OMAHA, Nebraska — Rewind a week and a half, to June 12 at Eppley Airfield, when Michigan baseball landed on a runway and Vanderbilt landed on another, almost at the same time. Maybe, if you believe in this kind of thing, it was meant to be.
Maybe this year's College World Series was destined to spotlight a coaching tree that was planted at Clemson, sprouted at Vanderbilt and has bloomed through years of friendship to form an unlikely family, between two coaches, their wives, children, and with help from a group chat that commemorated the journey late Friday night with a simple text:
Soon, Maggie Corbin, the wife of Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, would call Jiffy Bakich, the wife of Michigan coach Erik Bakich. Tim and Erik would talk, too. The head coaches, teacher and pupil, were too busy to meet in person, but they will see each other when Michigan faces Vanderbilt in the best-of-three-games College World Series finals starting Monday.
"I never would have believed it," Tim Corbin said. "The fact that it takes a lot of special things to happen and so many timing issues involved in order for both teams to come together in the end, just to be able to do it with his family is great. It's so special."
The Michigan baseball team won its third straight game on Friday, locking up the school's first-ever spot in the best-of-three championship series that begins Monday.— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 22, 2019
Let's take a look back at @umichbaseball's history at the #CWS https://t.co/tEhjMcbXmz
Corbin, 57, the architect of one of college baseball's juggernaut programs, wouldn't have built it without Bakich. And Bakich, 41, who has led U-M to its first College World Series in 35 years, wouldn't have made it here without Corbin.
And neither of them would be on the same group chat, offering congratulations to each other on reaching the sport's pinnacle, if it weren't for the women behind the scenes.
Corbin the teacher; Bakich the pupil
In retrospect, it was a wise choice.
When Bakich joined Clemson as a volunteer assistant in 2002, he immediately connected with Corbin, a veteran assistant who was a year away from taking a jump of his own.
At the time, Bakich -- 23 years old and determined to work as many hours as the paid assistants -- wondered what he got himself into.
"I kind of latched onto Tim, not knowing the kind of hours he put in," Bakich said. "My first experience in coaching was this guy that was working literally around the clock, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m."
They spent many days together and even more nights, with Bakich playing the role of the Corbins' unofficially adopted adult child, and when Corbin left to take the helm at Vanderbilt in 2003, it was a no-brainer.
"I felt like he was just sort of a miniature Tim Corbin," Maggie said. "I just remember how passionate about the game of baseball and coaching he was -- just all-in -- and he had endless energy, endless passion. He was great, very detailed-oriented and he was very much like Tim, only a younger version."
So, with many options to hire more experienced personnel in the biggest opportunity of his career, the Corbins followed their guts and did for Bakich what Jack Leggett had done for Tim at Clemson years earlier: He passed on similarly experienced assistants to give his guy a shot.
"We both came to a conclusion that, 'Why not take a guy that's as smart, passionate and energetic as Erik?' " Maggie said. "And then Tim can really mold him the way he wants."
Said Bakich: "When he offered me the position to go to Vandy with him, it didn't matter what the name of the school was, it could have been 'Podunk U.' I was going because I believed in Tim."
The molding began in a downtrodden apartment at Clemson and continued in a decidedly nicer house in Nashville, where Bakich's roommate had a friend who was named Jiffy by her older brother. Jiffy had just returned to the Nashville area, where she grew up. Bakich was out recruiting all summer, as he does. They met in the fall of 2004.
'Can you win at Michigan?'
Sometime around their second date, Bakich brought Jiffy to the Vanderbilt baseball offices to meet Corbin. Soon thereafter, Jiffy met Maggie, and the Corbins' two daughters, and soon, they were having dinners together.
Bakich was Corbin's assistant and recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt, and if you ask Corbin, he played a significant role in the Commodores' meteoric rise in college baseball: "Vanderbilt would not be Vanderbilt without Erik Bakich. Bottom line."
Corbin saw Bakich's work ethic early on. It's why he was so drawn to him.
"There's an energy that sometimes exists with people, where you know, their give-a-care level is so high, that they're almost, you know, there's no failure in that," Corbin said. "They're going to do what they need to do with character to get things done in the manner that they need to be done in order to be successful."
Vanderbilt's success led to Bakich's first head coaching job at Maryland, and then, a few years later, John Salter received a call from Corbin. Salter, whose son, Harrison, is now a sophomore catcher at Michigan, roomed with Corbin's brother at Bowling Green. They had stayed in touch over the years.
"I'll never forget the phone call I received from Tim Corbin after the Michigan job came open," Salter said. "He said, 'Hey, do you think this is a good job? Can you win at Michigan?'
"I said, 'Are you looking to come to Michigan?' "
No, Corbin said, but he had a guy.
It was Bakich.
'Friends isn't even the word'
They waved to each other on the plane on June 12, then rushed to say hello when they deplaned. After U-M's win over Florida State on Monday, the Corbins could not help themselves -- they wanted to see their family.
They walked from their hotel after the game and snuck into the postgame news conference, waiting impatiently to give Erik and Jiffy big hugs. On Saturday evening, just before Vanderbilt's game against Louisville, Bakich stopped by the Vanderbilt dugout to wish Corbin good luck.
Now, they are matched up for the national championship, with Michigan chasing its first title since 1962 and Vanderbilt trying to win its second since 2014.
"I don't think there could be a better way, that we could be in the national championship, knowing that our families are so close, the best of friends close -- maybe friends isn't even the world, they feel a part of our family -- so I don't know if there's a higher level of respect for the love our family has and the coaching tree we're a part of," Bakich said, "than to meet in the College World Series finals."
'They're like family to us'
"Family" is the word here.
In recent days, the U-M baseball team has worn those six letters on their practice shirts, and it's a culmination of the program that Corbin showed Bakich how to build.
From watching Maggie send recruiting letters during those late nights in Corbin's office, to Jiffy putting her pharmaceutical degree on hold to become a college baseball coach's wife, the coaching tree has extended into a coach's wife tree, with Maggie showing Jiffy the ropes.
"It was like Tim adopted him and Maggie adopted me," Jiffy said. "She's been such a mentor to me in this coach's wife role, always has been, still to this day. She's taught me what it means to be a true supporter of your husband and to be a cheerleader for these boys, for this team, and then, to try to balance it all with my own kids and who I am, she's just been incredible to me and I know she always will be."
It's why the Bakiches host Thanksgiving dinners for the players who can't go home for the holidays. It's why they showed up in Nashville the day after Vanderbilt pitcher Donny Everett died from a drowning accident in 2016, and then a few weeks later, when they returned from winning the national championship. It's why Maggie flew to Maryland to help Jiffy -- pregnant with her third child -- to help pack up her life for a move to Ann Arbor.
"It's a relationship where we've been there for them, and they've been there for us," Maggie said. "And it's certainly more than a friendship. They're like family to us."
'He's a better version of me'
The family will be divided, beginning Monday, but in the best of ways.
Bakich has followed Corbin's lead, building a program, staying when others tempted him, and now he takes his underdog Wolverines into a Mario-vs-Bowser matchup against the best team in the College World Series.
Their relationship began in Clemson, strengthened at Vanderbilt and has only grown over the years, and it has been sustained in the year-round group chat that was particularly upbeat on Saturday night.
The Leggett coaching tree begat the Corbin coaching tree, which will one day begat the Bakich coaching tree. The pupil has learned from his teacher -- and he has continued to throughout the College World Series -- but the teacher knows what he has seen for all these years.
"He's a better version of me," Corbin said. "He's much smarter, he's more incremental, he's more driven, he's just the best version of himself. And his team plays at the level they do because of his influence and his staff's. He's one of the most driven people I've ever been around."
The drive will continue this week, in their first matchup against each other. But U-M or Vanderbilt, win or lose, the chance to do it on such a stage only underscores the relationship that has been built between the Corbins and Bakiches.
"I wouldn't have met Jiffy if it weren't for Tim and Maggie if they didn't take a chance on me as a 24-year-old, inexperienced kid," Bakich said. "They took a chance on me and I understand the magnitude of that. I know it's led me here, but it also led me to my wife, my children and the things that I value the most."
This article is written by Anthony Fenech from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.