What Next For Notre Dame Baseball?
Mik Aoki was somewhat to Notre Dame baseball during his tenure from 2011-19 what the late John MacLeod was to Notre Dame men's basketball in the same nine-year period from 1991-99.
Although MacLeod was a relatively successful NBA coach for nearly two decades, he accepted the Notre Dame position at a time when the overall operation was hemorrhaging on the recruiting trail and with its performance on the court. The program also was on the cusp of a dramatic transition that would see it finally relinquish independence and join the powerful Big East in 1995 (after MacLeod’s fourth season) in an effort to help resuscitate some evidence of buzz.
Likewise, Aoki after nine years as a college head coach at Columbia and Boston College accepted the Notre Dame post at a time when the infrastructure was bleeding internally — and then in the fourth year of his tenure (2014) moved into the ultra-competitive ACC.
That’s part of why both MacLeod and Aoki lasted nine years, despite MacLeod posting a 106-124 overall record and Aoki 248-253-1. There was almost a sympathy factor from the administration to give them a fair chance to turn it around because of what they walked into and had to adjust to several years into their extended reigns.
MacLeod had his shining moment in 1997 when he was named Big East Coach of the Year in Notre Dame’s third season in the league. The Irish were only 8-10 in the conference that year — but it was a recognition and celebration of overachievement. An 8-10 Notre Dame basketball team at that point felt like 16-2.
Likewise, Aoki in year 2 of ACC play (2015) surprisingly led the Irish to the NCAA Tournament — their lone berth in the 13 seasons from 2007-2019.
In the ensuing four years it has gone back to finishing either last among seven teams in the Atlantic Division, or second to last.
MacLeod was 0-4 in his four seasons in the Big East Tournament. Aoki was 0-6 the past four years (not invited in 2016) in the ACC Tournament, most notably the 21-4 setback to Clemson in 2018 in which the Tigers scored 17 runs in the fourth inning. Popular opinion on the outside then was Aoki would not be brought back in 2019, because those are the type of losses that are extremely difficult to overcome when you already are reeling.
Stand-by alibis about the cold-weather factor and lack of facilities to match those of ACC brethren are legit — but here is another reality: Notre Dame was 11-13 in non-conference play this season, most notably 1-5 versus the MAC contingent of Ball State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan. It lost both games to Ball State and was dominated by Central Michigan (17-7) and Western Michigan (12-2). Being a cold-weather school in baseball sometimes goes only so far.
For the sake of credibility, there really was no choice anymore for Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick with regard to Aoki this weekend. There comes a point where you must realize this just isn’t going to work and new blood needs to be infused in an effort to create any form of buzz, which has been conspicuously lacking.
What Happened To Notre Dame Baseball?
This inquiry has arisen often for more than a decade.
That’s because during baseball's 19-year Golden Age at the school from 1988-2006, head coaches Pat Murphy (1988-94) and Paul Mainieri (1995-06) were the Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy — relatively speaking, of course — of modern Notre Dame baseball.
In the previous 25-year period from 1964-88 — another Golden Age for the Fighting Irish football program while winning four consensus national titles and seriously vying for several others — Notre Dame baseball on occasion descended into almost glorified club sport status while advancing to only one NCAA Tournament (1970). It was of zero consequence because as long as football and even men's basketball thrived, little else mattered.
Under the fireball Murphy, Notre Dame baseball returned to prominence while regularly knocking off elite programs and advancing to three consecutive NCAA Regionals (despite the lack of scholarship support), which landed him the coaching job at superpower Arizona State. (Murphy is now the bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers for manager Craig Counsell, a prize pupil at Notre Dame who played 16 years in the Major League and twice scored the winning walk-off run to win a World Series.)
Next came Mainieri, who actually built on that upsurge while 47 of his players moved on to pro ball. In the eight-year period from 1999-06, Notre Dame was one of only 10 teams to get invited to the NCAA Tournament each season, highlighted by advancing to the 2002 College World Series.
The Irish went to six straight Regional Finals (2000-05), had the fourth best winning percentage in the sport from 2000-06 and won an unprecedented five consecutive Big East titles in Mainieri's final five seasons.
Like Murphy, Mainieri parlayed that into landing one of the elite gigs in college baseball at LSU, which he has led to five College World Series, highlighted by the 2009 national title.
Both Murphy and Mainieri had developed excellence into the operation that almost seemed to be taken for granted.
Ever since the departure of Mainieri, Fighting Irish baseball returned to the land of the obscure and irrelevant.
Under Dave Schrage (2007-10), now the head coach at Butler, Notre Dame never won another Big East title — finishing 9th in the league his final season with a 10-17 mark and 22-32 overall — nor returned to the NCAA Tournament.
Enter Aoki in 2011, who was in a rebuild mode and finished 8th, 7th and 7thin the Big East his first three years … and then received the news that the Irish were moving into the far more difficult ACC in 2014. It was like telling a C-minus student in algebra that he would be placed into advanced calculus the next year.
The first-year result was predictable with a 9-21 record and last place finish (7th) in the Atlantic Division.
Lo and behold, one year later Aoki and the Irish began to show signs of the Murphy-Mainieri — Notre Dame baseball’s version of the M & M Boys — magic with a 37-23 mark and a second-place tie in the Atlantic Division to earn the team’s first NCAA Tournament bid in nine years.
In 2016 and 2017, though, the Irish were back in the Atlantic cellar. In 2016 they sputtered to a 4-15 finish — plus had 8-0 and 9-1 losses at home to Eastern Michigan and Ohio U. In 2017 Notre Dame closed with a 3-9 mark, including losing all three at Boston College, Aoki’s previous stop.
To many, not making a change in leadership earlier was evidence of the school once again accepting its "learned helplessness" lot as a cold-weather school that would be unable to flourish in a warm-weather sport while competing in a cut-throat league.
Making the change in leadership this month is merely one step. What does the University do now in committing itself to the overall infrastructure through facilities, resources, recruiting and especially financial aid?
That ultimately will determine if Notre Dame baseball can attract a hidden gem like a Murphy and Mainieri, and then afterwards actually parlay that with all the other commitments to once again become relevant.