Bakich dreams of career like Michigan legends

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Erik Bakich has taken the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament two of the past three seasons.

Erik Bakich owed it to himself to at least listen when the phone rang shortly after Michigan’s baseball season ended in the NCAA Regionals.

And in regard to Stanford, looking to replace its legendary, retiring coach, Bakich did have discussions.

He never had talks with South Carolina, however, even though that had been widely reported.

“The discussions I always wanted to have were with Michigan,” Bakich said earlier this week. “And obviously, I’m really, really thankful that those discussions took place. I get to keep coaching here.

“My family couldn’t be happier.”

Bakich, 39, said thanks but no thanks to Stanford, announced June 14 he was staying in Ann Arbor, accepted the five-year extension athletic director Warde Manuel had waiting for him on the table — and then hit the recruiting trail. The new deal keeps Bakich under contract through the 2022 season, ample time to keep building on a program he’s taken to the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three seasons.

The task will be tall, as it always is at a northern school — but especially now, especially with Michigan, which this month saw a program-record 11 players taken in a single Major League Baseball Draft. All 11 signed, including seven juniors, plus two top recruits. Most of his starting rotation from 2017 is gone, including left-handed ace Oliver Jaskie (sixth round, Seattle Mariners) — as is pitching coach Sean Kenny, who took the same job with Georgia.

It’s a double-edged sword. That’s a massive loss of talent, to be sure, but also a sign of the times for the program.

Not that Bakich is patting himself on the back. Not even close.

“We have far from made it,” Bakich said, the day after Florida beat LSU to win the College World Series. “If I need to refresh your memory, we lost our last four games. If we were still playing last night, I would say we’re getting closer.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re climbing. We’re climbing the mountain.”

Erik Bakich: "We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re climbing. We’re climbing the mountain."

And he has the recruiting class to continue the ascension, including Portage Central right-hander Jeff Criswell, a draft pick of the Tigers this month.

There’s also lots of offense returning, including sophomore infielder Ako Thomas, who led the Big Ten in batting average (.363) and on-base percentage (.472), despite missing three weeks with a broken bone in his left hand.

Thomas acknowledged the talent among the departures, but is thrilled one man is staying put — Bakich.

“I love the coaching staff, they pretty much taught me everything I know,” said Thomas, a Chicago native who committed to Bakich and Michigan as a sophomore in high school, turning away the likes of Iowa, Kansas and Central Michigan. “I would’ve been pretty hurt if they had left. I knew in their heart they wanted to stay here.

“The program is on the rise right now.”

Bakich arrived in Ann Arbor in 2012, after a four-year run as Maryland’s head coach. And the Wolverines were coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the mid-1990s, and hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Bakich was 29-27 in Year 1, 30-29 in Year 2, and finally had a breakthrough in Year 3, going 39-25, winning the Big Ten tournament and making the NCAA Tournament.

In five seasons, Bakich hasn’t had a losing season, and had his best, record-wise, this past year at 42-17, even if it ended in disappointment, with no wins in the Big Ten tournament or the NCAA Regionals.

That left a bitter taste, but provides motivation, too.

“We’re pleased with where we are, but we’re not satisfied,” said Bakich, who’s never been known for his patience — not even when he was just a child he quips. “We’ve definitely made progress, done a few things. But I’d like to think this is a program that can win more than one championship every five years, and go to more than two (NCAA) Regionals every five years.

“I also respect the turnaround that’s taken place compared to where the program was. Sometimes, that takes a little bit of time.

“I do think this is a program that can be a perennial contender for a championship in the Big Ten, as well as advancing through the postseason.”

And that’s what kept him at Michigan, even if Stanford has the richer history, with two national championships to its credit, plus 12 NCAA appearances since 2000.

Bakich looks around at Michigan, and sees his peer in softball, Carol Hutchins, whom he doesn’t really consider his peer — because she’s had such a legendary career, on the job since 1985, with a national championship on her resume.

And he also sees Red Berenson, who arrived on the job a year before Hutchins, and who just retired as hockey coach — also with a national championship.

That’s what Bakich wants, to someday be in their stratosphere.

That doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But if and when it happens, he wants it to be at Michigan. And he pledged as much this month.

“Look at Carol Hutchins, look at Red Berenson, the careers they’ve had. I’m inspired to follow in their footsteps,” said Bakich, who’s married to Jiffy, and has two sons and a daughter. “My family and I love Michigan, and I’ve said all along I want to be here long-term.

“I’m really excited about the future and proud and honored to be the baseball coach here.”

Erik Bakich at Michigan

2013: 29-27, T5th in Big Ten

2014: 30-29, T4th in Big Ten

2015: 39-25, T3rd in Big Ten; Big Ten tournament champions, NCAA appearance

2016: 36-21, 5th in Big Ten

2017: 42-17, 2nd in Big Ten; NCAA appearance