By William Qualkinbush
Last week, I was on vacation. It was an incredibly relaxing time with family at the beach, a much-needed rest period at the end of a long Clemson athletics season. (I put this paragraph in so you wouldn’t feel sorry for me during this next part.)
I am a worker by nature, so when Clemson announced Erik Bakich as its new head baseball coach last Thursday, it was tough to be off the air. I had so many thoughts about the search and the hire that I couldn’t wait to share. Then, Graham Neff introduced Bakich on Thursday afternoon, and even more thoughts struck me as I heard Bakich describe his vision for Tiger baseball.
In summation, I think the Bakich hire was fantastic. His energy and approach will be good for Clemson baseball. His ability to identify and develop and achieve goes without saying. People respect and like him within the game of baseball.
Those are the basics, but I jotted down a few more specific things about Bakich that have grabbed my attention:
–The introductory press conference was unifying.
Before we get to the actual baseball stuff, we have to address the elephant in the room. Clemson baseball has been divided since 2016, when Monte Lee replaced Jack Leggett. We like to find someone to blame, but in reality, there was plenty of blame to go around there. I’ll note for the record that I don’t assign any of that blame to Monte Lee, who was put in a difficult spot because of the way the coaching transition was handled.
Folks who sided with Leggett were upset about the way his firing was handled, and they were not without justification. There were others who were frustrated about the decline of Clemson baseball, which we could point back to 2011–the first-ever loss in a home regional to UConn, the Tigers’ version of Black Monday–or to 2010–a second ouster in Omaha at the hands of South Carolina within a decade.
Bottom line: For a dozen years, the Clemson baseball program has been marred by a discontented spirit in which there has seemed to be more disagreement than agreement, more resentment than resolve, more negativity than support. At the very least, those factors have been equally weighed against each other, creating a sort of purgatory for the fan base.
Neff knows that Clemson cannot be what he views as a top 15 job nationally if this remains status quo. Bakich has a relationship with Leggett that dates back two-plus decades. Leggett was among those in attendance at his introductory press conference. These are good things.
Lee never really had a chance to get Tiger baseball all pulling in the same direction. One could argue that getting out of a home regional with three chances to do so might have helped, and that’s fair. But it’s nice to know that everyone has a chance to unify around Bakich, which Clemson baseball fans and those around the program haven’t been able to say in quite some time.
–Bakich fits the criteria put forth at the start of the search.
There were three names routinely mentioned when Clemson began its process: Bakich, Notre Dame’s Link Jarrett, and East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin. I will admit that I have favored each of the other two at times during the past few weeks, in addition to some other unlisted names.
Even if there were other names people might have put forth, some of which might be great coaches one day, it was imperative that Neff make an A-list hire for two reasons. The first reason is that this is his first hire in an existing sport. He did pull the trigger on gymnastics coach Amy Smith, but that’s a different situation. Clemson baseball is a big deal and there isn’t any margin for error on this decision.
The second reason is that the goal is to elevate Clemson baseball once again. I don’t think anyone views this as a top 15 program at present, so in order to put it back there, credibility must be established. Having a list of accomplished candidates and being unable to reel in any of them sows seeds of doubt. Neff swung for the fences, targeted his preference, and was able to achieve the objective in spite of the recent results on the field.
–Bakich has been where Clemson hasn’t.
When you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before, it helps to have someone with you who has been there and can show you the way. Granted, there aren’t many things Clemson baseball hasn’t done in its history, but one of them is something Bakich did just a few short years ago:
Go to a national championship series.
Clemson’s illustrious history is well-known, but the Tigers have never advanced out of a pool at the College World Series. Under Bakich’s leadership in 2019, the Wolverines did. He was the only candidate that could make that claim as a head coach.
–Bakich’s teams tend to always play good baseball, but they play better baseball later.
When you look back at Bakich’s Michigan teams, there are a few things that stick out. Until recently, there wasn’t a whole lot of pop in the lineup. Instead, the Wolverines loved to steal a ton of bases and knew how to manufacture runs and put the ball in play. That approach came to the fore during the aforementioned 2019 run in Omaha.
Bakich’s teams have routinely thrown the ball well. This year is an outlier in that regard, as a transition from his old pitching coach (now with the Detroit Tigers) was rough. Even then, the pitching improved by season’s end. Bakich’s stated philosophy is that pitchers need to be able to command the baseball, and in his opening press conference, he referenced the difference between throwing and pitching. Development should be a strength if those philosophies take hold. From a fielding standpoint, almost all of his teams are at or above .970, my personal line in the sand for good defense.
Another mark of Bakich’s teams has been the ability to peak at the right time. Take this season, for example. Michigan was the 5-seed in the Big Ten Tournament and beat each of the top four seeds to win the league. It was one controversial call at second base away from winning Louisville’s regional. For a northern baseball program, peaking late is imperative because it is almost impossible to have a bunch of success over the first month-plus of the year due to issues with the weather and the inability to host any games.
For a program going through an uncharacteristic drought related to underachievement in the postseason, Clemson fans can hope that Bakich’s track record continues.
–It was interesting the way he talked about his team room.
Bakich referred on multiple occasions to his team room as a classroom. He also referred to himself as a teacher. The way he weaved life lessons and baseball teaching in and out of his comments reflects someone that is both capable and willing to intentionally build up people of character whose play on the field reflects the values they already possess off the field.
You may be rolling your eyes at this point, but hear me out: This is something every coach says he/she will do, but it is much more difficult to pull off as the leader of an athletic program. Not everyone is programmed to do this well. In fact, I would argue that it’s easy for coaches to sacrifice development on the personal side given all of the responsibilities that come with leading an organization, so there has to be a real commitment to the cause.
This area of emphasis appears to be a real passion for Bakich, based on both his comments and some things I’ve heard about how he relates to players. He seems well-suited for this moment in college athletics because of his personality.
Listen to our recent interviews with Graham Neff and Erik Bakich here.