'Where am I going?' Michigan baseball's Erik Bakich sights set on title, says he's staying put
Omaha, Neb. — That Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich and the Wolverines are in the final two playing for a national championship in the College World Series isn’t enough. Not even close.
Bakich has plans. Big plans. Always has since he took over the program in 2013.
Bakich is 41, the youngest head baseball coach at a BCS school. Now in his seventh season with the Wolverines, he has led them to their first World Series since 1984 and they are playing for a national championship that would add to the two that Michigan won in 1953 and 1962.
These are the types of runs that make heads turn and make coaches hot commodities. Just look at Baseball America a month ago. when it included Bakich prominently among the “50 Names to Watch” in the “coaching carousel." A couple years ago, South Carolina was seriously interested and there was reported interest from Stanford, as well.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel then doubled Bakich’s salary and bumped the contract to five years. Still, Bakich has the smallest salary at $400,000 — he received a $200,000 signing bonus when he signed the extension in 2017 — among the coaches who reached the World Series.
Michigan and Vanderbilt have gone through the series without dropping a game and will play a best-of-three series beginning Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park to determine the national champion.
Bakich made one thing clear after his players went through a lifting session at Creighton University on Saturday — he’s not going anywhere.
“Where am I going? You got a job? Are you hiring me? Huh?” Bakich said, laughing, before boarding the team bus and turning serious regarding his future.
“I love Michigan, and I love the Block M, and most importantly, I love the kids on that bus. I wanted to see this through. I didn’t want anyone else to coach them. I wanted to be here for this type of run. Having tasted this in 17 years, these guys have never tasted it. Once you taste it, you want it every year. Yeah, we do need some help, but I know that this is gonna get us over the hump.
"An experience like this is going to move the needle and get us over the hump to where our program is here to stay and we’re here to build.”
It isn’t easy recruiting baseball players to Michigan in large part because of the weather. Instead of running from that, the Wolverines released a hype video before the season that opens with snow falling dreamily on a dark January early morning and the baseball players running out to the field to get in a practice. It has a punchy catchphrase: “You’ll never get hot if you don’t know the cold.” The narrator says, "Most will call it a disadvantage. We call it an advantage."
Vintage Bakich — attacking head on what can be considered a difficult recruiting issue.
Early in the week during an in-game interview last Monday from the World Series, Bakich told ESPN that he and his staff look everywhere for recruits, including the inner city and areas where kids can’t afford travel baseball and showcases. “We just think our roster should look like the United States of America,” Bakich said. It is a comment that has captivated many observers of college athletics.
He is young, tirelessly promotes the program, has had success from the time he arrived and focuses most of his time developing strong-character players. So who wouldn’t want to go after Bakich and rip him from Michigan, as South Carolina tried to?
“People blow that up like … there was just one school in particular. That was it, and Warde was great,” Bakich said Saturday. “The thing I really appreciate about Michigan is they’ve got the bullseye on the student-athletes and them having the best student-athlete experience possible, and competing for national championships is part of that. And so, yeah, we’re going to continue to grow and we’re gonna continue to build our program. Hopefully an experience like this not only moves the needle in the recruiting process but what it can do for our program and consistency of our program to make these types of runs in the postseason.
“I look back at Vanderbilt, and I look at UCLA where coach (John) Savage is, who’s another close friend and mentor, as well, and I look at schools like Louisville and Virginia, who, 15 to 20 years ago, those programs weren’t the juggernauts of the college baseball world. All of those coaches had chances to move on and take over other programs, but they dug their heels in and they stayed and their administrations got behind them and their administrations continued to build and progress the program forward. And now what you have, those are the schools that are the perennial juggernauts. That’s what it takes. It takes a total effort from the university, from the coaching staff and how you recruit and how you develop, but everybody has a part in it.”
Bakich has developed a lot of fans among the Michigan baseball alumni, including Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin, who played on Michigan’s 1983 and 1984 World Series teams.
“I watch his approach, I watch his demeanor on the bench, I watch how his players play, and there’s certainly a sense there’s a stress on the fundamentals and not so much on the sensational,” Larkin said of Bakich.
The Wolverines focus on fundamentals, but he also stresses staying loose and the importance of camaraderie. The players hug each other before the game, they sprint when they head to a destination between innings and never waste time. Bakich has them practicing yoga for the stretching and mental balance it provides, and he wants them to understand the importance of regulated breathing and that they must recognize “signal lights” warning them when they’re being negative and increasing their self-doubt. He is all about mental conditioning and positivity training.
“He’s open to different ideas,” former Michigan and major-league pitcher Jim Abbott said this week. “So many coaches are rigid — ‘It’s my way or the highway. This way has worked in the past and it’s gonna work in the future.’ I don’t think Erik’s like that. I know there was a time when the team felt like he was pretty strict and he listened. I think he opened up a little bit and started listening to them. I know first-hand, they really like him, and it shows. It’s a team that laughs together and roots for each other and every guy on the roster seems to be contributing at some point, and that’s so fun to watch.”
Chris Sabo was on the 1983 Michigan World Series team and won a World Series with the Reds in 1990. He’s now coaching at Akron trying to build that program, and he wants Bakich to stay put in Ann Arbor.
“I’m thrilled for Bakich,” Sabo said. “He’s a hell of a coach. I’m glad he decided to stay there and hopefully he continue to want to stay there.”
Bakich joked to a reporter Saturday about the reporter having a job for him, but it’s not a joke — Bakich is a hot coaching prospect and more than likely he will be receiving a few calls asking his interest. But on a warm, humid day, standing on a sidewalk in Omaha, a day after his team pounded Texas Tech 15-3 to advance to the championship series, he said his heart and his goals are in Ann Arbor.
“I look at that as an opportunity that this doesn’t have to be a once every 35-year-type of situation,” Bakich said. “We can build Michigan into a program that competes for national championships on a consistent basis. Not that we’re going to win one every year, but at least we’re in the hunt.
"This, being here, being in Omaha, can be something, hopefully, that is an occurrence that happens consistently.”
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)