Gene Stephenson’s future as baseball coach at Wichita State is uncertain. The coach who won the school’s only NCAA championship and is regarded as one of the game’s innovators is staring at the end of his contract after the 2014 season.
WSU athletic director Eric Sexton said the two discussed an extension. However, he has not offered one to Stephenson and his contract remains scheduled to end on June 30, 2014.
Stephenson received a five-year extension in 2009, the routine duration for extensions during his 36 seasons at WSU.
“Coach and I have had conversations, and he understands where we’re at on that issue,” Sexton said.
That position, from all appearances, is that Sexton is not eager to offer an extension. Sexton said Stephenson, 67, will be evaluated at the end of the 2013 season.
“Standard practice,” Sexton said. “That does not change.”
The situation puts WSU coaches at a recruiting disadvantage compared to schools with coaches on longer contracts. It also means Sexton faces deciding the future of the program and one of the sport’s giants, a coach who started with nothing at WSU and built a powerhouse against great odds.
Stephenson declined to comment beyond expressing optimism for the season, which begins Friday against Pittsburgh.
“We can only control what goes on on the field,” he said. “We believe we’re going to have a have a good team and we’re going to win. We’re going to go out and compete with the best of them every day.”
The Shockers are trying to end a three-season absence from the NCAA regionals, the program’s longest drought since Stephenson revived baseball at WSU in 1978. WSU played in an NCAA super regional in 2007 and 2008 and went 0-2 in the 2009 NCAAs, its last appearance. It last won the Missouri Valley Conference title in 2010, finishing second in 2011 and third in 2012.
While attendance can be affected by weather and hosting the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, recent declines are also attributed to discontent with the program. Attendance dropped from a high average of 4,257 in 2007 to last season’s average of 3,013, which ranked 20th nationally.
“We are not meeting our own personal expectations,” Sexton said. “You’ve heard Coach say it. We’re both thinking the same thing. We’ve got to continue to strive to meet what has been set as a pretty high bar.”
Stephenson’s salary is $531,131. Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who makes $139,928, is on the same contract schedule as Stephenson. Assistant coach Jim Thomas, who makes $101,510, is on a year-to-year contract. Kemnitz joined Stephenson’s staff as a graduate assistant in 1979. Thomas played at WSU from 1979-82 and returned as a coach in 1992.
Stephenson and his coaches are recruiting players from the class of 2014, many of whom will commit over the summer and sign in November. Those players have no guarantee that the current coaching staff will be in place when they come to campus in August 2014.
In many cases, five-year deals are standard for recruiting purposes, although Sexton said his research revealed some coaches operate on shorter deals.
Kansas coach Ritch Price, who makes $225,000, has a contract running through 2017, equipped with a $500,000 retention bonus at that time. Kansas State coach Brad Hill, who makes $235,000, received an extension through 2015 in 2010. He receives a retention bonus of $125,000 in 2015.
“I am sensitive to that issue,” Sexton said. “As well as I am sensitive to the position where our program is at and the notion of continuing to focus on excellence… which supports the ability to have sustained success, which is what recruits are looking for, as much as they are looking for specific connections. It is a balancing act.”
Stephenson’s contract situation is common knowledge, say people involved in high school baseball. In most cases, contract status is something athletes and parents will ask about.
“There’s no question you want stability and you want to show stability on a piece of paper to recruits,” said Kendall Rogers, managing editor of college baseball for perfectgame.org, a website specializing in ranking and scouting prospects.
Mark McBratney, owner and operator 360 Sports Training and Development and Wichita Sluggers Academy, said he often is questioned about Stephenson’s future by athletes and their parents. He said he believes WSU’s allure with local players will remain strong and lost ground can be recovered, assuming the coaching future is solidified.
“It could easily affect recruiting,” he said. “It makes them wonder, ‘What should I do?’ If they’re unsure, they’re going to talk to more people.”
Despite WSU’s recent performance, the program remains strongly linked to Stephenson’s record of success. In Rogers’ mind, it is difficult to reconcile Shocker baseball making a break with Stephenson’s influence.
“I’m not sure I’d call it an unstable situation, because it’s Gene Stephenson and it’s Wichita State,” he said.
Stephenson’s winning percentage of .735 ranks seventh among all coaches and his 1,798 wins are second, behind Texas’ Augie Garrido’s 1,847. His teams made seven College World Series appearances, winning it in 1989. The Shockers also claim 27 NCAA appearances and 20 MVC regular-season titles in his tenure. His players earned 27 Academic All-America honors, which WSU’s research contends is the most in the nation since 1982.
Sexton professes a great admiration for Stephenson’s history.
“He has brought us to the point and his level of success is virtually unmatched,” Sexton said. “He has built a program of which we are significantly proud of.”
To this point, however, the contractual expression of that pride ends on June 30, 2014.