Since leading the Michigan baseball team to within a victory of winning the College World Series, Erik Bakich has met with his players for individual interviews and run a camp for high school players at the school’s campus in Ann Arbor. One thing he has not done is sit back to contemplate the team’s runner-up finish to NCAA champion Vanderbilt.
“I really haven’t had time to pick my head up and look around,” he joked this week, on the eve of a recruiting trip to Atlanta. “And even if I did, I think when it comes to growth and improvement and competing, there is no finish line. So, it was just going to be putting the World Series aside and moving onto the next thing, which is recruiting.”
After a three-year stint as Maryland baseball coach, the 41-year-old Bakich has turned the Wolverines into a powerhouse. Since going 29-27 in his debut season at Michigan in 2013, the program has racked up at least 30 victories in each of the past six seasons.
This past season, the Wolverines not only compiled its most wins since 1987 with 50 in 72 games, but they appeared in the College World Series for the first time since 1984 and made its third NCAA tournament appearance in five years.
Volunteer assistant coach Michael Brdar, who played for Bakich in 2016 and 2017, said the head coach has been instrumental in reviving a program that won national championships in 1953 and 1962 and went to the College World Series five times from 1978 through 1984.
“When he was first hired, I think he was the only one that truly believed in this program,” said Brdar, who was a All-Big Ten first-team shortstop in 2017. “The amount of people he’s turned into believers is really cool to see. The alumni base is always there to support us, but to see how many of them showed up for this postseason run, I don’t know if they believed, to be honest.
“I think he turned our athletic department into believers. He’s always turned the staff and players into believers, but there’s no other person that would have brought this program to where it is now.”
Bakich honed his ability as a head coach with the Terps from 2010 to 2012 — his first time leading a program after serving as an assistant coach at Clemson and Vanderbilt. He acknowledged that managing at Maryland was a deep dive into trial and error.
“It was my first time sitting in that chair, and I just remember that there were a lot of little things that I didn’t know,” he recalled. “It was a huge period of growth personally because I got way out of my comfort zone. My comfort zone was recruiting and being the hitting coach. And now the equipment guy was asking me how many dozens of baseballs did he need to order, and I had no idea how to answer that. So, it was that and a thousand other things.
“The beauty of that is you just have to figure it out, and it’s no different than a high school player making the jump to college baseball. There’s a figuring-it-out phase. It took two years to feel like I wasn’t spinning my wheels.”
Bakich has migrated some of the things he did with the Terps to the Wolverines. In the fall, there are “Mental Toughness Wednesdays” during which players are required to run the steps inside the school’s cavernous football stadium, or perform a series of exercises with their repetition counts associated with a deck of cards. And then there are the Keith LeClair 300s, which Bakich borrowed from his late East Carolina coach who had his players run 300 meters up to eight times within a 55-second span with a 55-second rest period between runs.
Former Maryland outfielder Anthony Papio, who redshirted as a freshman in Bakich’s final year in College Park, credited the workouts with contributing to the 2012 team’s season-opening series win at No. 14 UCLA and a 32-24 record that was a 15-win improvement from Bakich’s first season in 2010.
“Once the season rolled around, to be very honest, we were not an extremely talented group of guys, but I think we overachieved a little bit because one thing that he’s very good at is making guys believe in themselves and play with some confidence,” said Papio, now a volunteer assistant coach under the Terps’ Rob Vaughn. “Then we went down to the Keith LeClair Classic at East Carolina and swept that tournament.
“I think we had the No. 1 RPI in the country for the first two or three weeks. We were a group of guys that were not overly gifted from an ability standpoint but overachieved a little bit, and I think a lot of that had to do with Bakich making guys really believe in themselves.”
Bakich has retained that ability to motivate at Michigan. Brdar said Bakich rallied the players after the team lost, 11-7, to Creighton June 2 in an NCAA regional in Corvallis, Ore.
“After we lost to Creighton in Game 1 of the regional finals, he got up there and gave a tremendous speech and kind of got the guys back to the positive thinking,” Brdar said. “There’s nothing like when he gets up there to talk. All of the guys are locked in, and when we leave the room after he speaks, we’re all like, ‘All right, we’re together, let’s do this thing.’ He just always seems to have the knack of saying the right things.”
Bakich said he will take a break from the recruiting trail next month to attend a friend’s destination wedding, but quipped that baseball coaches tend to rest over the Christmas holiday because he said, “That’s when we get married, that’s when we have children, that’s when we do all of that stuff.”
Bakich, who got his first taste of the College World Series in 2002 as an assistant at Clemson, said finishing one win shy of capturing the NCAA title will continue to torment him.
“You instantly become an addict and you just want to get back there,” he said. “Now that I’ve experienced it 17 years later, that taste, that hunger of just wanting to get back there is at an all-time high, and I don’t want to take a minute to smell the roses. I want to go out and improve and I want to attack the recruiting trail and put ourselves in a position where we can experience this on a consistent basis.”