Image credit: Nick Schnabel (Photo courtesy of Michigan)
Nick Schnabel ended a quiet third full professional season Aug. 26, 2003, when he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He was 25 and the former 31st-round pick out of East Carolina had spent the season with high Class A Brevard County in the Expos system.
As Schnabel went through rehab for his shoulder surgery, he began to wonder if it might be time to go into coaching, as he had long wanted to once his playing career ended. Fortuitously, then-East Carolina coach Randy Mazey that fall had an opening on his staff and called Schnabel to see if he was interested.
Mazey had recruited Schnabel to ECU out of junior college and, now, five years later, he was asking him to return to Greenville to start the next phase of his baseball career. Schnabel accepted the offer and became ECU’s volunteer assistant coach.
“I love the game of baseball, being around it,” Schnabel said. “I knew I wanted to be around it. Just having an impact on kids’ lives – or trying to.”
Schnabel, 41, has been making an impact ever since, coaching for the last 16 seasons at five different schools. After one season at his alma mater, he moved on to Chipola (Fla.) JC for a year, then to Army for two years, followed by two years at Liberty and then back to ECU for three seasons. He’s spent the last seven seasons at Michigan, where he has reunited with head coach Erik Bakich, his teammate at ECU.
At Michigan, Schnabel carries the title of assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator and plays an important role across nearly all aspects of the program. His efforts were a key part of the Wolverines’ extraordinary 2019 season that saw them finish as runners-up in the College World Series. He was instrumental in building Michigan’s 2017 recruiting class, which, at No. 10, was the highest ranked class ever for a Big Ten Conference school and played a critical role in the CWS run. As hitting coach, he helped the Wolverines produce the Big Ten’s best offense and outfielder Jordan Brewer was named conference player of the year and was drafted in the third round.
For those reasons, Schnabel is the 2019 Baseball America/American Baseball Coaches Association Division I Assistant Coach of the Year.
Because Schnabel moved around as much as he did early in his career, he has been influenced by a wide variety of esteemed coaches. He played at Ohlone (Calif.) JC under Paul Moore, a California Community College Baseball Coaches Association hall of famer, and at ECU under the late Keith LeClair, whose on-field success and grace during his fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis left an indelible impact. Chipola coach Jeff Johnson has won three national titles. Mazey, former Army coach Joe Sottolano, former Liberty coach Jim Toman and Bakich have all had plenty of on-field success.
Schnabel said he felt lucky to have been able to learn from so many well-respected coaches over the years.
“You try to take in as much as you can,” he said. “There’s stuff I’ve taken from each coach I’ve been with and each program I’ve been with. It’s helped me become a better coach, a better person. I’m so fortunate places I’ve been. I’ve got to pinch myself sometimes.”
Schnabel’s time at Michigan has certainly provided plenty of dream moments. He said it was an easy decision to join Bakich in Ann Arbor.
“The chance to work for and with Erik – who I’d known for 15 years, he was in my wedding and I was in his – no brainer,” Schnabel said. “Obviously, I’m glad he took me on, and we’ve been here ever since. It’s been great for my family, for me personally, for my growth.”
Bakich said he’s been fortunate to have been able to count Schnabel as one of his closest friends for more than 20 years. During that time, he’s been impressed with how Schnabel has developed, first as a player and then as a coach.
Bakich sees some of the same traits that made Schnabel successful as a player despite being undersized at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds present in his development as a coach. And he believes the future is just as bright for Schnabel.
“He just did all the little things to be an elite player – the defensive player of the year in the conference, a professional player – and then to watch him do all the little things as a coach and excel in coaching and recruiting, in everything that he’s doing,” Bakich said. “To put together a historic recruiting class, to see these guys lead our team to Omaha last year and to get recognition as the best among his peers – I know we’re not going to be able to hold on to him very long. He’s going to be an elite head coach as well.
“He’s meant so much to our program and he’s a huge reason why our program has accelerated quickly.”
The Wolverines did make big, early strides under Bakich and Schnabel. In their third season in Ann Arbor, they led the Wolverines to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years, coming a win away from a super regional. They got back to regionals in 2017 and then, in 2019, delivered the long-expected breakthrough.
No Big Ten team has been to the CWS more than Michigan (eight appearances), but before this year, the Wolverines hadn’t been to Omaha since 1984. Michigan didn’t take an easy road to the CWS – the selection committee listed it as one of the last four teams in the Field of 64 and it faced a tough draw in the Corvallis Regional before having to upset No. 1 overall seed UCLA on the road in super regionals – but its improbable journey made the trip all the more memorable.
The 2019 season provided more storybook moments than Schnabel can recount. He said seeing the Wolverines dogpile at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium after winning the super regional to advance to the CWS stands out, especially as he looks back on the seven years at Michigan that led to that moment. When he came to Michigan, he believed it could make a return to Omaha. To see it finally happen was a dream come true.
“A lot of people have invested, former players, current players, staff,” he said. “You’ve got to go through some tough times maybe and gut punches but keep going keep trying to get better. We certainly saw that.”
Just as Schnabel and the rest of the Michigan staff ask the Wolverines to try to get one percent better every day, he continues to work to improve. Among college programs, Michigan is at the forefront of kinesthesiology and how it applies to baseball and Schnabel has been an important part of that process. He’s learning more about kinematics and how they influence baseball movements, as well as working with the new technologies that have been developed in recent years to aid player development.
“we take a lot of stuff from a lot of different areas and make it work for our guys individually,” he said. “We have a pretty good plan in place for that. Whatever we can do as a staff to put the kids in best position possible.”
Schnabel has now been doing that throughout his career as an assistant coach. He’s helped countless players improve and made his mark on half a dozen programs. He’s established himself as one of the best in the nation, doing the job he always pictured himself doing once he finished playing.