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Promise to dying coach fuels Bakich

Mgoblue.com
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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 28, 2013

In July 2006, Lynn LeClair put Erik Bakich on speakerphone as her husband Keith fought the final days of his five-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a debilitating condition which leads to the progressive degeneration of one’s motor neurons, leading to immobilization generally followed by death.

That day, Bakich said his final words to his former coach at East Carolina University in the form of a promise, on behalf of himself and his college teammates.

“I told him that we would all get to Omaha for him,” Bakich said. “I told him that we all loved him.”

During his five years coaching at East Carolina, LeClair made it clear that playing in Omaha for a national championship was always the goal for his squads. In his two seasons at East Carolina in 1999 and 2000, Bakich heard Omaha used as the rally cry whenever the team broke huddle.

Some people eat, sleep and breathe baseball. LeClair and his players ate, slept and breathed for Omaha. LeClair led his teams to four straight NCAA regional appearances and one Super Regional appearance, but that was the furthest he would get.

LeClair never had the opportunity to coach in Omaha. His ALS tragically cut his coaching career short in 2002 at the age of 36.

After they finished playing for him, LeClair’s passion for Omaha continued to burn deep inside of his players. As their collegiate careers finished in the early 2000s, many players on those East Carolina teams continued their quest to reach Omaha as college coaches. From Bakich and his assistant Nick Schnabel at Michigan, to hitting coach Cliff Godwin at Ole Miss to three other college coaches and two in the minor leagues, LeClair’s former players fill up coaching staffs across the country.

“He never got the chance to experience going to Omaha and competing for national championships,” said Coastal Carolina assistant coach Joe Hastings. “We kind of feel like we’re carrying the torch for him.”

The influence of LeClair on his former players affects more than just how they coach. Bakich and many of his former teammates honor LeClair by wearing No. 23 when they coach.

“(LeClair) instilled a work ethic in all of us that was just that we’re going to outwork people, we’re going to work harder than everybody else,” Godwin said.

Like his teammates, the work ethic Bakich developed at East Carolina as a player under LeClair stayed with him as he began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at Clemson in 2002. In his one season at Clemson, the Tigers reached the place Bakich always wanted to go: Omaha.

“There’s not a better amateur sporting event than the College World Series,” Bakich said. “I was just a volunteer coach, but it didn’t matter. I felt like it was a lot of years of hard work.”

Though the Tigers didn’t capture the national championship that year, Bakich’s youthful enthusiasm and passion for the game impressed his fellow coaches at Clemson so much that when Clemson assistant Tim Corbin was hired to coach Vanderbilt in the 2003 season, he brought Bakich along as his hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, despite Bakich having only one year of coaching experience.

Corbin’s staff had the arduous task of rebuilding a Vanderbilt baseball program that hadn’t made a NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980. In the SEC, where baseball powerhouse reign, this was no easy task. Because of the challenge that faced him in recruiting elite players — so many other schools in the area already had elite baseball programs — Bakich recruited like he did everything else: relentlessly.

“He would never, ever accept no for an answer,” Corbin said.

Not only would Bakich not accept no from individual recruits, but he would also not accept that Vanderbilt couldn’t be a relevant baseball program. In his first year as recruiting coordinator, the father of a future major league player wouldn’t let Bakich speak on the phone with his son because, “Vanderbilt was not even a blip on the college baseball radar.” After the conversation with the father, Bakich walked into Corbin’s office and promised that they would make Vanderbilt more than just a blip on the college baseball radar — they would make it into an academic and baseball powerhouse like Stanford and Rice.

As Bakich pledged, Vanderbilt soon became relevant again, making the NCAA Tournament in 2004. What made the program a force to reckon with was his relentless recruiting, which paid off as he played instrumental roles in landing Vanderbilt left-hander David Price and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who joined the Commodores in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The duo was so successful at Vanderbilt that Price became the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Draft in 2007 while Alvarez became the second overall pick the following year.

With Price and Alvarez leading a star-studded team that had five future first-round Major League draft picks, the 2007 Commodores won both the SEC regular-season and Tournament championships. Less than a year after his final promise to LeClair and with Vanderbilt as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, a return trip to Omaha for Bakich seemed inevitable. In the regional finals, the Commodores faced an underdog Michigan team. With the game tied in the ninth, Corbin inserted Price on two days rest to shut down the Wolverines. In the top of the 10th inning, freshman pinch-hitter Alan Oaks hit a solo home run off of Price to give Michigan the lead and the win. It was Price’s only loss that season.

“That was one of the toughest coaching moments to overcome,” Bakich said. “It’s still an unhealed wound. (You feel like) you’re flying a 1,000 miles an hour then just come crashing through a brick wall all at once.”

In 2009, Bakich’s pursuit of Omaha put him on the move again, this time to the University of Maryland as the head coach, making the 32-year-old the youngest head coach at a BCS-level program. Despite inheriting a struggling program, Bakich made his players believe they could compete in the ACC, just as LeClair made him and his teammates believe they could make it to Omaha years before.

“He definitely helped us believe that, ‘Hey, we’re not one of the lower teams in the ACC. We’re one of the best,’ ” said former Maryland shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez.

In Bakich’s three seasons at Maryland, the team improved from 17-39 in his first season to 32-24 in his final season. Bakich continued to exhibit his recruiting prowess away from the baseball hotbed of the south, signing recruiting classes that received national accolades in each of his three years.

Despite the visible progress at Maryland, when Bakich saw a better opportunity to get to Omaha, he took the head coaching position at Michigan. In the minds of Wolverine fans, Omaha might seem like it’s in a foreign country — the Wolverines enter conference play with a 10-12 record in Bakich’s first season. In Bakich’s mind, it's just a few years away, as he rebuilds the Michigan program to be even better than the program that defeated Vanderbilt in 2007. Even in rebuilding, his passion for Omaha rages.

“It kills you every year not to go back to Omaha,” Bakich said. “It literally eats away at you. All you want to do is figure out a way to get your players and your program better so you can get back there.”

When Bakich remembers his Omaha promise as his last words to LeClair, he believes he can fulfill it at Michigan, just as much as all of his teammates believed they could make it to Omaha when they broke huddle each day at East Carolina.

With his final promise to LeClair in mind, Bakich hopes to one day coach in Omaha, wearing a No. 23 Michigan uniform as one more testament to the coach who inspires him daily.