Late last month, the NCAA’s Transformation Committee revealed its first proposal to reshape the operation of college athletics.
The most significant element — the elimination of scholarship limits in partial scholarship sports, and the elimination of caps on paid coaches across the board — generated seismic reactions from nearly every sport in the NCAA.
To Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich, the news wasn’t just warmly welcomed, it was a major milestone coming after years of aggressive campaigning.
“It’s great for college baseball, to grow the sport,” Bakich said in a press conference Tuesday. “As the Big Ten we need to keep pace with what is going to be done at the highest levels of our sport.
“It’s great for kids to be getting more access to more scholarship money, and it’s great for coaches in our game if we can start paying more people”
Bakich first received national recognition following the Wolverines’ College World Series appearance in 2019, but his goal of growing the game dates back further. It has shaped his coaching mindset since his earliest days as an assistant.
Back then, the issue came from the pipeline.
“There’s a lot of good athletes out there, and I think it’s ridiculous the cost of travel ball and some of the showcases,” Bakich said in a 2019 mid-game interview with ESPN. “It negates opportunities for a lot of kids.”
Bakich’s solution was novel — don’t focus on the showcases. Instead, he dived deep, trying to pull the under-recruited players hungry for an opportunity.
For a northern school like Michigan, an approach like the one Bakich brought was critical. . Where the issue was with the pipeline at his stops at Vanderbilt and Maryland, coming to Ann Arbor provided a new challenge: competing with the South.
It’s no coincidence that the dynasties of baseball were centrally located to warm areas — if anything, it’s the current design of college baseball.
With a season that starts in February, schools in northern states are quite literally left in the cold. Of the Wolverines’ first 25 games this season, just four were played at Ray Fisher Stadium.
Following Michigan’s miraculous 2019 run in Omaha, Bakich had national attention. Instead of soaking it in, he used it to create action.
“I said, ‘This is so stupid. Why are we playing college baseball on Valentine’s Day in the dead of winter?’ ” Bakich said in a 2020 Detroit News article. “It’s cold everywhere in February, not just being in the Midwest.”
Facing an uncertain future in the midst of COVID-19, Bakich and other coaches introduced the ‘New Baseball Model’ — a radical shift to the foundation of college baseball.
Chief among the changes was a shift in the start of the schedule, from late February to mid-March. The benefits, Bakich claimed at the time, would be bountiful; a closer alignment to Major League Baseball’s traditional start and more home games for northern schools, resulting in an increase in revenue and a decrease in early season travel costs.
In contrast to previous attempts at reforms, Bakich’s plan was met with a surprisingly high amount of support.
“I would say three out of four coaches are in favor of it, is what I would guess,” Bakich said in a 2020 Baseball America interview. “It’s a cross-section of everyone, from all parts of the country. Power Five, Group of Five, mid-majors, small schools.”
Despite the support, attempts at implementing the plan were cut short due to a moratorium on legislation by the NCAA during the height of the pandemic.
Now, with a heightened interest in overhauling the organization, Bakich sees a chance to try again.
“At the time it was clear that baseball has a poor financial model, only a handful of schools can actually operate,” Bakich said on Tuesday. “It was a great way just looking at how to increase revenue in college baseball. There’s been no movement on it right now, but we’ll look at that as an option later.”
With the Wolverines facing an uphill battle in terms of postseason play, Bakich has little time to contemplate the inner workings of college baseball.
Given the chance though — whenever it comes — he’ll be back to the drawing board, looking to grow the game he’s spent two decades coaching.