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.
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 email@example.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.