WICHITA, Kan. – A middle-aged man wearing a John Deere cap spotted Gene Stephenson sitting incognito in a corner of the Hyatt Regency lobby Wednesday afternoon.
The man walked over and extended his hand. “Thank you,” he told Stephenson. “Thank you for everything you've done here.”
Stephenson gets that a lot in the two weeks since Wichita State fired him. Fired him after 36 years, almost 2,000 victories and more than one miracle.
Fired him after the baseball equivalent to Bill Snyder's greatest story ever told with Kansas State football.
Wichita State firing Gene Stephenson is like Penney's firing James Cash Penney himself. Like Marriott firing John Willard Marriott.
Wichita State University? Wichita Stephenson University is more like it.
When WSU dropped football in 1986, it still had Shocker baseball. When WSU's proud basketball tradition dipped amid scandal and mediocrity in the '80s and '90s, it still had Shocker baseball. When Wichita's Texas League baseball team fled to the Ozarks, the city still had Stephenson's Shockers.
And now, the Shockers don't have Stephenson.
Said Stephenson, “It breaks my heart.”
Stephenson came to Wichita in 1977, fresh off five years of helping Enos Semore turn OU into an NCAA baseball power.
Came for $1,000 a month, with a one-month contract. He came to a school with no baseball field and no baseball program.
His first Shocker team, 1978, never practiced on a field it played on. Those Shockers played at city-owned McAdams Park, getting through by 4 p.m. so high school teams could start at 5. They practiced on the marching band's field.
Four years later, Wichita State was in the NCAA championship game. Lost to Miami 9-3 in the College World Series final.
When the Shockers took the field that night in Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium, back home in Wichita, their home field had no locker room and no permanent seating.
Stephenson would bring in flat-bed trailers holding football practice bleachers, and charge fans $1 for admission.
He kept making improvements to the park that eventually became Eck Stadium, which today seats 7,851 and over decades was home to frenzied fans who embraced Wichita State baseball as the city's pride and joy.
Kept going back to Omaha, too. 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996.
Seven College World Series trips for a program from a small conference, with no football money, located in baseball Siberia.
Wichita State won the College World Series in 1989, beating Texas 5-3.
The guy with the John Deere hat? “I was there that night in '89,” he told Stephenson.
Since 1966, every NCAA baseball championship has been won by a team from the West Coast or a team south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Except one.
Wichita State in 1989.
Said Stephenson, “We built something really special.”
Stephenson is 67. Old enough to have served in Vietnam. Old enough to remember OU's Billy Vessels winning the 1952 Heisman. Old enough to remember when hard work was enough to overcome all the disadvantages of a baseball mid-major trying to succeed in the American North.
And he wants to coach again. He wants to coach the Sooners, whose job came open last week when Auburn hired away Sunny Golloway.
“I ain't too old,” Stephenson said.
He points out that Florida State's Mike Martin is 69. Texas' Augie Garrido is 74. Rice's Wayne Graham is 77. All are big winners, though Garrido has stumbled of late.
But age is the least of Stephenson's problems with OU.
For a few hours on July 11, 2005, Stephenson was the Sooner coach. Joe Castiglione hired Stephenson to replace Larry Cochell; even staged a press conference at Lloyd Noble Center.
But later that evening, Stephenson reversed field and went back to his job at Wichita State. He didn't reveal details, other than “scholarship issues,” and still won't, though it was apparent that OU had overcommitted on scholarships and Stephenson would be asked to fix the mess.
Golloway got the OU job, the Sooners won big over the next eight years, and Stephenson kept winning at Wichita State, going to NCAA Super Regionals in 2007 and 2008.
Stephenson said he was enticed by OU then for the same reasons it's a good job now.
“Look, I've never forgotten how it was recruiting at OU,” he said. “To this day, you go to OU, you can get anybody.”
Stephenson has talked with Castiglione in recent days. Says Joe C. was “fine.”
But deep down, Stephenson knows Castiglione isn't likely to call. That's too big of a burned bridge.
Stephenson still dreams of getting such a job.
“My preference would be a warmer climate than Wichita,” he said. “Wouldn't be too hard to find.”
And a school with some football money. “I'm tired of raising money. We've had to do it every year to fund operations.” Stephenson calls himself “Wichita's longest-running beggar.”
He's raised money from the day he took that $1,000-a-month job. Seven capital-improvement projects on his ballpark.
College baseball has tilted heavily South and heavily toward money. Big-time football programs provide the financial bonanza to supplement other sports, and schools have invested heavily in baseball. NCAA Tournament participation is based largely on scheduling; it's hard for the North schools to win consistently against opponents who can schedule more home games and practice earlier outdoors.
Plus, the recruiting calendar works against non-football schools. Most players sign in November now, which means autumn recruiting trips. Everyone is excited by a campus football game. Not much going on around Wichita State's campus on October weekends.
You still see the little guy rise from time to time. Last year, both Kent State and Stony Brook made the College World Series.
Stephenson took great pride when Kent State coach Scott Stricklin, whom Stephenson didn't even know, told the assembled press in Omaha that Kent State had patterned its program after Wichita State.
But Stephenson also pointed out that neither Kent State nor Stony Brook made the 2013 NCAA field, and Stony Brook even had a losing record.
“Look at how we sustained it,” Stephenson said. “Great testament to the players.”
Stephenson grew up in Guthrie and, like most Oklahoma kids in the 1950s, became a huge OU football fan.
“They were everything to me growing up,” Stephenson said. “We lost that game to Notre Dame in Norman, I was devastated.”
He reels off the names of Vessels, Gene Calame, Buck McPhail. Recalls the 1954 Bedlam game in Stillwater, when the Sooners spent the night before at the Avon Hotel in Guthrie. “I was there at the six o'clock in the morning for autographs,” Stephenson said.