach for 19 years, four at USC. He had chances to go elsewhere to make his mark, but elected to stay when it became clear that he was always going to be the first choice to replace Tanner, no matter where he was.

There won't be a change from how the Gamecocks have approached the game. It was Holbrook's style since he arrived that changed USC into its present incarnation - aggressive at the plate, relying more on speed and bunting than in years past, plus powerful pitching. He recruited the bulk of the team, if not all of it, and it will be fully his team that takes the field in 2013.

But now comes the hard part. As good as Holbrook has been and as positive a situation as it is to walk into, Holbrook now becomes "The Guy."

As in, "The Guy who has to follow THE GUY."

It's one of the most difficult things to face as a coach. When a newcomer takes over a job and replaces a stalwart, one that had been there for years and won so many games and constructed a way of coaching and running the program, it's incredibly tough to duplicate the success. Wins are usually the only criteria that matter, but sometimes, even the day-to-day carrying of the old guard becomes an issue.

It often becomes a case of the new guy being held up to the old guy. Check the list throughout any sport.

Ron Zook wasn't long for the world after replacing Steve Spurrier as Florida's football coach, seemingly under fire from the day he was hired. Phil Bengtson tried to be the next Vince Lombardi in Green Bay and like Zook, lasted three years before being pink-slipped. God help whoever follows Mike Krzyzewski as Duke basketball coach.

There have been some successes as well. UCLA continued to have very strong seasons after John Wooden retired, although no coach touched his run of championships. Notre Dame, with the notable exception of Gerry Faust, ran through Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz before the program took a severe step back after Holtz left. George Seifert won two Super Bowls with San Francisco after the legendary Bill Walsh stepped down, before the 49ers embarked on a stretch of mediocrity that was just broken a year ago.

Holbrook saw first-hand how difficult it can be. At North Carolina as an assistant baseball coach when the venerable Dean Smith called it quits, Holbrook was around for the great success under immediate successor Bill Guthridge but was also there after Guthridge retired. The Matt Doherty disaster still leaves a bitter taste in Blue Heaven, although Roy Williams replaced him and did what he couldn't do at Kansas - win the national championship, and then won another five years later.

Holbrook knew it and said twice on Monday that he's not trying to be Tanner. Why?

"No one can," Holbrook answered.

True, but that won't stop folks from demanding it.

USC's fan base has come to expect massive success from the baseball team over the past three years. Tanner compiled 738 victories over 16 seasons and won so consistently that the records seemingly never end. It wasn't that long ago that USC fans pointed finger after finger at pitching coach Mark Calvi as the root of the Gamecocks' problems, when they could only win a measly 40 games per season, before doing an abrupt about-face when Calvi's last move - trusting Michael Roth to start a College World Series game - wound up sparking USC to three straight CWS finals appearances.

Holbrook will lose some games. Eventually, there will come a year when USC doesn't make it to Omaha. The fans will have to decide the line for what's acceptable (to them) and what becomes, "Well, RAY never would have … "

Holbrook knows all of it. He also knows that he faces double the pressure, because not only did the guy ahead of him do something that had never been done at USC before in any sport - i.e., be a consistent national power - but the same guy is still around. And is Holbrook's boss, which isn't unfamiliar, but now he's also the boss of the entire athletic department.

The X's and O's of the job seem to have already been answered. Holbrook's stamp is on the program. What he has to try and replicate is Tanner's uncanny knack of making the right moves, as unexpected as they may seem to be. The intuition Tanner showed often bordered on the supernatural and if he didn't become AD, I would have suggested that he go start picking winners down at the track.

Holbrook said that he will "drive Tanner crazy" with phone calls about the minute details of running the program, and that Tanner is his "security blanket." It was a good term to use - Tanner will always be there to help out and cover his former top hand, supplying stability and warmth as Holbrook embarks on the next step in his career.

Holbrook can only hope that the reputation that he has to follow doesn't smother him.



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