In the late ‘90s as an East Carolina baseball player, Erik Bakich internalized the word “Omaha” as a symbol of the journey and the goal wrapped up into one. As a volunteer assistant at Clemson in 2002, he got to experience the storied College World Series in that city for the first time. Now, seventeen years after that last visit, Bakich is the head coach of one of the two undefeated teams in the CWS, and he sees no reason to cut his time in Omaha short.
“You might as well try to win it, as long as you’re here,” said Bakich, who has been the head coach at Michigan since 2012. “Once you get here, and you get immersed into the energy that this place brings, what this is about, you just want to extend your stay as long as you possibly can. It’s like being on a magical ride and you don’t want to hit the off button.”
With victories over Texas Tech and Florida State behind them and a rematch with the Red Raiders set for Friday afternoon, Bakich’s Wolverines haven’t been playing like a program whose last College World Series appearance was 35 years ago. They are playing poised and outstanding baseball, but they’re not winning in such a workmanlike way that they forget to soak up the wonder of Omaha.
Every Michigan player knows about Bakich’s college coach Keith LeClair and about his tremendous drive to build a winner, but during the Super Regional Bakich had a moment when he realized that LeClair wouldn’t want to be used as a motivational tool when the players could find that spirit to triumph within themselves.
“I was thinking, ‘What would Coach LeClair say?’ And I had a feeling he would say, ‘Stop talking about me. Make it about the players,’” he said. “I realized, it isn’t about the results or the scoreboards. It’s about them having the experience, of seeing that organic celebration, the expressions on their faces when we score a big run or escape a big jam.
“You’re chasing those dogpile moments. I think that’s what Omaha is all about.”
Bakich has certainly experienced a few dogpile moments on his baseball journey, from playing at ECU to coaching at Clemson, Vanderbilt, Maryland and Michigan. He served as an assistant under LeClair’s college coach Jack Leggett at Clemson, and then learned from another former Leggett player, Tim Corbin, at Vanderbilt (the only other undefeated team in Omaha at this point.)
The purity of the coaching tree that he and Michigan assistant coach and ex-Pirate teammate Nick Schnabel have been shaped by, with Leggett at the roots, has served to keep both of them grounded in the fundamentals of building a successful program at every stop.
His confidence in the leadership skills he has gleaned from those giants of the sport have allowed Bakich, who was named the National College Baseball Writers Association National Coach of the Year on Saturday, to become a college baseball voice in his own right.
That fact was evident this week when a dugout interview he gave to ESPN reporter Kris Budden Monday struck a national chord. While Bakich was trying to keep his players fixed on the next College World Series challenge, his remarks about recruiting beyond the normal channels were going viral.
“We just think our roster should look like the United States of America,” Bakich told ESPN. “We target a lot of inner city kids. There’s a lot of great athletes out there and think it’s ridiculous the cost of travel ball and some of the showcases. It negates opportunities for a lot of kids. For us, we want to have a diverse roster and want to provide as many opportunities for kids all over the country that we can.”
Bakich said on Wednesday that the key to crafting a roster of competitive players who represent a wide variety of backgrounds is figuring out ways to see the kids who wouldn’t otherwise be seen.
He still does recruit at the showcases and the travel ball tournaments, but he also goes off the beaten path to find the athletes that other coaches might miss.
“A lot of times you do end up with some kids who are unbelievable athletes who would have found themselves playing football or basketball instead,” he said. “You have to be willing to look all over the place.”
As the Pirate Nation falls in line as one to support Bakich and Schnabel, fans only have to look to Omaha this week, where this Pirate has already checked off a career milestone and is already turning to bigger dreams.