Niyo: Erik Bakich finds right formula to get Michigan baseball ‘over the hump’

John Niyo
The Detroit News

For a coach, this is when you know you’ve done things the right way.

And for Michigan baseball coach Eric Bakich, this is probably when he knew it’d be OK, no matter what happened at the end of a remarkable season.

Moments after a disappointing loss Tuesday night at the College World Series in Omaha, after Vanderbilt’s ace had staved off elimination and forced Wednesday’s winner-take-all Game 3 against the Wolverines, Bakich took one look at his players and knew the message didn’t need to change.

Erik Bakich

“Well, I just read their faces in the dugout,” Bakich told reporters, “and they were smiling.”

And at that point, he knew his postgame speech needed only to remind the Wolverines of something they’d all grown to understand -- and of the belief they’d all learned to share -- over the last six weeks, in particular.

“He said it couldn’t be more fitting for our team that we go into the final day,” catcher Joe Donovan said.

And he was right, once more, which is a reminder itself, I think, of just what a perfect fit Bakich is for the program he led to a place it hasn’t been in decades. A place few would’ve imagined it’d ever reach again, for that matter.

Much like John Beilein was for Michigan’s basketball program over the last decade or so, Bakich has proven to be the right coach at the right time in the absolute right place in Ann Arbor. From the detailed practice plans to the player developmental program to the desire to blend old-school core values -- aggressiveness and toughness -- with new-age thinking. (Bakich's players will talk casually about some of the mental calisthenics they rely on daily -- breathing exercises, self-talk, cue words and so on.)

And regardless of Wednesday’s dramatic deciding game – the last NCAA sporting event of the 2018-19 calendar year -- Michigan baseball’s spring barnstorming tour has done something that can’t be measured in wins or losses. It can only be measured in smiles, whether from exhilaration, exhaustion or whatever.

Igniting a hot streak

The Wolverines survived elimination games in each round of the NCAA tournament -- turning baseball’s postseason into their own hardball version of March Madness -- and they faced another Wednesday night in the finale against Vanderbilt.

But their resolve was tested even before that, in that same ballpark in Omaha, where Jordan Nwogu’s walk-off, two-run double avoided a quick exit in the Big Ten tournament that likely would’ve ended the Wolverines’ season. That was back when a team that had been rolling suddenly was reeling, forgetting how to play the way it’d been taught to play. Loose, and free, as Bakich later explained.

“And we needed some authentic moment to happen on the field,” he said. “For a program who hasn't been here and hasn't navigated its way through the postseason, we needed something to happen to ignite a hot streak.”

So they got it, and then they ran with it. And no matter how the run finally ended Wednesday night before another packed house in college baseball’s Mecca, this was the story of Michigan’s season: A team that checked in as 200-1 underdogs to win it all only a month ago milked every last moment out of its season.

In many ways, it was fitting that the finale pitted Bakich against Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, too.

Bakich got his coaching start in 2002 as a 23-year-old volunteer assistant at Clemson, where he worked alongside Corbin, who quickly became a mentor. When Corbin took the top job at Vandy the following season, Bakich moved with him, spending the next eight years in Nashville as the Commodores went from an SEC also-ran to an NCAA tournament regular.

Corbin is 57 and Bakich is 41, but those who know both say the teacher and the student are cut from the same cloth. For them, coaching is a lifestyle, not a job. 

“He's here for the right reason,” Corbin said of Bakich. “It's not a surprise at all to me. His passion for what he's doing is 10 out of 10.”

And just as the detail-oriented Corbin has built a perennial powerhouse at Vandy, Bakich has designs on doing the same in Ann Arbor, as unlikely as that sounds to many in a sport where the compass and the climate insist it’s largely a fool’s errand.

Vanderbilt hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in 24 years before Corbin took his team to the Super Regional in 2004. The next year the Commodores brought in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, including future MLB All-Star Pedro Alvarez, a Dominican-born prep standout from the Bronx. Bakich, not coincidentally, was the recruiting coordinator in addition to his duties as hitting coach and outfield instructor, though he’ll be the first to tell you he learned everything he knows about recruiting from Corbin.

Solid investment

Wherever it started, it became a storyline underpinning this improbable World Series run for the Wolverines. Bakich made headlines last week in Omaha with his in-game ESPN interview in which he described his efforts to diversify his approach and his roster, targeting inner-city programs that often go overlooked.

“We just think our roster should look like the United States of America,” Bakich said.  

And it shows in this College World Series. In a sport where only 1 in 16 Division I players are African-American, both Michigan and Vanderbilt have seven black players on their roster. (The Wolverines had four in their regular starting lineup prior to Jordan Nwogu’s injury Tuesday night that kept him out of Game 3.)

The tangible effect of this postseason run might not be felt for months, but the ripple effect could last for years. This run to the title game will resonate, without a doubt.

“There is no question that it will help their program,” said Corbin, who certainly would know after 14 consecutive NCAA berths, four World Series appearances and one national title. “Any time you do something like this, there's an attraction that takes place.”

Likewise, there’ll undoubtedly be an attraction from other schools, including some more traditional college baseball powers, when it comes to Michigan’s head coach.

Bakich got a big pay hike in 2017 when South Carolina -- and perhaps Stanford as well – came calling, but even at $400,000 annually on an extension that runs through 2022, he’s the lowest-paid head coach among the eight CWS teams this season. Athletic director Warde Manuel likely will need to add to that baseball budget now, but that’s the price of success these days in college athletics. And in Bakich, at least, it certainly feels like a solid investment.

"An experience like this is going to move the needle and get us over the hump,” Bakich says, “to where our program is here to stay -- and we’re here to build.”