Arlene Klaassen walked to the window in the All-American Club at Eck Stadium on Monday, new Wichita State baseball coach Todd Butler in tow, and pointed toward Section C, Row 6, Seats 1 and 2 – right along the third-base line.
Right where Klaassen and her husband, Arnie, have had their season tickets the past six years.
“Those are good seats,” Butler said, smiling. “Right in the shade.”
And so begins the tenure of the first new WSU baseball coach in 36 years.
Butler, a longtime Arkansas assistant, had a busy day, meeting and greeting fans for two hours following an introductory press conference. Shocker faithful came up to the All-American Club to meet the new coach, waiting in line to wish him luck, tell him where season ticketholders’ seats were located or just see what he was about.
Butler replaces Gene Stephenson, who was fired on June 4 after reviving the baseball program in 1978. Stephenson, the second-winningest coach in college baseball history, lost his final game 3-1 to Arkansas on June 1 in an NCAA Regional at Manhattan.
“Gene Stephenson and I have a relationship that dates back to 1986, when he recruited me,” Butler said. “I’m proud of him, and I’m thankful for all the things we have here. The relationships he built with his teams and his players … and the winning. I’m so proud to have this opportunity, and I’m very humbled.”
Monday’s time with the fans could be the last before the season starts as Butler was planning on hitting the recruiting trail Tuesday morning.
“We thought it was important to let our fans come and have the opportunity to shake hands and put a face with a name,” WSU senior associate athletic director Darron Boatright said. “I think when someone new comes into a situation like this, both sides feel better the quicker they meet. Our fans were eager to meet (Butler), and they’re passionate about this team.
“Time is of the essence here, so we thought we’d pack it all into one day. Once the sun comes up tomorrow morning, Todd is going to work.”
Craig Rindt was among the fans waiting to meet Butler and also pointed out to him where his seats were – almost directly opposite of the Klaassens along the first-base line.
“I was kind of hoping for (Wingnuts manager Kevin) Hooper, but from what I’ve heard about (Butler), he seems energetic and the right guy for the job,” Rindt said. “The last couple of years were tough to watch the team, and I think I only went to 15 home games this year, but what was different lately was that you could see the handwriting on the wall for Gene.”
The connection to the past hasn’t been completely severed for the Shockers – longtime pitching coach Brett Kemnitz has been retained for Butler’s coaching staff.
“I think it’s a great day for a revival, a great day for Shocker baseball,” WSU fan Gary Tindall said. “You don’t replace a legend, but it was time for some new blood. The first thing (Butler) said to me when we talked was that he was ready to go out and recruit. We need somebody like that, who will go out and pound the pavement. That’s exciting to hear.”
Butler also spoke of bridging the gap between himself and former Shockers, several of whom were in attendance Monday.
“I wanted to come and introduce myself and wish (Butler) the best,” said former WSU outfielder Bret Bascue. “For the former players, this is where we played … this is where we have all those memories. We love Gene, and he’s the reason (Eck Stadium) is even here. There will always be a place for him here. But we’ve all got to accept this, embrace it and hope everything works out for both of them.”