Mike Birkbeck said he’s never worried about or dreamed of the day he’d take charge of a college baseball program.
He treasures the time he spends working with young pitchers. That’s why Birkbeck, 52, declined an offer to join Scott Stricklin at the University of Georgia, electing to remain as Kent State’s associate head coach and pitching coach, the university announced Thursday.
Birkbeck had also been a candidate to replace Stricklin, hired by the Southeastern Conference school on June 3. Birkbeck, an Orrville native and University of Akron graduate, will begin his 18th season as KSU pitching coach this fall.
“I have every resource I need to do my job and I know our kids are well taken care of. That’s a credit to the administration. It’s special,” Birkbeck said by phone Thursday night. “I feel like I’m surrounded by excellence every time I go to work.
“Personally, Northeast Ohio has been the nerve center of my life forever. I love this area. My family is still in Orrville. My wife’s family is still in Orrville. [My son] was another factor. My administration was absolutely off the charts; they were so supportive and so helpful, it was remarkable. There’s a lot of reasons to stay.”
Birkbeck’s son John will be a junior pitcher for KSU next fall.
Kent State reached its first College World Series in 2012. During Birkbeck’s tenure, the Golden Flashes have claimed seven Mid-American Conference regular season titles, eight MAC Tournament championships and made eight NCAA appearances.
“Retaining Mike Birkbeck was a priority,” Kent State Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen said in a statement. “He’s known in college baseball as one of the best pitching coaches in the country, and someone who both attracts and retains high performing student-athletes. Mike has played a significant role in the baseball program’s success, both on and off the field, and I know our past, current and future Golden Flashes will applaud Mike’s decision.”
Forty players coached by Birkbeck at KSU have been drafted or signed into professional baseball. That list includes Andrew Chafin, a first-round pick in 2011, and Tyler Skulina and Taylor Williams, taken in the fourth round earlier this month.
Birkbeck said he wasn’t sure he was ready to turn the pitching staff over to someone else if he succeeded Stricklin.
“That’s one thing I’ve always wrestled with,” Birkbeck said. “I spend a lot of time with those guys. My passion is to work with young pitchers and help them develop as best they can.”
A former major leaguer with the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets, Birkbeck was named the American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year in November 2012.
Even with Stricklin’s departure, Birkbeck feels confident about the direction of Kent State baseball.
“We got the lights this year, we’ve got other improvements going on — the parking lot and entryway, the indoor hitting facility. This program’s still got room to grow,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talented kids coming back and an exceptional freshman class coming in. The future is very, very bright.”
Birkbeck still sounded emotional about the loss of Stricklin, whom he called “a class guy” he was fortunate to work with for nine years.
“He’s going to do great things down there,” Birkbeck said. “But they might have to go through Kent State to go to the College World Series.”
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