A sad ending for Wichita State's Gene Stephenson era

COMMENTARY — The former OU assistant who built the Shockers into a national baseball power has been replaced. Now he doesn't know what to do with himself, but he still wants to coach.
by Berry Tramel Published: June 20, 2013
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photo - Wichita State University head coach Gene Stephenson (right) talks with assistant coach Jim Thomas between innings during their college baseball game against Houston at the 2006 NCAA Norman Regional at the University of Oklahoma's L. Dale Mitchell Park in Norman, Okla., Friday, June 2, 2006. Wichita State won the game 2-1. By John Clanton, The Oklahoman
Wichita State University head coach Gene Stephenson (right) talks with assistant coach Jim Thomas between innings during their college baseball game against Houston at the 2006 NCAA Norman Regional at the University of Oklahoma's L. Dale Mitchell Park in Norman, Okla., Friday, June 2, 2006. Wichita State won the game 2-1. By John Clanton, The Oklahoman

Barry Switzer tried to recruit Stephenson at Guthrie High School for Arkansas. When Eddie Crowder took the Colorado job, and Bud Wilkinson resigned OU a year later, Stephenson's football interest waned. So he went to Missouri to play baseball and go to journalism school.

After college came the military, and after the military came Semore, who was building a strong baseball program at OU.

Stephenson joined Semore and helped recruit a bunch of the great players who took the Sooners to five straight College World Series, 1972-76. Along the way, Stephenson joined Switzer's football staff as a part-time recruiter, along with Bill Shimek and Jerry Pettibone.

Semore famously dallied with the Oral Roberts job about that time, and part of his deal to stay was getting Stephenson a bump in salary. Stephenson started making $25,000 a year, all the clothes he wanted from C.R. Anthony and football tickets. Life was good.

But in those days, college baseball jobs didn't come open very often. When Wichita State beckoned, offering nothing more than $1,000 a month, a band's practice field and limitless dreams, Stephenson jumped.

***

Stephenson says he never saw the firing coming, though lots of people in Wichita know the program had slipped from its previous status.

After that 2008 Super Regional, the Shockers were decimated when eight underclassmen signed pro contracts, as did several highly touted prospects, including current Oakland Athletics catcher Derek Norris and Owasso's Pete Kozma, now with the Cardinals.

Wichita State made an NCAA regional in 2009 but then missed the tournament three straight years. The Shockers won the Missouri Valley Tournament this spring and returned to the NCAAs.

Attendance had waned, but Stephenson says that's attributable to not hosting Valley tournaments or NCAA regionals in recent years, which always spiked interest.

Perhaps so. But clearly, Stephenson's grip on the city and the school was not what it had been when the Shockers were riding high.

When Wichita State hired Arkansas assistant Todd Butler to replace Stephenson, many fans expressed glee.

“I think it's a great day for a revival, a great day for Shocker baseball,” WSU fan Gary Tindall told the Wichita Eagle. “You don't replace a legend, but it was time for some new blood.”

The Eagle conducted a poll, gauging the pulse of WSU fans after Butler's hiring. Forty-seven percent said it was a “home run hire” and only 12 percent claimed “they lost me when they fired Gene Stephenson.”

Wichita State leaders asked Stephenson to retire, but he refused. He says he asked to coach one last season, expecting a very good team returning for 2014, and Wichita State is on the hook to pay him his $530,000 salary anyway.

Stephenson says he has a theory on why he was fired, that it has nothing to do with baseball, but he won't share it.

Wichita State athletic director Eric Sexton told the Eagle that the trend of declining victories and fan support were instrumental in his decision. “It's a larger, broad view of where our program is going,” Sexton said. “In my view, it was time to turn the page.”

Stephenson says the program is in fine shape, that he left behind $1.2 million in a baseball building fund and $1.1 million in a baseball operations fund. He's tired of raising money; that doesn't mean he stopped doing it.

“Never in my worst nightmare did I think that something like this was going to happen,” Stephenson said. “I don't know, I just always thought because of our performance, our record, how we built, the money we raised.”

Stephenson can reel off the remarkable Wichita State baseball story: 51-plus wins a season over 36 years; 54 All-Americans; more academic All-Americans, he believes, than any other school. Thirty major leaguers, including Oklahoma City's own Joe Carter. More wins at one school than any coach in NCAA baseball history, 1,837, most of them at Eck Stadium but some of them at McAdams, where a slow-working pitcher might throw off the schedule of Wichita East High School.

“Yeah, it's been tougher lately,” Stephenson said. “There's a lot of competition out there.

“But one thing they cannot do, they can't take the record away. We stand on our record academically, we stand on our record on the field, we stand on our record with the young men we produced.”

Stephenson did the remarkable. He changed a place. A school and a city and in some ways a state. Stephenson says that in 1977, only about eight percent of Kansas high schools played baseball. Now, most of them do.

He's heard from a bunch of people. Tony LaRussa. Tommy Lasorda. Ned Yost. Eric Wedge, the Seattle Mariner manager who played at Wichita State. And hundreds of other former Shockers.

“I love the guys,” Stephenson said. “How do you think I stayed so young? I love the players. I love the interaction with the players. Seeing 'em grow into men.

It's all about the people.”

***

In two hours of conversation at the Hyatt Regency, Stephenson used the word “I” three or four times. He uses the word “we.” We this and we that.

Even tells the story that he disdains iPads and iPhones, bans them from those long bus rides for Missouri Valley road trips to Evansville and Terre Haute, not just because he's anti-technology, he just doesn't like the wording.

“When they make a wePad and a wePhone,” he told his players, “I'm in. They thought that was funny.”

Nobody is laughing now. Not even those who felt it was time for a change in Wichita State baseball.

These are hard times for the crusty Vietnam vet who has spent 36 springs in the Wichita wind, building the greatest baseball story ever told.

Stephenson shed a few tears at his farewell press conference and did the same Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency. He admits he's “going nuts. I have to clear out my office; 36 years of stuff. I'm purposely not going through the stuff I find. Just putting stuff in boxes. I get so emotional.”

That very day, his desk was being removed from Eck Stadium, the same desk he brought to Wichita in 1977, built by a guy who read in The Oklahoman that Stephenson didn't even have a desk in the old cramped quarters of OU's Haskell Park.

The desk has been there from the start. It outlasted its owner by two weeks.

“I love Wichita State,” Stephenson said. “I love Wichita. I had the support of the people for so long. We gave hope to every cold-weather school out there.”

The man with the John Deere hat walked away but left with the words “take care of yourself,” as Stephenson's eyes grew moist again.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.


by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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