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Shocker summer: A look at Gene Stephenson’s first season

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 19, 2014, at 5:31 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 29, 2014, at 6:21 a.m.

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A look back at the players, coaches and moments that make up Wichita State sports history.

Check out our full Shocker Summer section for more stories.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Feb. 26, 1998, as part of a special section looking at the first 20 years of Shocker baseball under Gene Stephenson.

So many times, you couldn’t have blamed Gene Stephenson if he threw up his hands, packed up the U-Haul and headed for something not so impossible.

“I don’t think when I accepted the job that I had any idea how hard it was going to be, “ Stephenson said.

Then again, giving up isn’t Stephenson’s style. Not now, and not back in 1977 and 1978, when he built the foundation that Wichita State baseball stands on today.

“Not many people get an opportunity to start with nothing and have a goal and a dream and get a chance to fulfill it, “ said Terry Jolly, Stephenson’s assistant coach the first four seasons.

By the mid-1970s, Stephenson was ready to be a head coach. He had been an All-America first baseman at Missouri before serving three years in Vietnam. In 1972, he returned to his home state as an assistant coach to Enos Semore at Oklahoma.

While at OU, the Sooners went to five straight College World Series. Stephenson also made extra money as a part-time recruiter for Barry Switzer’s football staff.

But in those days, there weren’t many head-coaching openings, and those were usually already reserved for assistant coaches at that school. In late 1976, Stephenson got word that WSU wanted to reinstate the baseball program that had been dormant since 1970.

“There was no reason to believe that anybody, including people on the inside, had any interest in making it anything more than a club-level sport, “ Stephenson said. “I sent in my application, anyway, but I was very pessimistic about it.”

So was one of the other three finalists, an Arizona junior-college coach named Gary Ward. Yes, the same guy who coached at Oklahoma State for 19 years and helped fuel WSU’s greatest rivalry. The others interviewed were Jack Allen of Ranger (Texas) Junior College and Daryl Spencer, a former major-leaguer who lived in Wichita.

Ward, who resigned as OSU’s coach after the 1996 season because of back problems, had three or four conversations with Bredehoft during the search.

“When Ted called me, I was really interested, “ he said. “But over the next couple of conversations, he couldn’t tell me much. He’d say, ‘We just want a baseball program.’

“I certainly would have taken the Wichita State job if it was more clear-cut as to what we were going to do.”

Stephenson was more of a risk-taker. At 31, he was becoming comfortable with his dual role in Norman. He was making $20,000 a year with perks such as a recruiting car, free clothing through department stores and plenty of Sooner football tickets.

But Stephenson took the WSU job, anyway, and accepted an $8,000 pay cut. He would make $12,000 a year. He later found out he was working on a month-to-month deal.

“I don’t think anyone could say it was a smart move, “ Stephenson said. “I think most people in college baseball thought we were nuts.”

But Stephenson had a vision. He wanted to be a head coach and start a program that could equal all the best programs in the heart of Big Eight country.

“He would spend 18 hours a day on the job, “ said Paula Stephenson, his wife of 32 years. “Those first two years, it was hard to get the attention of that man.”

That’s because Stephenson’s attention was often focused on the drawings residing in Bredehoft’s office. They were drawings of how the new baseball stadium would look when it was built in time for the Shockers’ 1978 opener.

Or at least that’s what Stephenson understood to be the completion date.

“Ted Bredehoft was a master salesman, “ Stephenson said. “He had this drawing on an easel prepared for me every time I saw him, telling me how it was going to be.”

But Stephenson had other problems. He had about a year before his first game, and the only thing he had was a meager budget, an assistant coach and the freedom from Bredehoft to raise money on his own.

“I know he thought I would not have a chance to raise any money, “ Stephenson said. “After all, we had nothing in which to brag about or to show people. It was probably a way to keep me out of his hair.”

Stephenson started at the top. His first sales pitch was to R.D. Hubbard, then-owner of Service Auto Glass. Hubbard was a WSU booster and his company was a long-time sponsor of a National Baseball Congress team. Stephenson figured this was his most promising prospect.

After 1 1/2 hours of pitching his program, Stephenson listened as Hubbard complimented the presentation and ideas.

“He said, ‘But let me explain something,’ ” Stephenson said. “ ‘I’m not going to help you but I’m not going to hurt you. And the reason I’m not going to help you is because that little athletic director out there at Wichita State won’t fire the basketball coach and I’m not doing a thing until that’s taken care of.’ 

Twenty-one years later, with a $6 million renovation of Eck Stadium in the fund-raising stage, Stephenson has written a letter to the R.D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation, reminding it that former basketball coach Harry Miller was fired in 1978 and that donations are welcome.

TOUGH SELL

Stephenson eventually found enough booster money to keep him going, and by the spring of 1977, Stephenson was ready to recruit. He already had several players in mind, guys he knew while at Oklahoma.

Trouble was, recruiting a 25-man roster was much different than bringing in the seven or eight players that make up a normal recruiting year. Stephenson and Jolly often had to take risks with players who had flaws – either academic, personal or emotional.

“So many of those guys were looking for an opportunity, “ said Stephenson, who credits part of his recruiting success to his relationships with pro scouts. “And there wasn’t anyone I wouldn’t go after.”

Recruiting visits consisted of campus tours with sorority girls, a party that night, then a luncheon at the Shocker Club the next day. At the luncheon, Stephenson would bring in the Dean of the recruit’s area of academic interest, a few boosters, and Bredehoft, who would pull out the easel and drawings and impress someone besides Stephenson.

The Shockers’ biggest recruiting tool in the first year was unique: The absolute, 100-percent guarantee of playing time. No team meant no returning players.

“It took a real courageous type of player or a real dumb type of player, “ Stephenson said. “However you want to look at it.”

Considering what Stephenson and Jolly had to work with – or lack of same – WSU had a remarkable first recruiting class. Its first signee, outfielder George Wright, was a high-round draft pick and signed with the Texas Rangers. But other recruits, such as third baseman Mike Davis and pitcher Larry Groves, had their pick of most any school in the country and still chose field-less, equipment-less Wichita State.

Bats, balls and players were in place by the fall of 1977, but a diamond was still a necessity. The Shockers spent time on the marching band’s practice field and faced some junior college teams at McAdams Park. Once winter arrived, WSU’s best bet indoors was at the old North YMCA, where the Shockers practiced in the gym and ran beside the pool.

“If anybody walked in off the street and decided there were going to play basketball, “ Stephenson said, “there was going to be a street fight.”

ROAD WARRIORS

Stephenson tells the story of how his first team traveled to road games in three vans, not by bus. But with only two coaches, one of the players had to drive the third van.

“The thing that scared me most was keeping track of the third van, “ Stephenson said. “We always had to keep it between us, because in the back of my mind, they might turn off somewhere and do God-knows-what.

“We always tried to keep the best citizens in the van driven by the players, and we weren’t always right because we didn’t know the players that well.”

Former first-year players claim that’s an embellishment, but acknowledge the team’s first road trip was memorable.

“I think we were more worried about Gene in the first van,” pitcher-outfielder Matt Yeager (1978-79) said. “Some of the stories about his driving were pretty bad.”

Either way, WSU was a respectable 5-5-1 with one leg of the nine-day, 17-game trip remaining. The Shockers arrived in Lubbock, Texas, one night to prepare for six games with Texas Tech.

The Shockers ate at a local cafeteria that night, and Stephenson noticed the eye contact between the girls working in the serving line and WSU’s catchers, Frank Pena and Phil Cordova.

Stephenson sent his team to their rooms that night with a warning he said was intended specifically for the catchers: Tomorrow starts a big series, so no curfew violations. If you’re caught, you’ll return to Wichita on the slowest mode of transportation.

“I think I made the newspaper back in Wichita, “ Cordova says today, “and it wasn’t for anything good.”

Sure enough, Pena and Cordova were caught being out after curfew, and Stephenson sent them home by bus.

Only one problem: WSU didn’t have any catchers remaining.

“We knew we were going to lose six in a row with no catcher, “ Stephenson said. “But I couldn’t back down on my word and realize these two guys had me buffaloed and the whole team’s got me buffaloed and I’m powerless.”

Stephenson now calls those same rules by another name: policies. Just as important, but they’re handled on a case-by-case basis.

Yeager, who had caught briefly at Seward County Community College before joining WSU, was enlisted as the catcher. Stephenson jokes that he missed more balls than he caught, but the Shockers won both games of the doubleheader the next day.

“Never mind that we got our butts kicked the next four, “ Stephenson said. “We won the first two without a catcher.”

Stephenson reinstated Cordova after two weeks, determining he wasn’t the mastermind behind the plot. Pena returned to the team in 1979. Cordova caught almost every inning of every game the rest of the season, as WSU finished 43-30-1.

WSU played its home games at McAdams Park most of the season, settling into Shocker Field late in the season. But the new field had zero amenities – it would be four more years before dugouts were built.

Stephenson’s off-field battles continued well after the first season. He continually pushed Bredehoft for a stadium, something that didn’t become reality until 1985 – Bredehoft had been gone three years.

“I think Ted Bredehoft had every intention of trying to build a stadium, “ Stephenson said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t have any university support and he probably didn’t have any way of getting it paid for if he did have university support.”

Stephenson later found out how much university support was lacking for baseball during a meeting with then-President Clark Ahlberg.

“The president made it clear to me that what little field was built over there was built against his approval, and that he almost fired the athletic director over him doing that field, anyway, “ Stephenson said. “That’s a humbling, humbling experience.”

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