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Commentary Bob Lutz: Shocker baseball’s next phase begins now

  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, at 7:59 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, at 6:13 p.m.

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When Todd Butler took over as Wichita State’s baseball coach last June, one important detail of his job requirement was omitted.

He’s not allowed to lose.

With Wichita State’s basketball programs — men’s and women’s — on incredibly long winning streaks, Butler has been given those acts to follow. He and his Shockers will make their debut Friday afternoon at Eck Stadium against SIU-Edwardsville. He takes over for a legend, Gene Stephenson. It’s a little like being handed a kite by Benjamin Franklin.

Butler hasn’t been a head coach in a while, not since his days at McNeese State from 2001-03. It was always going to take a special coach, and person, to take over Shocker baseball in the post-Stephenson era and Butler strikes me as that man.

Consider that the last person to coach a Wichita State baseball game other than Stephenson was Verlyn Anderson, in 1970. Anderson was also an assistant men’s basketball coach, which shows how unimportant baseball was at WSU until Stephenson’s arrival in 1978 after seven years without the sport.

You know all the details about Stephenson’s remarkable success. But it has been 18 years now since the Shockers played in a College World Series. The program isn’t what it used to be and that’s the biggest reason why the uncomfortable change at the top happened.

And while Stephenson took it hard, Butler has been gracious, humble and determined to return Wichita State baseball to prominence.

Just don’t expect it to happen overnight. If it does, great. Just don’t expect it.

Butler is changing 36 years of culture. Not that he came in and switched up everything because there still was plenty about Shocker baseball that worked. But Butler is a 47-year-old go-getter with a lot to prove.

There’s hardly anyplace he hasn’t spoken to. If you belong to a civic organization, church group or you like to gather around a fire on a cold winter’s night, chances are you have heard Butler’s message.

This switch wasn’t guaranteed to go well. Far from it. Stephenson was Shocker baseball. Still is to a lot of people. And Butler understands that. He embraces that. He knows what he’s gotten himself into.

And that’s one of the best things about his first eight months on the job. He is respectful but not intimidated. He has been around baseball long enough to gain confidence, starting with his years as a player at Oklahoma where he played for Enos Semore, who happens to have given Stephenson his first coaching job.

Small world.

Butler was a team captain for OU in 1988 and he still holds the Sooners’ record with 46 steals that season. This is a man who puts his head down and goes for it. And he usually gets in under the tag.

Everybody I’ve talked to about Butler says he has pumped energy into the Shockers’ baseball program. He has high demands and isn’t shy about sharing them.

He inherits a team that was 39-28 in 2013 and was sent home early in the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers aren’t the Monster from the Midwest they once were. In fact, Kansas State is the team being talked about the most from this region.

But it’s not like Wichita State is lacking in talent. The Shockers are the consensus pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference and return key players like Casey Gillaspie, Tyler Baker, Eric Harbutz and Garrett Bayliff.

Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz is the holdover from the previous regime and with good reason. Wichita State pitching has been in the top 20 percent of teams in the country, with little exception, for his 34 years.

Kemnitz provides stability in unstable times. As much as Butler has done to ingratiate himself to Shocker baseball fans, he knows he’ll ultimately be judged on how many games he and his team win. That’s how all coaches — the nice guys and the not so nice — are ultimately evaluated.

Butler is a nice guy, but few in these parts have seen him in a competitive state yet. That starts this weekend with the three-game series against SIU-Edwardsville when Butler, wearing No. 22, will be the first coach other than Stephenson to lead a Shocker team into battle in 2,515 games.

It’ll be strange, no doubt about it.

But Butler is ready for this challenge. Eager for it, in fact. He’s taking over one of the most storied programs in college baseball from one of the sports most iconic coaches.

Now, though, it’s the Butler era. It starts Friday, much as the Stephenson era began on March 12, 1978, with a doubleheader against Emporia State. Wichita State lost the first game of that twin-bill and tied the second. Then the Shockers were outscored 18-4 in a doubleheader loss to Texas Wesleyan.

Things got better.

Let’s see where things go with Butler.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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