By ERIC OLSON
The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin gets right to the point when he discusses his protege, Erik Bakich.
He’s proud of him. He’s impressed with what he has accomplished at Michigan. He’s his biggest fan.
Now he wants to beat him.
Corbin’s Commodores and Bakich’s Wolverines have never played each other.
That changes tonight when they open the best-of-three College World Series finals at TD Ameritrade Park.
“I’m not uncomfortable with it,” Corbin said. “If you’re going to play someone you really care about and like, this is the best place you could possibly do it. It’s two groups of teams playing each other, more than anything else. I’m happy for what he and his wife and his staff and that university have done to put themselves in a position to play for a national championship.”
The 41-year-old Bakich has become the hottest coach in the college game for taking the Wolverines to the CWS for the first time since 1984. They’re playing for their first national title since 1962.
Bakich said the seven years he spent at Vanderbilt (2003-09) as an assistant to Corbin shaped him as a coach, leader and man.
“I learned everything from him,” Bakich said.
Vanderbilt (57-11) and Michigan (49-20) each went 3-0 in bracket play at the CWS but otherwise have had very different seasons.
The Commodores lost two games in a row on just two occasions, most recently in early April, and swept the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament titles. That consistency earned them the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines slumped at the end of the regular season. They were one of the last four teams to receive NCAA at-large bids, and they survived meltdowns in regionals and super regionals to stave off elimination.
“It may have taken them 20, 30, 40 games, but they are finding their personality and are playing extremely well,” Corbin said. “To go through the month of games and travel and what they’ve accomplished over the course of time has been nothing short of tremendous.”
Bakich’s first head coaching job was at Maryland, and he left for Michigan in 2013 to take on the challenge of elevating a northern program that, except for one four-year stretch, hadn’t had sustained success on the national level since the 1980s.
“We have these indoor facilities, but we don’t like to use them very often,” Bakich said. “If it’s above zero degrees, we are outside. It might only be for 20 or 30 minutes, but it’s just a mindset thing. We’re going outside. And our players know it, and our recruits know it, and we don’t shy away from it. Yeah, it’s cold here, but it’s not going to keep us from getting better.”
The California-born Bakich played third base for East Carolina in 1999 and 2000 after transferring from San Jose City College. He stayed at East Carolina in 2001 as an assistant strength coach and went to Clemson in 2002 as a volunteer assistant under Jack Leggett.
Leggett’s two full-time assistants were Kevin O’Sullivan and Corbin. O’Sullivan went on to build one of the most powerful programs in the country at Florida and won the national title in 2017. Corbin has turned around Vandy’s struggling program, winning the 2014 title and returning to the CWS finals in 2015.
“I don’t know if there is a better way to sum up being in the right place at the right time, or if the phrase of surrounding yourself with good people has ever rung more true than it did when I met those guys,” Bakich said. “It was an instant connection. I didn’t know it maybe that day, but I met three of my closest friends and three guys I considered mentors in this game.”
Corbin, 57, said it was a no-brainer to take Bakich with him when Vanderbilt offered him the job in the fall of 2002. The Commodores were coming off five straight losing seasons and hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1980.
“He has a high care level for what he’s doing,” Corbin said. “He doesn’t punch a clock. He’s trying to be the best at what he’s going to be. The young Erik Bakich is no different than the Erik Bakich you see today. The thing that’s different is in the experience, the growth that’s taken place. His passion for what he’s doing has never changed.”
Bakich was hitting coach, worked with the outfielders and served as recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt. He was responsible for landing David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 Major League Baseball draft and the 2012 Cy Young Award winner. Each of his seven recruiting classes ranked in the top 25, including the No. 1 class in 2005.
Those classes set into motion Vandy’s NCAA Tournament streak of 14 straight appearances.
“Vanderbilt is not Vanderbilt without Erik Bakich,” Corbin said.