Gene Stephenson prides himself as a fighter, and he’s won a bunch of baseball games and made a lot of money because of his teeth-clinching grit.
Now, though, it’s time to lay down the arms. It’s time for Stephenson, Wichita State’s iconic baseball coach who built a program from scratch and took it to seven College World Series, to peacefully accept his fate while shielding his legacy.
That’s not Stephenson’s style, and there is no guarantee he will be docile when it’s announced that his 36-year run as one of college baseball’s most successful coaches has come to an end.
But I hope he is. For his sake and for the sake of the program, its fans and players and, most of all, for Stephenson’s tremendous legacy, one that ranks up there with the job Bill Snyder has done as Kansas State’s football coach.
Stephenson has consistently carried an “Us vs. Them” mentality and it’s one that has served him well when it comes to winning games and building facilities. But there is no need for angry words or finger pointing anymore.
His occasional vitriolic way has not helped him create good relationships inside his own athletic department. He is a proud man who turned being told “no” into 1,837 wins and one of the country’s finest college baseball stadiums in a place where there was once nothing.
When Stephenson arrived at WSU in 1977, after being an assistant at Oklahoma, there was nothing. No bats, no balls. Nothing.
Eck Stadium is his. He helped build it by raising millions of dollars and he helped put fans in the seats by recruiting big-league talent.
But that was then. And this is now. Life evolves and the Shockers, who went to the CWS seven times from 1982 through 1996, haven’t been once since.
Wichita State hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008. The Shockers once cleaned up in the Missouri Valley Conference. Now it’s a yearly dogfight.
Former Shockers used to dot the rosters of major-league teams. Now you have to search hard to find them. The program has slipped, partly because other schools in the Midwest and nationally are putting more resources into baseball than ever.
But the Shockers have slipped also because the Shockers have simply slipped. It’s not the program it once was and after every excuse for that fact has been exhausted, it’s still the truth.
Wichita State never had to keep up with the Joneses back in the day because Wichita State’s last name was Jones.
Somewhere along the way, the Shockers lost that edge. They have too many average players, play in an average conference and are led by a coach who shows his wear and tear with every frustrated trip to the mound.
So Stephenson is faced with a choice. He can graciously bow out as Shocker fans shower him in rose petals. Or he can be nasty and chide the men — WSU president John Bardo and athletic director Eric Sexton — entrusted to make these difficult decisions.
Stephenson makes a lot of money. He was given raise after raise during the Shockers’ glory years and rightly so. But there is an economic element to this story and Wichita State can no longer justify paying a baseball coach more than a half-million dollars a year for the results Stephenson is getting.
The financial part of this equation is simple. The human part is not.
Stephenson has been a tireless worker and rarely wasted a second. The results were phenomenal for a long time.
From 1988-93, when the Shockers went to Omaha five times in six years, there wasn’t a better program or coach in the country. It’s the kind of stuff Hollywood makes movies about.
Stephenson’s teams in those days were tough, determined and talented. He was brash, outspoken and self-assured.
It’s not that way anymore.
This has to be tough on Stephenson, who lost some credibility with Shocker fans when he briefly took the Oklahoma job in 2005 only to renege hours after putting on an OU jersey during a news conference in Norman to announce his hiring.
Wichita State took him back and he led the Shockers to super regionals against Cal Irvine (2007) and Florida State (2008).
The past five years, though, have produced no resume-building achievements.
Now, though, just one question remains: How does Stephenson want this to end?
You’ve been a marvelous baseball coach for many years, Gene. Your name will forever be associated with some of the greatest success in Shocker history.
Don’t try to tear down what you built.
Easier said than done, I know. This has to be an emotionally crushing time.
But Wichita State baseball will always be your baby. I just hope you don’t throw it out with the bath water.