Erik Bakich isn’t a wait-and-see kind of guy.
Fresh off another NCAA Tournament berth as the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach at powerhouse Vanderbilt, Bakich left Nashville to take over a perennially pedestrian Maryland Terrapins baseball team in 2009.
Overshadowed by a championship-caliber basketball team and a baseball conference jam-packed with impenetrable competition, baseball had always been an afterthought in College Park.
But Bakich was determined to not only bring the Terps to their first NCAA Tournament in 38 years, but to establish a baseball culture on a campus that had never had one.
From day one, Bakcih built. Both literally and figuratively.
“We needed a new brick backstop but we didn’t have any money and it was falling down,” Bakich said. “So one day for one of our conditioning drills, we got all the players out with sledgehammers, batting helmets and sunglasses and started whaling away to build a new brick backstop.”
It was one of many improvements that Bakich would spearhead.
“We wanted our lockers to have a new paint job one night, so the best way to get that done was for myself and the seniors to do it. We painted the lockers.”
Bakich wanted change, and he wanted it quickly. He wasn’t going to wait around for school boards to vote on budgets to determine whether his team was worthy of their precious dollars. So he did it himself.
The current indoor hitting facility and the scoreboard in left field were his doing, too.
“Every Monday I would go from fraternity to fraternity with [student manager] Ben Zettler, jumping on people’s couches getting them fired up about Maryland baseball,” Bakich recalled. “The way Shipley field is located, our target audience had to be the students.”
But perhaps the most important building Bakich did was of the roster. He brought in deep and talented recruiting classes, something he had a track record of doing at Vanderbilt – having successfully recruited the likes of David Price to Nashville.
As the talent started to arrive in College Park, Bakich saw his team’s win total rise in each of his three seasons – from 17, to 21, to 32.
But after all he had done to build a program, roster and culture – a better offer came. On June 27, 2012, Bakich was introduced as the head coach at the University of Michigan.
He left behind a talent-rich roster, to which new head coach John Szefc would inherit.
“We were lucky that when we got here, there were some really good players here,” Szefc said. “They got along really well and were able to play together and not be selfish. They developed a really good chemistry together.”
After posting a winning record in his first year at the helm, Szefc realized that not only did Bakich’s players have talent and chemistry, but an approach that he too, embodied.
Bakich said, “We really just took that blue collar approach to building a program and getting the guys to buy in to the fact that we might not have all the frills, but that’s not going to stop us.”
The days of painting lockers and sledgehammering together a new brick backstop not only built new facilities, but a mindset.
“He [Bakich] established the whole blue collar, hard working thing,” current Terps senior Bobby Ruse said. “Nose to the ground all the time, which you can see in a lot of the older guys.”
The mindset that Bakich employed not only fit the players, but also their new coach.
Szefc grew up the grandson of an onion farmer, and had always taken the modest approach to honest, hard work. He grew up selling his family’s sweet corn at markets in upstate New York and delivered newspapers for seven years, starting at age 12. That background jived with the hard-nosed ballplayers that Bakich left for Szefc at Maryland.
“It’s not like you’re starting from scratch trying to instill that whole approach,” Szefc said. “It’s there, you just have to polish it every day.”
Bakich and Szefc’s congruent blue collar mindsets brought them together long before they knew they would tag-team to rebuild a Maryland baseball brand. Bakich said it was common to bump into Szefc on the recruiting trail when Szefc was an assistant at UL Lafayette, Kansas and Kansas State.
“It seemed like we were workout buddies on the road recruiting for a long time,” Bakich said. “I’ve known Coach Szefc a long time. I’ve always respected his work ethic and his ability to coach.”
Szefc used that coaching ability to post a 30-25 record in his first year at Maryland. But everything Bakich and Szefc had worked for came to a rewarding fruition in 2014.
After grinding through their first winning season in the ACC since 1981, Szefc’s spirited 2014 team ripped off 11 straight wins to start the month of May, qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament since 1971.
They proceeded to sweep the Columbia Regional, beating powerhouse South Carolina on their home field on back-to-back days, something that had never been done in the Gamecocks’ storied postseason history.
With a team that was comprised mostly of Bakich’s players, Szefc accomplished what the now-Michigan coach had dreamed of.
“To see Coach Szefc and his staff make that a reality, I couldn’t be happier for them,” Bakich said. “I couldn’t be happier for those players who I either had the opportunity to coach or recruit.”
Charlie White was the leadoff hitter and catalyst of the Terps’ 2014 run, and shortly after signed a pro contract with his hometown Chicago Cubs. But White didn’t forget about the man who started the turnaround. Having been recruited and developed by Bakich, White drove up to Ann Arbor this past fall to show his former coach what all their hard work had earned him – a Regional Championship ring.
“I got to see Charlie’s championship ring. It was so special,” Bakich said. “What a great achievement. What a great accomplishment. I couldn’t have been more excited and more proud for those guys to achieve that.”
While many of Bakich’s players have graduated, three of his players still remain on the Terps’ 2015 team – OF Anthony Papio, RHP Bobby Ruse and LHP Robert Galligan.
Papio, Ruse and Galligan haven’t seen Bakich since he left the team at the end of the 2012 season. It was reasonable for them to think they might never see their former coach again.
But when Maryland announced their decision to join the Big Ten the fall after Bakich left, they knew there would be another chance. And sure enough, when the 2015 schedule came out, Michigan appeared as a road series for the Terps during the second weekend of conference play.
“Fired up,” was the phrase Galligan used to describe his emotions when he saw the schedule.
“We were definitely excited about it,” Ruse said. “We’ve been looking forward to it for a while.”
While Galligan, Ruse and Papio are looking forward to reuniting with their old coach, they’ll be many other reunions made in Ann Arbor this weekend.
Current Maryland Volunteer Assistant Cory Haines and Director of Operations Matt Swope worked under Bakich and have stayed on board in College Park to help Szefc and his two new assistants, Jim Belanger and Rob Vaughn, learn the Maryland ropes.
Ruse and Galligan will also get a chance to catch up with their former pitching coach, Sean Kenny and former teammate, Aaron Etchison, both of whom Bakich brought to Michigan. Etchison caught Galligan and Ruse as a Terp in 2012, before heading to Ann Arbor where he currently serves as the Wolverines’ volunteer assistant coach.
While this weekend’s series might be one big reunion, the games are actually quite significant. The Terps and Wolverines are the Big Ten’s top two offenses, and Maryland comes into the weekend ranked as high as number 11 in the country.
“The Big Ten in baseball is growing and it’s growing fast,” Bakich said. “You have terrific institutions. These are flagship universities that are solidified with great values and great people.”
As the conference improves, Bakich sees the Terps and Wolverines at the head of the pack in bringing consistent, winning baseball to the league – which is the one thing he said made the ACC the powerhouse conference that it is.
So while Szefc continues to keep the Terrapins atop the Big Ten and in the thick of the Top 25, Bakich can do nothing more than give thanks to the current regime for finishing what he started.
“To see them raise the program to a new level, a new height, and to be able to sustain that type of success and now become one of the elite programs in the country, that was the goal and the vision from day one, and those guys all did it.”