Around the time that Barry Larkin was playing for the Michigan baseball team in the 1980s, the team was wildly successful. In that 10-year span, the Wolverines went to nine NCAA regionals, won seven Big Ten titles and earned four trips to the College World Series, comprising what many consider to be a decade of dominance unlike many others in the sport’s history. There were All-Americans, Big Ten Players of the Year, first-round MLB draft picks and future Hall of Fame players throughout the roster. They came together to propel the program into the national spotlight.
And a similar stretch could be on the horizon.
But to get there, Michigan coach Erik Bakich will need to recapture the intangible elements that allowed those teams to be great.
When asked why he decided to come to Michigan, Larkin said more than anything it came down to the core values stressed in Ann Arbor that made him feel at home.
“Some of the things that were really stressed in my household were extended when I came up here,” he said. “There’s something about the values and what’s important to the people. The other thing was just the people surrounding the program, the people around the University of Michigan.”
During his recent induction to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, Larkin shared more of his experiences on being recruited to Ann Arbor. As Larkin grew to be a standout football player in Cincinnati, he caught the eye of legendary football coach Bo Schembechler, who gave him a spot on the football team at Michigan.
When an unexpected player returned for his fifth year on the team at Larkin’s position, Schembecher allowed the freshman to take a redshirt year and play baseball during spring season instead of working with the football team.
“By the end of that season I decided I just wanted to play baseball,” Larkin said. “I had to go tell Bo that … and the meeting didn’t go too well. He reminded me, ‘Larkin, this is the University of Michigan. Nobody comes to the University of Michigan to play baseball.’ ”
Schembechler told Larkin to go home and come back the next day when he had come to his senses, but nothing would change in his mind.
“I thought that was the end of it,” Larkin said. “But we were out there taking ground balls in spring baseball practice and this guy in a parka comes walking inside the stadium and stops on the third-base line. He says, ‘Larkin, you sissy! Come hit a man that can hit you back instead of that baseball.’ It was Coach Schembechler.”
Telling one of the most storied coaches in the history of college football something he didn’t want to hear was one of the best moves Larkin made in his life. In his college career, Larkin went on to be a two-time All American, two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and lead the team to the College World Series in back-to-back seasons.
By recruiting the best talent the Midwest has to offer, along with using ties from his time in California and the East Coast, Bakich is putting the fruits of his first true recruiting class to work right away. And the results will prove impressive.
The tangible rankings are nice to look at. This year’s recruiting class came in at No. 20 in the nation, and for the first time in a few years the Wolverine coaching staff has enough veteran firepower to shelter some of the young players from jumping into game action too quickly. For the handful of freshman players who are getting playing time, the results are largely positive.
The standouts from this 2015 class have been second baseman Jake Bivens, who is hitting .304 and has started in 21 games this season, along with right-hander Ryan Nutof, who has proven to be a reliable starting pitcher for the Wolverines through six appearances in his young career. Another is right-hander Bryan Pall, who has a minuscule 0.63 earned-run average through 14.1 innings of relief. Others could emerge in due time this season.
While those rankings can sometimes predict on-field success, they can’t often measure the field of character.
From a Michigan coach’s perspective, you look for a combination of talent on the field, in the classroom and as a leader in the players you’re recruiting. The types of players Bakich seems to be looking for have to be strong in all three phases of that evaluation to have a spot in the program.
Bakich has a ways to go with the current team in both on- and off-field areas, but make no mistake about it: When firing on all cylinders, it has no ceiling. Some year in the near future, people around the program will know it’s “the year.” The right blend of baseball talent and passion for Michigan will come together and propel this program back to that decade of dominance it experienced in the 1980s.
This year might not be the one where it all comes together for the Wolverines, but following Bakich’s vision, “the year” won’t be far off.