In college athletics few names, if any, are as recognizable as Notre Dame. In college baseball no name lives by itself such as Omaha. For Mik Aoki, his goal is to reunite one of the sporting world’s most prominent names with college baseball’s ultimate destination.
On July 13, Aoki became the 20th head coach in Notre Dame baseball history. In his first press conference as the Irish skipper, nearly right off the bat Aoki touched on the Notre Dame name, and the goal of getting to Omaha.
“I think that this is a place that arguably, Notre Dame is the biggest brand name in college athletics, and one of the best academic institutions in the country,” said Aoki. “I feel that that model is one that can help us get back to Omaha.”
Getting back to Omaha is not a simple task for the Irish. Since the NCAA went to the current 64-team tournament field, Notre Dame’s 2002 College World Series appearance is the only trip to Omaha a “Northern” program has made. While the Irish were able to overcome the odds nearly a decade ago, times are not what they once were in South Bend.
That College World Series appearance came in the middle of a grand era in Notre Dame baseball. With Paul Mainieri at the helm, the Irish appeared in NCAA Regional action every season from 1999-2006, hosting Regionals in ‘99, ‘01, ’02, and ‘04. The end of the eight-year tournament run, would coincide with Mainieri’s exit as the coach took over at LSU. In Mainieri’s 12 seasons from ’95-06 the Irish won 71 percent of their games, going 533-213-3.
With Mainieri leaving town, seemingly so to did Notre Dame’s existence in the national spotlight. As Dave Schrage followed as the next Irish coach, the college baseball community knew the mighty shoes Mainieri left would be hard to fill, however few saw the fortunes that would lie ahead for the Irish.
After a 28-28 record in Schrage‘s first season, Notre Dame would improve the next two, going 33-21-1, and 36-23. With the number of wins increasing over the previous two seasons, expectations were high for Notre Dame in 2010. In a season where the faithful expected the Regional drought to end, it would be another streak that ended, a more ominous one.
What unfolded was a 22-32 season as Notre Dame finished sub-.500 for the first time since 1987, so long ago that no current Notre Dame baseball player was yet to be born. After going 119-104-1 in four seasons Schrage was relinquished of his duties, opening the door for Aoki.
Aoki knows the task in front of him. He knows that at Notre Dame the expectations are high and his results will not fly under the radar as was the case during his previous stop. At Boston College, where Aoki spent six seasons, the college was in the heart of a heavy professional sports metropolitan.
At Notre Dame being affiliated with a major university and premiere athletic department comes raised expectations and a brighter magnification. The raised stakes did everything but shy Aoki away from taking the job.
“I think that was part of the attraction of this job,” said Aoki. “I think that in the way that it’s supported, the name brand of Notre Dame, the tradition, and the very recent tradition that this place has, I really truly believe that this program is capable of competing at a national level, at a very high level, a Omaha-type level… I think of this being an Omaha-type program.”
“It’s not a pressure, it’s something I embrace about the program,” Aoki added. Aoki points to the potential that the Notre Dame program has as one of, if not the most influential aspect of his decision to take the job.
“When you look across the Midwest and the Northeast, there are only a handful of programs that you can truly say are Omaha-type programs. I would not have left Boston College, which I think is a great place that I truly loved being at, I would not have left that situation to come to anything short of what I think Notre Dame represents and the potential Notre Dame has.”
Part of what Notre Dame represents is a strong, passionate, and loyal fan base. Discussing his short time at Notre Dame Aoki speaks highly of those around him. While Aoki knew of the expectations to win, the infinite potential the program has, and past success, the amount of support the program receives and realizing the attention paid to the program, exceeded any expectations he had of his new job.
“The one thing that did exceed my expectations was the level of interest in Notre Dame baseball and Notre Dame athletics in particular,” said Aoki.
“Obviously the interest the people have in the football program goes without saying, but I think it extends beyond football to all of the sports at Notre Dame, and certainly baseball is included. That part of it is something I really have not been at a place where the people are as locked in on things as they are here.”
What did happen in Boston was that Aoki was able to turnaround a dormant program in a very difficult ACC. For that to be the case in the Big East for Notre Dame, Aoki alludes to two tasks he and his staff are working to improve.
“There is talent on this team, however I think the talent level is thin. Number one obviously we have to do a good job recruiting players, then secondly, we have to do a really good job of developing player.”
Often when the development of a player is read about, asked of, or discussed, the mind thinks of bigger, stronger, and faster. For Notre Dame and Aoki the development goes beyond physical measurables and starts with the mind being right.
“The big thing from a mindset standpoint is for our players to feel like baseball is the best part of their day again. I think that has been lost for some of the guys in the program. That its fun and that its something that is definitely worth the time, the effort, the extra hours that they’re going to need to put in to be the type of program that gets back to Omaha.”
Mentioning that he feels that a little of the passion for the game of baseball has gone adrift among his players, Aoki and his staff are making it a concerted effort to make sure that America’s pastime is enjoyable.
“I think we need to do a good job as a coaching staff of coaching them and coaching them hard, but making sure that we’re sending a really positive message to them and that they have fun,” spoke Aoki.
“Because when you boil it all down it’s just a stinking game you know. It should be something that is fun, and in my opinion it should be something that is a hell of a lot better than figuring out calculus derivatives or something like that. I like to think they look forward to practice, the challenge, and the journey of making themselves better players.
So far Aoki feels his message is getting to his players.
“By and large I think our kids have done a really good job of trying to buy into what we’re selling of working and getting back to having some fun while we’re playing and practicing, and working at getting better.”
Making sure fun is evident in the game of his players is a staple Aoki hopes sticks with his program. But do not mistake installing joy and passion in the game as a substitute for working hard and competing relentlessly.
“We talk to our guys all the time that regardless of who you’re playing, whether it’s a big-name team like Florida or Texas, or a lesser known team in a non-conference game, that we’re going to play it the same way,” said the coach.
As Aoki digs in and is ready to turn the tide for the Blue and Gold, he expects that a program with his fingerprints is going to work hard, be mentally tough, and compete with pride day in and day out.
“Those are the three biggest things… compete like crazy, work like crazy, and have some fun while doing it.”
And if all of those things come together?
“I think the sky is the limit at this place.”