Sept. 10, 2010
The Understanding Of Teamwork
Irish head baseball coach Mik Aoki’s family “team” has helped mold the man he is now
By: Michael Bertsch
The name of Mik Aoki was on the college baseball map even before he was named the 20th head coach in Notre Dame baseball history this past June. Aoki had risen to the level of hot commodity on the NCAA coaching front in large part to his success at Boston College.
Aoki brought the Eagles baseball program into the national forefront after leading them to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament each of the past two seasons (the only two ACC Tournament appearances in school history) and their first NCAA Regional appearance in 42 years in 2009.
Aoki’s ’09 squad qualified for its first ACC Tournament and made a statement there as well. Entering the tournament needing at least one win to likely ensure a spot in an NCAA regional, the Eagles lost their first game to seventh-ranked Florida State. Boston College responded emphatically, beating 13th-rated Georgia Tech and 16th-ranked Miami in the next two games by a combined score of 17-4 to earn its bid to Austin, Texas.
In the regional, Boston College nearly knocked off number-one national seed Texas in an NCAA-record 25-inning game that would have propelled them to the finals of the ’09 Austin Regional and given Boston College a chance at reaching its first Super Regional in program history.
The Eagles’ 34-26 overall record qualified as their best since 2005 and their 13-15 record in ACC play marked the most league wins since joining the conference in 2006 (Boston College eclipsed that total in 2010 with 14).
Unlike many “hot commodity coaches,” Aoki – by his own admission – owes all his previous success to a handful of coaches across the country that helped him along the way.
A team effort, if you will.
He took bits and pieces from each of his experiences and applied them to his own developing style.
“I’ve learned a bit from everyone that I’ve worked with,” Aoki says. “Each has offered different insight into the coaching profession and all have played a large role in my success.”
Former Connecticut head coach Andy Baylock (1980-2003) was the most instrumental in Aoki ever getting started in coaching.
“He took a few hours out of his day and helped me,” Aoki remembers. “He kept me in mind enough that when the opening at Manchester Community College came about months later, he called and pretty much got me that job.”
After one season at the junior college level (1992), Aoki took a job as an assistant coach at Ohio University. He spent two seasons in Athens, Ohio working under longtime Bobcats’ head coach Joe Carbone (1989-present).
“Joe (Carbone) taught me a ton about organization and its importance in running a top-notch program,” Aoki states. “I learned that there is more to coaching at the collegiate level than simply coaching. He helped me understand the importance of details.”
Upon completion of his master’s degree work in athletic administration, Aoki’s coaching career then moved back to the Northeast. He took an assistant coaching position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. under skipper Bob Whalen (1990-present).
“Coach Whalen taught me about the work ethic necessary to be successful,” Aoki recalls. “He really more than anyone helped me understand the nature of recruiting, especially with high-level academic student-athletes.”
Aoki served four years as an assistant coach with Dartmouth (1995-98). During his tenure, he focused his efforts on the team’s infielders and hitters, while also serving as the program’s recruiting coordinator.
In August of 1998, Aoki got an opportunity for which he is forever grateful, as he was chosen to replace legendary Columbia head coach Paul Fernandes.
“I was fortunate to have gotten that position,” Aoki says. “It was kind of an honor to follow a guy like Coach Fernandes. Columbia hadn’t had a whole lot of coaches in its history.”
The man responsible for his hiring, Columbia Athletic Director John Reeves, said his Ivy League experience helped his candidate profile, which was among some 80 applications.
“We passed by three very strong head coaches, because we saw in Mik something that was very appropriate for our program,” Reeves said at the time of his hiring. “I think we hit a home run. I see youth, a winner, a man who will be a lifer as a baseball coach.”
Aoki led the Lions to an 87-140 mark in his five seasons as skipper. His teams won 20 or more games in each of his last three seasons. Before the Aoki era, the Lions had not posted a 20-win season since 1987.
Following the 2003 campaign, Aoki was looking for a change and new challenge, but was left with a difficult decision.
One of the youngest head coaches in all of Division I baseball, he left his post at Columbia, but not for another head coaching position. Rather, Aoki left for an opportunity to work with Pete Hughes at Boston College.
Hughes (third base) and Aoki (second base) were more than simply teammates at Davidson College. They played alongside each other in the same infield. The duo developed an immediate friendship off the field and a baseball philosophy on the diamond.
Aoki and Hughes hoped they might get an opportunity to work together, but it seemed pretty far-fetched especially when Hughes initially took the football-coaching track. He was a four-year starting quarterback at Davidson as well. Hughes began his coaching career at Hamilton College in New York (1990-91), but predominantly was focused on football. He did work on a part-time basis with the baseball program throughout his time. Hughes continued dual-sport coaching in similar capacities at Northeastern University (1991-96) until accepting the head baseball coach position at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas.
“Honestly, the idea of us coaching together seemed pretty fruitless for a long time,” Aoki says. “We talked a little bit about the idea of teaming up, but it really wasn’t until he got to Boston College that financially it became a real possibility.”
And, the decision to join one another paid immediate dividends.
Aoki and Hughes turned the BC program around 180 degrees. Prior to Aoki’s arrival, Boston College averaged 13 wins a season over the previous 35 years, but averaged 33 wins a year in 2004-06, including a school record 37 victories in 2005.
“I learned a lot from Pete as well because he had a family,” Aoki states. “The importance of attempting to balance both coaching and raising a family. It is ok to let something wait until tomorrow to be able to spend some time with your family.”
The difficulty of his decision to step backwards to an assistant coach position paled in comparison to the decision his mother, Ruth, faced nearly 30 years earlier.
Aoki was born in Yokohama, Japan to parents of both Japanese and American decent.
His father, Kemichi, who was also born and raised catholic in Japan, attended college in the United States at Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y. Kemichi then attended graduate school at Penn’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, where he met a young woman by the name of Ruth Goodwin.
Kemichi and Ruth’s roommates were actually dating at the time and setup a blind date. The two immediately hit it off and were married shortly afterwards. After living in Florida for two years, Kemichi and Ruth moved to Yokohoma, Japan.
Ruth, who served as an interpreter for Japan Airlines, stopped working following Mik’s birth and raised him and a younger sister, Naomi. The family then moved to Tokyo in 1970 where Mik spent his early childhood years in the footsteps of his father.
“He loved baseball,” Aoki remembers. “I remember watching the Tokyo Giants and Sadaharu Oh play. He would watch on television at night with me.”
Mik even remembers getting his first-ever baseball glove from his father following a business trip to the United States and quickly putting it to use.
“We played pickup baseball in the apartment complex,” Aoki says. “We would throw Kenko balls off the side of the apartment and field ground balls, short hop the walls to field a pop up. We would mess around with all kinds of stuff, but I never got involved in any organized baseball until we moved to the States.”
Beyond the love of baseball, Aoki’s childhood in Japan was far different than many of the children in his neighborhood.
“We were never a traditional Japanese family,” Aoki states. “We had more of a Western upbringing, but I was bilingual. My grandparents on my father’s side were much more traditional Japanese. I did get a little bit of both, but our house was much more Western that the other households around us.”
Then in November of 1976, when Aoki was just eight years old, tragedy struck. His father, Kemichi, lost a battle with cancer at the youthful age of 37.
“I do not have much recollection of his sickness,” Aoki says. “I do remember spending some time with him at the hospital, but I was still pretty young. He was originally diagnosed with stomach cancer, but it progressed into bone cancer of the spine.
Ruth chose to relocate the family to her hometown of Plymouth, Mass.
Ruth, a single mother, was solely responsible for the upbringing of Mik and Naomi, who were eight and six at the time, and felt the security and knowledge of home was exactly what her children needed.
Ruth, Mik and Naomi moved in July of 1977. Although the children had a westernized childhood in Japan, Ruth hoped to continue their dual citizenship, if you will, in the States.
“She tried like crazy to speak Japanese at the house with my sister and me,” Aoki states. “We resisted and eventually she just stopped. In retrospect, it was idiotic. I can recognize Japanese from Chinese or Korean, but truly understand it, unfortunately probably not. There are certain words I definitely remember, but it is certainly a regret. My mother, god love her, did her part.”
Ruth eventually went back to work in sales for a printing company, which definitely put the home base in action in terms of raising Mik and Naomi.
“There was a pretty good three-man weave going on,” Aoki recalls. “My mother did most everything which is pretty amazing when you consider just how involved my sister and I were in sports.
My grandmother, and especially my grandfather, chipped in as well. He took me to a bunch of little league games or maybe from a little league game to a soccer game. They filled in when my mother could not. My grandfather was very much a father-figure in my life.”
Aoki appreciated and understood the dedication and commitment necessary from all involved even then, but it has really come to light with his family.
In the fall of 1996 at Dartmouth, Aoki would meet Sue Dadonna, who was an assistant field hockey coach at the time.
Dadonna was a two-time captain in field hockey (1993-94) and senior captain (1995) in lacrosse at Delaware. In field hockey, Dadonna led the Blue Hens in assists for three straight years, total points twice and goals once over her career. She ranks fifth all-time in career helpers. In `94, Dadonna led Delaware in assists (10), points (26), ranked second in goals (8) and was named first team All-America East and first team all-region.
“Safe to say, she had quite the college athletic career,” Aoki says. “As a former athlete myself, it was obviously something we had in common.”
The two dated for almost five years before getting married in August of 2001.
The couple recently celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary. They have three children – son, Kai (five), and daughters Bryn (two) and Reese (eight months).
“As a coach, you have leanings toward keeping crazy hours,” Aoki states. “I’ve tried to every extent possible to strike a little balance. I’ve made sure to include my family in as much as I can possibly include them in. They are part of the team.”
While Aoki’s team today might be Notre Dame baseball, the team including his Mom, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunts and Uncles, as well as Balock, Cabone, Whalen and Hughes will always remain special.
“Obviously, my mom is the single biggest influence in my life, without a doubt, but it always has been a little bit of everybody, both in coaching and in life,” Aoki comments. “That saying of `it takes a village to raise a child,’ I’d be a pretty good poster child for that program. It’s one heck of a team.”