Editor’s Note: This article was written by Art Ferrer, but for one reason or another went under my name.
To say that the University of Maryland baseball program hasn’t been a powerhouse, is a bit of an understatement. Despite having a stadium in the middle of campus, baseball has not caught on with many students. The product on the field has struggled to stay competitive in the ACC, which has prevented them from reaching a national stage in the NCAA Tournament. Maryland’s last NCAA Tournament birth came in 1971, and making the 8 team ACC Tournament hasn’t happened much either.
All of this looked set to change in 2009 when Maryland made a bold decision and hired the youngest baseball coach in a BCS conference, Erik Bakich. The Vanderbilt assistant, was starting his first head coaching job, and he was just over the age of 30, pretty impressive. At this point in Maryland baseball history, why not take a chance on a young manager. Turning around the baseball program won’t happen over night, and will require a lot of energy. Who else can provide time and energy then a young man eager to start a long career as a baseball manager. Maryland also presents a low pressure job, if he makes the NCAA Tournament then he is the savior of the baseball program, and if he misses the tournament, it is not big deal, no one since 1971 has done it.
Bakich came in and immediately displayed the energy Maryland was looking for. In his introduction press conference, he stated how he wanted to focus on locking up recruiting from Maryland and Northern Virginia. Bakich had a reputation of being relentless recruiter, and he was making sure to bring this to College Park. As a young coach, Bakich is able to relate to high school prospects better, Maryland may not have the history of some other programs, but they do have a passionate fan base and a great location. Nestled between two MLB teams, Maryland provides players with the unique ability to gain the attention of two teams.
Another focus of Bakich was to change the fan experience at Shipley Field. In the middle of campus, it is easy for students to attend a baseball game. While fans want to support a winning team most importantly, Bakich saw the value in creating a better game day experience and promoting the team on campus to generate buzz. While Bakich was only at Maryland for three seasons, he added many improvements to Shipley Field. Maryland added a 5,000 Square Foot indoor hitting and pitching facility next to Shipley. In the stadium, a new turf infield and warning track were added, the locker rooms were renovated, a new outfield wall with conference championship years painted on it, a new scoreboard, and a brick backstop around home plate round out the new additions to Shipley Field.
Shipley wasn’t the only thing that was receiving a make over. Bakich was out on the town making sure that the renovated locker room would be home to a new age of Maryland baseball players. His 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes were ranked in the Top 25 according to Baseball America.
While his first season finished with a 17-39 record, the players and coaches all cited that the program was progressing. The attitude was the biggest change in the 2010 season. Bakich and staff noted how the seniors were leading the team, and the culture of the locker room was making progress. The progression continued with the 2011 Terps finishing with a 21-35 record. The 2012 season marked a better turn around as Maryland posted a record above .500 overall. Unfortunately the 32-24 mark achieved by the 2012 squad wasn’t enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Maryland finished ninth in the ACC with a 10-20 record, just two games behind Georgia Tech for the final spot in the ACC Tournament. Regardless, it was still a step in the right direction for Maryland baseball. The team was still young, and Bakich was bringing talented players to College Park. It looked as if the 2013 campaign would mark a return to the ACC Tournament and possibly the NCAA Tournament.
The hope of Bakich leading Maryland to the NCAA Tournament came to an end on June 27, 2012 when he accepted a position as the University of Michigan head coach. Michigan’s tradition rich program was too much for Bakich to pass up. Despite making great progress in just three seasons as Maryland head coach, he left College Park without reaching the ACC Tournament or NCAA Tournament. But he did leave behind a solid foundation for Maryland’s next coach to build off of. Maryland hired former Kansas State coach John Szefc a couple of weeks later, in his first season as Terps coach, he missed out on the ACC Tournament. Finishing in ninth place and three games back of Miami for the final spot in the ACC Tournament, Szefc did achieve a 30-25 record overall.
Where would we be if Erik Bakich had remained the coach of the Terrapins baseball team? While it is still early, Bakich leaving Maryland hurt the Terps greatly. Maryland is preparing to join the Big Ten, and while progress has been made in baseball, it is still not enough to make recruiting easier for new coach Szefc. The 34 yer old Bakich would have been the ideal candidate to lead Maryland baseball into the Big Ten. His progress with the program was felt on and off the field. What he accomplished off the field in a short period of time is unheard of for a “non-revenue” sport. With more money coming from the Big Ten, Bakich had the baseball program positioned to reap many benefits. His progression with the team and high level recruiting would have had the Terps as a team on the rise in the Big Ten. With his first recruiting class leading the 2014 Terps, the expectations would have been to reach the NCAA Tournament, and they most likely would have accomplished this goal. After a rough history in the ACC, they would start the new chapter of Maryland baseball with positive momentum. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see Bakich lead the Terps to a Big Ten baseball championship within the first three years of the move.
With a Big Ten Championship and the regular appearances in the NCAA Tournament, Bakich would position himself as one of the top coaches in Maryland. With Bakich’s young age, these accomplishments would have come before he even hit 40 years old. By this point in his career Bakich would be playing with house money. He would have accomplished more than any other baseball coach at Maryland, and the support from the fans would be there with future MLB Players playing right on campus. Baseball really starts to pick up when the weather gets nice and most other sports are finished with their season. Not having to compete with lacrosse full time would help Bakich carve out a niche with Maryland fans. Imagine Maryland hosting a regional in the NCAA Tournament on campus in May? The weather is perfect, not too hot, but warm enough to enjoy the campus and outdoor seating at Cornerstone.
Of course, the question arises in could Maryland maintain a big time baseball coach? Or would the Major Leagues eventually come after Bakich? Solid points to bring up in the what if, as Bakich hadn’t even made the ACC Tournament and already received interest for Michigan. Everything I mentioned above would be tough for him to accomplish at Maryland if he continued to gain interest from the top programs in the country. Would Kevin Anderson and company have given him a large enough contract to deter him from looking else where? Bakich would have become college baseball’s version of Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart, young and the lead candidate for every open position in the sport. Stevens and Smart have been opting to staying put at their current locations, but until when? Eventually a top 5 job will open up and they will be called. Same thing would have happened with Bakich if he stayed at Maryland and built the program to a top level. He is an alumni of East Carolina with no strong ties to Maryland.
The fun part in these what-ifs is thinking of the positive outcomes. Having a great baseball program would be a lot of fun for students and fans in the area. Right in the middle of campus, Shipley Field presents a fun environment for baseball fans to take in a game. Bakich was making it possible to enjoy the beautiful campus and competitive baseball all in one spot. The future was right very bright for Maryland baseball, it might still be, but for now we are still left many question marks about how Maryland baseball will move from the loss of Erik Bakich.