The stability that characterizes Wichita State baseball is replaced with uncertainty, anger and sadness as the Shockers prepare for their final home stand.
Coach Gene Stephenson’s contract ends after the 2014 season and there is no indication an extension is likely. That raises the possibility these three games against Northwestern will be the final Eck Stadium games of Stephenson’s 36-year career, should WSU decide to buy out the remaining year on his contract after this season.
“Anything is possible, I suppose,” Stephenson said. “If the university doesn’t want us here, so be it. Those are things I can’t control. We’re doing the best job that we know how.”
What athletic director Eric Sexton wants remains to be seen. He will not address Stephenson’s future or the possibility of a buyout, other than to say all coaches are evaluated after the season.
“The season is still in progress,” he said. “We’re second in the (Missouri Valley Conference), with a chance to be first.”
When asked if these could be Stephenson’s final home games, Sexton shrugged and said “I wouldn’t say that they are going to be his last home games, because he has another year left on his contract.” The Shockers leave Sunday for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in Normal, Ill., where they must win to return to an NCAA regional for the first time since 2009. They trail first-place Illinois State by percentage points and can clinch at least a share of the MVC title if the Redbirds lose one of their games at Southern Illinois in a series beginning Thursday.
Without an extension, two options appear to remain for Stephenson, 67, and the future of the program.
• WSU could fire him after the season and pay the remaining money owed on his contract.
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.
• WSU could let Stephenson coach the final season of his contract, avoiding the buyout, while risking further damage to recruiting and attendance. While coaches secured a full recruiting class for next fall, the uncertainty is hurting recruiting players in the class of 2014, who have no guarantee of being coached during the 2015 season by Stephenson.
Watching this drama closely are fans, many of whom watched Stephenson from the early days of his career at WSU.
“Apparently, the university is not going to renew his contract,” Jerry Aaron said. “With only one more year to go, I can’t imagine how demoralizing it is for Gene to go through that. I deeply respect what Gene has accomplished.”
Stephenson’s accomplishments make him one of college baseball’s pioneers. He is 1,829-672-1, a win total which ranks second among active coaches, in 36 seasons at WSU. He started the program from nothing in 1977 and won the 1989 College World Series. His teams made six other appearances in Omaha, in addition to winning 20 MVC titles. His winning and fund-raising built Eck Stadium into one of college baseball’s top facilities.
However, recent seasons are souring fans on the program. Season-ticket sales are down from 2,885 in 2008 to 2,012. A skybox in Eck Stadium has been unsold the past two seasons. This season’s average attendance of 2,654, damaged by poor weather, is on pace to rank as the lowest since 2,523 in 1999.
Skip Smith, a skybox-holder, said he left WSU’s opening-day loss to Pittsburgh early in the game and hasn’t been back.
“I’m struggling with it,” he said. “For years, I defended Gene to friends and family members. This year, I’ve finally flipped over to the other side.”
Smith is not alone in his sentiments. Many fans — some willing to speak on the record and some not — report a growing lack of interest and rising frustration with losses, Stephenson’s grumpy persona and a failure to reach the NCAA regionals. Most say they believe it is time for a new coach. A few say WSU must act quickly, either extending Stephenson or firing him, to be fair to the coaching staff and athletes and preserve the long-term health of the program.
“I just don’t enjoy it,” said Chris White, a season-ticket holder since the late 1970s. “I don’t have the passion for it. This year, I wasted $1,000 (on tickets). Last year, I wasted about $1,000. Next year, I have to make a decision.”
Allen Boge, a member of the All-American Club, said he was reading comments from angry fans on an Internet message board on Tuesday afternoon. He shares their disappointment.
“The prevailing attitude is that it’s time to move on,” he said. “We’re not getting done what needs to be done. He’s been an outstanding coach. But the last four or five years, there’s no performance.”
Stephenson’s legacy makes the situation more sensitive and complicated than many coaching debates. Fans are watching Sexton to see how he handles what they see as the first big decision of his five years as athletic director. He is in the unenviable position of deciding the future of WSU’s only NCAA team champion coach, one who may wrap up a conference title this weekend.
“It’s a mess,” Smith said. “He’s built an empire. I’d like to see a change, but you feel a little guilty, too. Look what he’s done.”
What Stephenson accomplished will never be duplicated by another college baseball coach. The next few weeks will determine if that legacy extends beyond this season.
Worth noting — Thursday’s game is Military Night and the players will wear patriotic jerseys that will be auctioned off after the game to support the Wounded Warrior Project. Active servicemen and veterans can receive free admission with a military ID. The Shockers ate dinner with veterans from the Wounded Warrior Project on Wednesday.… WSU infielder Cody Bobbit had his cast removed Wednesday. Stephenson said he will not know if Bobbit can play until next week. Bobbit started 20 games at second base and shortstop before breaking his right hand against Kansas State on April 16.… Northwestern will end its season this weekend. The Wildcats did not qualify for the six-team Big Ten tournament.