ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich has been married to Katherine for 11 years. However, during their first date, he held something inside, waiting for the right time to let her know that he was already seriously involved — with baseball, that is.
But not just on game day. No, the love went much deeper. He was attached to building teams. With that being said, he proceeded with caution. He didn’t want to scare away this prospect.
“(That was) our conversation on our second date — I didn’t bring up recruiting on our first date, I brought it up on our second date,” laughed Bakich, who was then an assistant at Vanderbilt. “I wanted to make sure there was going to be a third date. And if there was going to be a third date, she’d have to understand this whole recruiting thing…”
“Jiffy,” as she’s affectionately known, was cool with everything. Long hours? No problem. Lots of travel? Fine with that. She held zero reservations about committing. As a matter of fact, she grew up in a sports-loving family: While in school at Alabama, she was a “‘Bama Belle” recruiting hostess. Her uncle played football for the iconic Bear Bryant. Her mother might be the biggest college football fan on the face of the Earth, said Bakich.
And after getting engaged, she of course planned for the wedding — which would have to be in December. She made sure to adhere to the openings in her husband’s schedule.
“I would rank her up there as high as you could possibly rank a coach’s wife in terms of being a rock of a family,” said Bakich, mentioning that he had “hit the jackpot” with Katherine, who runs a household and raises three children ages 6 and younger. “She understands coaching commitment and recruiting obligations, time spent away from the family… She knew exactly what she was getting into.”
The same could be said for assistants Nick Schnabel and Sean Kenny, who also have supportive wives and families. That connection makes things go round.
“It’s a huge reason of why we’re able to do that,” said Bakich. “They understand the sacrifices that need to be made. They understand that, you know, Christmas break and the winter holidays — those are going to be times for a short vacation and spending downtime with the family. As a baseball coach, that’s the better time to do it, when our kids (players) are home for the winter break and holiday break.”
People always talk about programs with a “family environment.” Bakich’s program epitomizes the idea of being part of something more than just a team. In a sense, it really is a family-ran show. And that’s precisely why the Wolverines have been able to recruit with the best in the nation. Right now, Michigan has the No. 21-ranked 2017 class, per Perfect Game.
Right on-par with Oklahoma, Georgia, Louisville and Mississippi State.
“I personally, I love it — I love being out there. I love the chase. I love the opportunity to recruit — you know, taking part in choosing the team,” Bakich said. “That’s the difference between college and professional baseball. From a player’s standpoint, the players get to choose where they want to go. From a coach’s standpoint, you know, being able to have a huge part in that decision-making process for that kid…
“The three of us, Coach Schnabel, Coach Kenny and myself, we just have a high level of passion for recruiting and we enjoy doing it.”
Once upon a time, Schnabel headed up recruiting at Pepperdine and San Diego. Today, he does the same for the Wolverines. Kenny has also been a workhorse at tournaments and showcases. Bakich directed recruiting at Vanderbilt. For them, searching for compatible athletes has become more of a lifestyle than a job.
“You don’t look at is as something we have to do; it’s something we get to do,” said Bakich, whose summer recruiting tour has included stops in Ft. Myers, Nashville and Indiana, and not to mention a couple of quick California-to-Michigan turnarounds — a recruit was in town, and Bakich wanted to be present for the visit.
Oh, and then there were regional games in Chicago. He had to see those.
“If I’m home once every two weeks, then that’s great,” said Bakich, who spent July 4 with his family, only to fly out the next day to California. “It’s mostly a different city every few days, every week — and that goes all of June, all of July. We purposefully do not schedule any camps here until just this past week. We did our first youth camp of the summer on July 18th, 19th and 20th. I was here for that.”
Next week, Michigan hosts the “Wolverine Experience” camp, aimed to give kids a feel for what it’s like to play at Michigan. Next weekend, Bakich plans to attend a youth tournament being held at Ray Fisher Stadium in Ann Arbor. Following that event, the Wolverines will host a mid-August showcase.
In between? Recruiting, of course. Extremely selective recruiting.
“There are physically gifted players all over this country, coast to coast,” Bakich said. “There a million tournaments and showcases where you can see these guys at any time. At some point, you have a lot of physically gifted players and you have to make your decision of narrowing down who’s going to join your team based on criteria.
“For us, we obviously look for a good student as well. And we’re looking for the student-athlete that wants the best of both worlds: Wants a world-class education and wants to play at an elite level.”
Character matters most: See players such as former Wolverines star Cody Bruder or current members Ako Thomas and Jake Bivens, among others. They embody the good kid thing.
“It’s how they play, not just the results they get — it’s the energy that they have and the energy they bring,” Bakich said. “When you find kids that have those intangible skill sets, those are the kids that you want to jump on.”
Multi-sport athletes are preferred. Hockey, soccer, football and basketball — each of those disciplines translate well to baseball. However, a player could have athletic ability in spades and not still not match Michigan’s ideal prospect. Several high-enders have turned off Bakich due to poor attitude and demeanor. Those positive traits go a long way with him.
“It happens every summer. It happens all the time,” he said. “I tell stories, in the speeches that I give, about a right-handed pitcher that I was recruiting. I’ll never forget it. He was one of the best right-handed pitchers in the country; he had an absolute hammer of a breaking ball. But he was disrespectful to his mom. He came over to the side of the dugout and yelled at her to get him a Gatorade, and when she did, and she brought the Gatorade down to him, he snatched it out of her hand without even saying ‘thank you.'”
Coincidentally, the player was scheduled to see Bakich that same day.
“(That outburst) was already a huge Strike 1 against him,” said Bakich. “When I met the kid, he gave me a very soft handshake, couldn’t maintain eye contact. You know, came down for the meeting with a hat on, backwards, and a shirt that looked like he pulled it out of his wallet (severely wrinkled). I just, you know, I just instantly knew that based on the information that I had collected, that this kid was a really good and physically talented baseball player — but he wasn’t going to fit the culture that we had.”
That player ended up having a successful Division I career. He was even drafted. In theory, he would have been great for the Wolverines — maybe even an every-so-often type of pitcher. Well, maybe not. That type of disrespectful disposition wouldn’t have fit in with Michigan’s culture — one built on coming together as one.
Bakich understands and respects emotion. He realizes that players sometimes bounce their helmets off the ground after a strikeout. He’s aware that players sometimes verbalize their frustrations with not-so-choice words. However, competitive fire greatly differs from the me-first, egotistical/immature approach.
“We never just go and watch a game. We always, always talk to their coach,” Bakich said. “They know these kids the best, and we ask them questions about the player’s attitude, their toughness, the energy that they bring and how they interact with teammates and coaches. We can see their skill set.
“We can evaluate them, physically. But you know, it’s asking all those questions that’s extremely important to finding what the kid is all about — if he’ll fit into our family.”