Erik Bakich, Nick Schnabel Proudly Carry On Keith LeClair's Legacy
OMAHA — Keith LeClair was bravely continuing his fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 2006 when Erik Bakich spoke to his old college coach for the last time. That day, with LeClair’s wife Lynn holding the phone, Bakich reaffirmed his commitment to him.
“First, I told him that I loved him,” Bakich said. “And second, I told him I would finish the job and get to the College World Series for him.”
This year, Bakich fulfilled that promise as head coach of Michigan, leading the Wolverines on a magical run through the NCAA Tournament, including knocking off UCLA, the No. 1 overall seed, in the Los Angeles Super Regional. But Bakich and the Wolverines weren’t done yet. They swept through their College World Series bracket and this week will play for the national championship, taking on Vanderbilt in the College World Series finals.
LeClair, who died July 17, 2006, when he was just 40 years old, left an indelible impact on Bakich and so many of his other former players. In 11 seasons as a head coach at Western Carolina and East Carolina, he went 440-231-3. In five seasons at ECU, he twice led the Pirates to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and he was already the second winningest coach in program history when ALS forced him to step down as head coach in 2002.
But LeClair’s on-field success is only a small part of his college baseball legacy. The grace with which he handled his diagnosis served as inspiration to many who followed his daily devotionals during his five-year fight with ALS. His message during that time was about how his priorities had changed. Before, it had all been about baseball. But LeClair came to realize that his first priority was his relationship with God, then his family and then baseball.
Several members of LeClair’s last teams at ECU have carried on his spirit in college baseball as coaches. Bakich is in his seventh season as head coach at Michigan and is joined on staff by Nick Schnabel, who serves as the Wolverines' recruiting coordinator. Cliff Godwin has spent the last five seasons as head coach at ECU, twice leading his alma mater to super regionals. Bryant Ward is UCLA’s recruiting coordinator, and Ben Sanderson is North Carolina State’s director of player and program development.
Additionally, Kieran Mattison is short-season Bristol’s manager in the Pirates' system, Joe Hastings is a scout for the Cubs, and Clayton McCullough is the Dodgers' field coordinator.
For the college coaches, the chance to carry on LeClair’s legacy has been particularly meaningful. Bakich, Godwin, Schnabel and Ward all wear LeClair’s No. 23 in a tribute to their former coach. They all want to get to Omaha to wear it in the College World Series to complete the goal they set while they were at ECU.
They are all in a group text, and before super regionals, with Michigan set to play UCLA, thereby ensuring at least one of them would make it to Omaha, they talked about how special it would be.
Michigan upset UCLA, sending Bakich and Schnabel to the CWS in No. 23 jerseys. Lynn and her daughter Audrey have been in Omaha cheering on the Wolverines, for which Bakich is grateful.
Bakich said they all consider it a privilege and an honor to wear the No. 23 today.
“There’s no other number we would want to wear,” he said. “We want to do it because we just want to continue his inspiration and continue his legacy.”
But it’s also about more than just reaching the College World Series. Bakich said he doesn’t so much remember the X’s and O’s lessons that LeClair imparted or the drills they did in practice or the way they prepared for series. Instead, what he remembers is LeClair’s ability to bring a team together for a common goal.
Under LeClair at ECU, Omaha was a destination, yes, but it was also a state of mind. And it’s that kind of impact that Bakich also wants to have on his team.
“It’s not about playing baseball in Omaha,” Bakich said. “It’s about the impact he had on players that he coached and us trying to have that same impact on the players that we coach. What you’re chasing is those authentic, celebratory moments, those dogpile-type moments, where the joy on those kids faces is so genuine that besides seeing it, you can taste it, you can feel it. It sticks with you forever.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin got to know LeClair well when he was an assistant coach at Clemson under Jack Leggett. Corbin and LeClair both grew up in New Hampshire and bonded over their shared roots.
Corbin remembers LeClair for his funny personality off the field and competitive fire on it.
“He was more of the same of what I’ve always been around and that’s Jack, that’s Erik and that’s someone who’s very competitive, that is completely entrenched in what he is doing, yet at the end of it can celebrate the time we spent together,” Corbin said. “I thought he was a tremendous human being.”
LeClair never got the chance to coach in Omaha, but this week two of his former players, wearing his number, will play for a national championship. It’s the fulfillment of a promise, but also a chance to reflect on the lessons he imparted throughout his coaching career and fight against ALS.