In 2012, the Michigan baseball team was an afterthought.
The Wolverines finished with a 22-34 record and their second straight 10th-place finish in the Big Ten under coach Rich Maloney.
But in late May of that year, Maloney’s contract wasn’t extended, and the head coaching vacancy was left to be filled.
At the time, Erik Bakich was a young face who was the perfect fit to re-energize the oldest varsity sport at Michigan. Bakich started as a volunteer assistant and hitting coach at Clemson in 2002 — coaching a team that reached the College World Series later that season. From 2003 to 2009, he worked as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt. In every one of his seven seasons with the Commodores, he had a top-25 recruiting class. He was then hired at Maryland for his first head coaching gig.
Though his record didn’t jump off the page, he secured the Terrapins their first ranked recruiting class in school history.
Wherever Bakich went, success seemed to follow. He established a reputation as one of the most prolific recruiters in college baseball, and it was this reputation that led him to Michigan.
“I was immediately drawn into his energy,” said graduate student outfielder Matt Ramsay, who transferred to Michigan during the summer of 2015. “When I first visited with him, I was like, ‘Does this guy ever stop? How am I supposed to keep up with his energy?’ ”
On Bakich’s first day on campus in 2012, his presence was felt immediately. At his introductory press conference, Bakich assured that Michigan baseball would be winning championships at a consistent rate.
It’s no easy task to take a team with a losing record into championship contention, but the Wolverines’ record has improved every year since Bakich became the skipper, and they are on pace to continue that trend once again in 2016.
Though it seems that Bakich is primarily focused on winning, many of the Wolverine players have stressed that Bakich’s main goal each year is to make each athlete the greatest teammate and student they can be.
“We have a saying, ‘Champions behave like champions before they become champions,’ ” Bakich said. “Of course, everyone wants to win a championship at Michigan, but we don’t go into our training thinking about outcomes and statistics and titles. We talk about being the highest and best version of ourselves every day, knowing that those external things will take care of themselves later in the season.”
The athletes don’t just admire what Bakich has done for them, but also how he works to improve himself.
“He never stops talking about (getting better every day),” Ramsay said. “He never stops practicing it. You can see it when he’s out there on the field. He’s trying to get better as a coach. It’s one thing to say it to your players, but it’s another thing to practice it as a head coach.”
Added junior utility player Carmen Benedetti: “He’s implemented so many things into my game that has allowed me to slow the game down, enjoy it and realize that it’s just a game. I couldn’t ask for a better coach.”
The team’s hot start cannot be disregarded, however. Michigan headed into this season with the expectation of maintaining the Big Ten Tournament title and has already shown championship-caliber play with victories over top-25 opponents California and Oklahoma State.
Michigan isn’t winning national championships just yet, but the team secured its first Big Ten title since 2008 last season. Bakich has made baseball at Michigan relevant again. He has inspired a culture in the locker room that seeks to create talented athletes and well-rounded characters. And like his time at Clemson, Vanderbilt and Maryland, the success has followed with time.
“I’m extremely excited about this team and the opportunities in front of us,” Bakich said.
It’s hard not to get excited. Though the 2016 season is just getting underway and the Big Ten title is up in the air, Michigan is right up there at the top of the standings. The Wolverines’ starting pitching ranks in the top-10 nationally in earned-run average, and the batting order has also shown flashes of brilliance.
If it wasn’t apparent when he was first hired, it should be very clear now: It’s time to believe in Erik Bakich.