'Wanted to be like him': UM's Erik Bakich faces mentor in CWS Finals

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan coach Erik Bakich, left, and the Wolverines will open the best-of-three College World Series Finals against Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin and his squad on Monday night.

Omaha, Neb. — The first time Erik Bakich and Tim Corbin met was not in the most glamorous locale.

But there they were, in a parking lot overlooking the baseball field at Clemson University. Bakich was a young aspiring baseball coach who had been a player at East Carolina trying to latch on as a volunteer coach, and Corbin was an assistant on Jack Leggett’s Clemson staff.

Since then, Corbin has established Vanderbilt as a powerhouse in college baseball and has won a national championship, while Bakich has brought Michigan to the brink of its first national title since 1962 as the two teams prepare for a best-of-three championship series that begins Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park.

“He opened his trunk and pulled out this agility apparatus, and it was an apparatus that not only did he use to teach, but he used for himself,” Corbin said recalling their first meeting Sunday at a news conference. “And at that point it just led to a relationship that has lasted to this day. 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. 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.”

Bakich, seated to Corbin’s right, smiled.

“I don't remember the agility equipment in the trunk,” Bakich said, laughing.

“I do,” Corbin said. “I’m not that old.”

Bakich was drawn to Corbin immediately because of a shared approach to life and baseball.

“Hearing his story of a Division III player, a guy that drove all night to go wait on the doorstep of an athletic director because he heard there was an opening in the ticket office, a guy who started a small-school Presbyterian program by himself with a shovel and built a field and had to be the dorm director and had to be his own assistant coach and head coach," Bakich said. "Just to see the work ethic and the drive and the energy and the passion, he'd sleep in his car because he didn't have a recruiting budget, tournament after tournament. I just felt like this is the guy I want to be around.

“I was a junior college player. I was always an underdog, wasn't one of those players that — just had to prove I could play instead of some of the players that have to prove they can't. I just felt like this is the guy I need to gravitate to. You hear the phrase a lot about being in the right place at the right time and surrounding yourself with the right people. I felt like I hit the jackpot with that when I got to Clemson, and that had a lot to do with Coach Leggett and Kevin O'Sullivan, but I connected with Coach Corbin right away and just wanted to be like him.”

In so many ways, this has been a storybook season for the Wolverines, who are making their first appearance in the College World Series since 1984. But on a personal level, nothing could feel more dramatic and satisfying for Bakich than being in his first CWS as a head coach facing his close friend and mentor.

Bakich played for the late Keith LeClair at East Carolina. LeClair played for and coached with Leggett when he was at Western Carolina, so when Bakich decided he wanted to get into coaching, LeClair sent him to Clemson.

“I drove one morning to Clemson, S.C., sat down and met with Coach Leggett and his two assistant coaches, which were Tim Corbin and Kevin O’Sullivan at the time,” Bakich said Saturday. “It was an instant connection.

“I put a security deposit down on an apartment that day and didn’t know it that day, but I met three of my closest friends and three guys I consider mentors in this game. That’s how we got connected, through the coaching tree Jack Leggett has built, and it’s got a lot of branches. To see what Coach Corbin and Kevin O’Sullivan (Florida’s head coach) have gone on to do, both winning national championships, both being perennial World Series contenders, speaks volumes to that coaching tree. So proud to be part of it.”

Corbin and Bakich clicked. So much so, when Corbin became the Vanderbilt head coach in 2003, it was a no-brainer Bakich would be heading to Nashville.

“I got to spend a year with Coach Corbin at Clemson that year we were here (at the World Series) in Omaha in 2002, and Coach Corbin asked me to come with him to Vanderbilt that summer when he got offered the head coaching job,” Bakich said. “It didn’t matter where he was going, I was going with him. I believed in him and what he was going to build. Spent seven great years at Vanderbilt with him as his assistant.”

It is impossible to streamline everything Bakich learned from Corbin into a quick sound bite.

“You would have to break that down by topic,” Bakich said. “He and his wife, Maggie, have built a perennial powerhouse through genuine love and caring for people and their players. He’s the most detail-oriented and organized, just the highest level of consistency the way he operates. Everything you see is genuine. What I learned goes far beyond the baseball field. I’m sure that’s exactly how his players feel walking out of there. They have a mentor, a friend, someone in their corner and someone they’re always going to be loyal to forever.

“I feel indebted to him. I wouldn’t be at Michigan without him. More importantly, I wouldn’t have my family without him. The lessons I learned, I would say far tip the scale on life lessons, leadership lessons, how-to-be-a-man lessons as much as all the baseball lessons and all the recruiting lessons and how to be consistent and detail-oriented.”

Bakich watched some of Vanderbilt’s on-field workout Sunday afternoon and was asked if he was picking up any tips on the opponent. He smiled and said he had seen all this before, the drills and the way the players carry themselves, because that’s ingrained from his time with Corbin at Vanderbilt.

Just a little while earlier at the news conference, Corbin made Bakich’s impact on Vanderbilt perfectly clear. Before this run of postseason success, there was a young, ambitious coach recruiting to build the Commodores to the program they’ve become.

“They've heard about Erik long before this,” Corbin said of his players. “We talk a lot about our history to the players because I want them to understand where it was at the beginning so they don't take things for granted. But I'll say this, and I'll say it briefly, but it's real — Vanderbilt is not Vanderbilt without Erik Bakich. When Vanderbilt was not an attractive school to come to, I mean, there weren't a lot of people going after the Vanderbilt position when I did. There were about two others, three others, so it wasn't one of those schools that people saw as a desirable situation.”

Perhaps Michigan hasn’t been a top baseball destination the last couple decades in large part because of the weather and lack of consistent success. Bakich, who is in his seventh season, has applied that same type of energy he used helping build Vanderbilt to the Wolverines. And now Michigan will play the program that provided the blueprint for Bakich’s program in Ann Arbor.

“We haven’t played each other since I left, and I don’t know if there could be a better scenario if we had to play a matchup like this,” Bakich said. “(Corbin) is family to me and my wife, Jiffy, and I wouldn’t have met her without him. I’ve learned everything from him, not just about baseball. How to be a good husband, a good father. I don’t know if there’s a higher level of respect for us to match up this way for the first time.”

But playing someone you consider as close as family doesn’t weaken the competitiveness.

“That’s another thing I learned from him — when it’s time to compete, it’s time to compete,” Bakich said. “He’s not going to take it easy on us, and we’re not going to take it easy on them. We owe it to our players as a coaching staff and for myself, we’re going to prepare and do everything we can to continue to chase these celebratory moments. We get to stay here a little bit longer, we get to keep playing the tournament a little bit longer, and we’re going to prepare for our next opponent just like we would anyone else and keep playing the same way we’ve been playing. As much as I’ve learned and as much as I love Coach Corbin and as special as my relationship is with him, when it’s time to compete, it’s time to play.

“This will be the first time I’m not pulling for Vanderbilt, put it that way.”

College World Series championship series


Monday: Michigan (49-20) vs. Vanderbilt (57-11), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Tuesday: Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Wednesday (if necessary): Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)


Twitter: @chengelis