D1Baseball 2019 Coach of the Year: Michigan’s Erik BakichAwards
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OMAHA — It didn’t take Tim Corbin long to figure out that Erik Bakich was something special. It was the offseason of 2001, and Bakich had just arrived at Clemson as a volunteer assistant. Corbin was already an assistant under Jack Leggett at Clemson, and all he knew about Bakich was that he came highly recommended from his former coach at East Carolina, the great Keith LeClair. That recommendation carried plenty of weight, because Corbin was good friends with LeClair (a fellow New Hampshire native).
“[LeClair] relayed a lot of inside information about Erik just in terms of the fibers of the human and what he was and how he went about things. I think a lot of the things that I heard from Keith were the attractive pieces of him,” Corbin said. “First time I met him, I met him out in the parking lot on top of Jervey parking lot, overlooking the baseball field at Clemson, and he opened his trunk and pulled out all this agility apparatus, and it was apparatus that not only did he use to teach but he used for himself, and at that point it just led to a relationship that has lasted to this day.”
The “agility apparatus” — which Bakich said he doesn’t remember — might have amused Corbin, but that anecdote also seems like an appropriate first impression for a young coach who would become renowned for his energy, enthusiasm and work ethic. Bakich has always had a unique gift for connecting with young players, both on the recruiting trail and on campus. That gift was evident long before Bakich became head coach at Michigan, long before he became the 2019 D1Baseball Coach of the Year.
“But what I found in just the three days, four days, five days of first meeting someone is you just could tell that he had an engine that just was completely different than most people that you meet, just an unbelievable passion for teaching and coaching and being around people,” Corbin said. “He’s got everything that you would want in a teacher. And I’ll say ‘teacher,’ because to me, before you can coach — not every coach is a teacher, but I think if you’re a teacher you can be a coach, and that’s what he was. It was just someone that I knew very quickly and right away that this person would be part of your life for the remainder.”
A year later, Corbin accepted the head job at Vanderbilt and took Bakich with him as recruiting coordinator. Corbin has repeatedly said that Vanderbilt would not be Vanderbilt if Erik hadn’t been there to help build the foundation. He helped recruit some of the great players who defined the first half of Corbin’s illustrious tenure, from David Price to Pedro Alvarez to Sonny Gray and so many more standouts.
Then Bakich set out on his own in the summer of 2009, taking over as Maryland’s head coach at the age of 31. He immediately set out trying to instill a Vanderbilt-like culture at his new program, as he told me shortly after taking the job in June of 2009.
“It’s a situation like Vanderbilt all over again, because we didn’t have a strong fan base in 2002 and 2003,” Bakich said a decade ago. “But people enjoyed seeing the energy, the kids sprinting on and off the field. We’ve got to instill that hard-nosed, aggressive, blue-collar brand of baseball, creating an identity. We’ve got to get these players to play with an edge, play with confidence.”
Maryland made rapid strides in Bakich’s three years there, and he boosted the talent level dramatically, leaving the cupboards stocked for back-to-back super regional runs after Bakich left for Michigan after the 2012 season.
It took a couple of years for Bakich to rebuild Michigan into a contender, but he led the Wolverines to regionals in 2015 for the first time since 2008. They have been consistent contenders ever since, and in 2017 they won 42 games and led the nation with 11 players drafted.
Still, despite its rich baseball heritage, Michigan hadn’t been to the College World Series since 1984, and only one other Big Ten team had made an Omaha trip since then. The reality is that it’s just a lot harder for a cold-weather team to climb to the top of the mountain in a warm-weather sport when the season starts in mid-February. It’s harder to recruit, it’s harder to win nonconference games when the weather forces you to travel for the first six weeks of the season, and that makes it harder to put yourself in a position to host regionals and supers — which is the key to consistent postseason success. But Bakich refused to accept that the cold weather or the conference’s lack of postseason success made it impossible for Michigan to become an elite program again.
“I think bigger than a lack of facilities, bigger than the weather is a belief system. And just like Coach [Corbin] said, not taking no for an answer, not allowing cold weather to be an excuse,” Bakich said. “We have these indoor facilities, but we don’t like to use them very often. We go outside. If it’s above zero degrees, we are outside. It might only be for 20 or 30 minutes, but it’s just a mindset thing. We’re going outside. And our players know it, and our recruits know it, and we don’t shy away from it. Yeah, it’s cold here, but it’s not going to keep us from getting better. The draft has shown that, and the postseason has shown that.
“So I think more than anything, more than any focusing on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have, and if you have a belief system that you’re going to build something and your players are going to buy into that, that can overcome a lot of deficiencies that you have.”
And this spring, Bakich guided the Wolverines farther than they’ve gone since 1962, raising the bar for the program and for the entire Big Ten. Bakich talked often this postseason about how a program that hasn’t been there before usually needs an “organic,” “authentic” moment to catalyze them and get them to truly believe. For Michigan, that moment occurred in the Big Ten tournament, when the Wolverines were on the brink of going 0-2 and having their season end shy of regionals. They trailed Illinois by a run in the ninth, and then Jordan Nwogu delivered a walk-off two-run double to keep the season alive. Michigan won two more games in the conference tournament to sneak into the NCAA tournament as one of the last four teams in the field, and they were off and running, playing loose and free, playing for each other. The culture Bakich had been working so hard to build had truly taken hold, at the perfect time.
“You know, we just show up to the field one day at a time, just trying to win games for each other, for the block M, for the eight letters on our chest,” lefthander Tommy Henry said after one Michigan win in Omaha. “And so whether you were in the bunker all game or you hit a home run the second at-bat of the game, everyone is feeling that pure joy just because it’s a special team, we’re playing for each other, and we’re playing for the block M on our hat.”
The Wolverines rode that magical wave all the way to the CWS Finals, along the way taking down No. 1 UCLA in super regionals, then beating Big 12 champion Texas Tech twice and perennial power Florida State once in Omaha.
This was a group of players who genuinely enjoyed being with each other, and who simply wanted to stay together for one more game, and then one more game, and then one more.
“We just figured out that we were pressing and worried about just trying to win or trying not to lose, and now we’re just playing loose and having fun at TD AmeriPlayground,” outfielder Jesse Franklin said after the FSU win.
And that togetherness started at the top. Bakich and his outstanding coaching staff — Nick Schnabel, Chris Fetter and Michael Brdar — formed a strong bond with their players and elicited genuine, heartfelt affection. Even after losing to Vanderbilt in Game Three of the Finals, the players were able to temper their disappointment with a strong sense of accomplishment and personal growth.
“As for me, just coming into Michigan, not knowing what to expect, coming in as a boy, felt like I definitely left as a man,” second baseman Ako Thomas said. “This program has taught me a lot, taught me how to be a better person, better teammate. Definitely have invested in a lot of good relationships here in my career here. … A lot of people didn’t expect us to be here, and we fought our butts off, and we’re very proud.”
Bakich, naturally, felt the same way.
“I’m very proud of our team. When we talk about leaving a legacy in our program and it’s not about 50 wins or stats or accolades, it’s these two guys to my left here [Thomas and Jimmy Kerr], along with the seniors and the upperclassmen, they have inspired future generations of Michigan baseball players with a belief that winning a national championship is a possibility and getting to Omaha is something that can be done on a consistent basis,” Bakich said after that final loss. “The only way you can have an Omaha program is if you first have an Omaha team, and this is very much a tipping point for us. Very proud of what these guys put in on a daily basis from day one. They were very determined to make that mark and leave that legacy, and everybody says that, but not everybody is willing to do what it takes, and these guys did it on a daily basis.
“The effort that they put in will never be forgotten because now everyone coming back and everyone coming in is going to know there are no little things. We’re just going to find a way to get 1 percent better.”
Bakich built an Omaha team, but you know he’s not going to rest on his laurels. The next step is to turn Michigan into “an Omaha program,” where the expectation is to get back to the promised land regularly, and to win the whole thing. This run was indeed magical, but it doesn’t have to be the peak for Michigan baseball. Bakich believes it will instead serve as a springboard to achieve even more in the future.
“We’ve talked about in a recruiting pitch that Midwest kids don’t need to go south to develop into professional players and to make postseason runs, and we’ve talked about kids from outside of the Big Ten footprint, outside of the Midwest, that they can come to Michigan and have that same experience,” Bakich said. “And so for us, we needed a magical type of season. Inside of our locker room, believing is seeing, but maybe externally seeing is believing. From those external things, like recruiting or whatever it may be, yeah, you would think that this type of success, even though we’re not No. 1, will move the needle and tip the scales and allow us to be a program that’s now ignited to where this becomes the standard and the guys believe that they know we can get here and they know we can compete for a national championship. Now they know what it takes to navigate their way through a postseason.
“We’re always going to recruit. We’re always going to have good players. It’s one thing to have good players, it’s another thing to play well as a team and play your best when it means the most, and now our guys have experience doing that, and that’s a huge luxury to have.”