Wichita State fired Gene Stephenson as a baseball coach and he wants people to know.
“We would never quit,” he wrote in a text message after his public comments Tuesday failed to clarify the exact nature of his departure.
In four words, Stephenson summed up the attitude behind his history-making career at WSU. He spent 36 years at the same school, with the same three assistant coaches for the bulk of that time. He ignored overwhelming odds and built a powerful program at an unlikely place. The “we” of Stephenson, Brent Kemnitz, Jim Thomas and Loren Hibbs refused to back down from the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas and LSU in the battle for college baseball supremacy.
Despite a five-season decline in NCAA appearances, victories and attendance, he was not ready to quit. WSU athletic director Eric Sexton, however, decided the team needed a new coach. Stephenson’s contract runs through the 2014 season and Sexton said he will be paid the $531,131 owed on that final year.
“I am sorely disappointed at how this went down,” Stephenson said during the news conference at the All-American Club atop Eck Stadium. “We gave 36 years of our very best. We were blessed very many times over in return.”
University counsel Ted Ayres watched as the lone university representative. Later, Sexton spoke to The Eagle in his office and called the decision a difficult one.
“Ultimately, we have to focus on what is the long-term best interest of a great long-term program,” he said. “I can’t think of programs that have a single chapter that has been written so storied and so great, under Gene Stephenson’s leadership. It is time for us to look for that second chapter.”
Stephenson’s 7-minute, 13-second comments began with him admitting he expected to break down in tears. He spoke without notes. He teared up for the first time 80 seconds into his talk as he thanked his players.
He said he wants to coach again. He said he is proud to leave the program with good returning players and recruits. He mentioned that he worked with five presidents and 10 athletic directors. He also claimed to leave the program in good financial shape, with around $1 million from fund-raising efforts and another $1 million in reserve for another baseball facility project.
“I want to thank the fans, the boosters, the people who have contributed their time and their money to help make this program something special,” he said.
It ended with him choking back tears and leaving without taking questions. Former players Chris Wimmer, Casey Walkup, J.R. DiMercurio and Shane Dennis, the program’s director of operations since 2000, escorted him to the elevator.
“I love all the players who ever played for us,” Stephenson said. “I wish the program the very best, the university the very best.”
He met with his players for a final time on Monday before sending them off for the summer. While he didn’t reveal his fate, most knew the end seemed inevitable.
“It’s hard for him to have to go through something like this,” senior pitcher T.J. McGreevy said. “Everyone in that room loves him.”
On Tuesday, many of his players, current and former, paid tribute on Twitter.
“I was so blessed to be able to play under Gene Stephenson. I only wish it could’ve been more than just one year,” freshman catcher Parker Zimmerman wrote.
“I’m proud and honored to have had the opportunity to play for a legend in college baseball,” former pitcher Jordan Cooper wrote.
Stephenson, 67, is 1,837-675-3 and his wins rank second among career NCAA Division I coaches. He coached WSU to seven College World Series and won the school’s lone NCAA title, in 1989.
WSU athletic director Ted Bredehoft hired Stephenson in 1977 to revive a dormant program for the 1978 season. He did so with spectacular results and finished second in the CWS in 1982. The Shockers hit their peak starting with a College World Series appearance in 1988 and spent the next 12 seasons as one of the nation’s elite programs. After winning the CWS in 1989, WSU finished second in 1991 and 1993. It made its last trip to Omaha in 1996. The 1998 and 1999 teams entered the regionals highly ranked before losing in disappointing fashion at Eck Stadium.
The Shockers qualified for a regional from 1988 to 2000. After missing out in 2001, WSU returned for the next eight seasons. In 2002, it hosted a regional for the first time since 1999. The Shockers advanced to the regional championship round four straight years before breaking through in 2007 by winning the Wichita Regional over Arizona.
WSU hosted its first super regional that year, losing two games to Cal Irvine. The Shockers won their second straight regional in 2008, winning at Oklahoma State. They won the first game of the super regional at Florida State before losing the next two.
That season marked the last great one of Stephenson’s tenure.
WSU slipped to 30-27, his lowest win total, in 2009 and needed to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to play in a regional. The Shockers didn’t return to an NCAA regional until 2013, again needing to win the automatic bid in the conference tournament. The Shockers shared the 2010 MVC regular-season title, its lone conference title since winning it in 2007 and 2008.
Stephenson’s final season started when Pittsburgh swept the Shockers at Eck Stadium, his first sweep at home. WSU finished second in the MVC before winning the tournament to return to a regional at Manhattan. Kansas State defeated WSU 20-11 in its regional opener, the most runs allowed in NCAA play by the Shockers. Arkansas eliminated WSU 3-1 on Saturday. The Shockers finished the season 39-28.
Under Stephenson, the Shockers earned 28 NCAA appearances, 20 MVC regular-season titles and 18 tournament titles. His players earned 27 Academic All-America honors, which WSU’s research contends is the most in the nation since 1982.
Stephenson hurt his standing with some fans with two episodes, one not related to baseball.
In the summer of 2005, he briefly accepted the coaching job at Oklahoma. He, Kemnitz and Thomas were introduced at a Norman news conference before Stephenson later in the day called OU and said he would not take the job.
During the 2008 season, a woman accused Stephenson of stalking her, a case that ended with a confidential out-of-court settlement.
A third episode damaged the image of the program. In 1999, WSU pitcher Ben Christensen hit Evansville’s Anthony Molina in the head with a baseball while Molina was preparing to hit before a game at Eck Stadium. The MVC suspended Christensen suspended for the rest of the season and Kemnitz for 14 games.