Eric Bakich's departure shows Big Ten baseball will always take backseat
The College World Series gets underway today in Omaha. No Big Ten teams are present.
This is not an unusual outcome, as the CWS has been sans B1G representation 20 of the 22 times it has been played this century. (Nebraska made 3 trips in the 2000s while playing in the far more competitive Big 12.)
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see that rate of success improving in the immediate future.
The departure of Michigan coach Erik Bakich for the same role at Clemson is the latest blow for a league that is perpetually battling uphill in the sport.
Bakich spent a decade with the Wolverines, leading Michigan all the way to the national championship series against Vanderbilt in 2019. Michigan made 4 other NCAA regional appearances during his tenure, including this season after winning the B1G Tournament. (And, as Michigan fans will contend, it was a pair of terrible blown calls away from resulting in another Super Regional appearance.)
Bakich’s departure isn’t just a matter of ACC programs putting more resources into baseball. There’s also a personal connection — he began his coaching career as an unpaid volunteer assistant at Clemson in 2002. This was a battle Michigan may not have won regardless of how deep it went into its pockets.
But this also isn’t the first time the Big Ten has faced this issue.
The last B1G coach to reach the College World Series, Tracy Smith, left Indiana for Arizona State a year after bringing the Hoosiers to Omaha. Unlike Bakich, there was no personal connection. Or even a geographical connection. Smith was an Indiana native who spent his entire career coaching in the Midwest.
Though to be fair, it’s easy to understand someone with that background would jump at coaching a team called the Sun Devils. In the Midwest, the Flurry Dodgers would be a fitting moniker for a team.
Climate will always be a B1G problem
Climate is an obvious detriment to keeping a great coach around forever. In the South and West, the weather is better during preseason workouts than it is halfway through a B1G season.
And when you can combine good weather with tradition, it’s unreasonable to expect a coach to stick around. Clemson has 12 College World Series appearances. Arizona State has 21. Nobody in the Big Ten is going to contend with that.
In essence, climate forces the Big Ten to play the same role in baseball that the MAC or American play in football. If a team puts together a magical season, it’s only a matter of time before that coach is gone. When PJ Fleck does it in football, Western Michigan’s loss is Minnesota’s gain. When Erik Bakich does it in baseball, the Big Ten loses.
That isn’t going to stop. It also happens at deep-pocketed Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish lost their coach to LSU the last time they went to the College World Series, and all accounts suggest they’ll lose their current coach to Florida State once the current run ends.
Such is the nature of college baseball in northern climes. It’s very difficult to build a permanent structure.
The question is whether we will ever see a greater preponderance of magical seasons from Big Ten baseball programs. And that outcome remains a great unknown.
B1G baseball can be better — if it wants to be
Historically speaking, there’s very little pressure to perform in the Big Ten compared to other sports. Smith’s predecessor at Indiana, Bob Morgan, managed to parlay 1 NCAA regional appearance and just 5 Big Ten Tournament appearances into a 21-year career.
But theoretically speaking, the fact that the College World Series is played in what is now a Big Ten hub should create some pressure to actually put teams in Omaha.
In particular, Nebraska looms as a potential sleeping giant. No other B1G program can match the college baseball culture in that state. But it doesn’t have to be the Huskers’ burden alone.
Bloomington is just southerly enough that Indiana has better conditions than most peers. Things may be about to really get rolling at Maryland, which just won its first conference title since 1971 and hosted its first regional. Ohio State has the resources to do anything, and just hired a new head coach from the respected TCU staff.
Before long, every Big Ten athletic program should have the resources to do anything.
Commissioner Kevin Warren is negotiating a new media rights deal that is reportedly in the ballpark of $1 billion. Clearly, most of that will be invested in revenue sports. But with that many leftovers to spread around, the investment in baseball can still increase even if it receives the same share of the pie percentage-wise.
Maybe it won’t be enough for a Big Ten team to win the College World Series for the first time since 1966. But it might help the B1G get more than 2 cracks at it every 20 years.