Bob Lutz: Time for a hard look at Shocker baseball

04/28/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 7:05 PM

It’s amazing how many people have opinions about what has changed with Wichita State’s baseball program.

Clearly, something is different. Unless the Shockers receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament next month, they will miss out on the NCAAs for the third year in a row.

That’s startling, considering WSU was in 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1987-2000 and 22 of 23 from 1987-2009.

Much of the debate about where Shocker baseball is and where it’s going centers on Gene Stephenson, the man most responsible for the Shockers’ 1989 College World Series championship and six other CWS appearances. Stephenson is the second-winningest coach in the history of college baseball and continues to nip at the heels of Texas’ Augie Garrido.

Stephenson will be 67 in August and it’s fair to wonder whether his fire rages as intensely as it once did. Stephenson once drew universal support among Wichita State baseball fans, but that support has splintered after four seasons of mediocrity, relative to past achievements.

The Shockers are not what they used to be. They have been an average to slightly-above average team since 2009, amassing a record of 137-91 during that span, a .601 winning percentage.

In Stephenson’s 30 seasons before that, the Shockers won 1,653 games and lost 550, a remarkable .750 winning percentage.

Let’s not get bogged down in the numbers, though. There are ways to spin numbers and the important thing when assessing the state of Shocker baseball is to trust your eyes, not your calculator.

We’re not seeing the same kind of talent on the field that has been so evident for the majority of the Stephenson Era. Since the 2008 team that included Conor Gillaspie, Andy Dirks, Aaron Shafer, Rob Musgrave and numerous others — a team that was one win from reaching the College World Series — there has been a downturn.

Fans notice. Attendance at Eck Stadium has dropped steadily in recent years, from an average of 4,187 in 2008 to 3,839, 3,643, 3,460 and 2,838 in 2012. WSU baseball earned so much goodwill over the course of three decades, but that has started to erode.

Part of it is because of the Shockers’ on-field performance. Another part is because of Stephenson’s off-the-field issues. He agreed to take over as Oklahoma’s coach in 2005, only to decide eight hours after being introduced as coach in Norman that he wanted to return to Wichita State. And in 2008, a woman alleged that Stephenson was stalking her. Eventually, there was an out-of-court settlement, the details of which have remained confidential.

Instead of launching an investigation of its own, WSU did nothing. Athletic director Eric Sexton referred to the matter as a “personal issue.”

Both matters — Stephenson’s decision to accept the job at OU, though briefly, and the allegation of stalking — undoubtedly turned off a portion of Shocker baseball fans.

The biggest issue, though, is what has been, or hasn’t been, happening on the field. Wichita State is still consistently is in the hunt for Missouri Valley Conference championships; the Shockers have finished third, first and second the past three seasons and are in the mix for another top-three finish this season. But the Shockers aren’t dominating the Valley like they used to and their non-conference muscle has diminished.

For years, Stephenson and his coaching staff beat the bushes to find players other coaches weren’t willing to go find. It was a recruiting strategy that paid off big.

But times have changed and it’s much more difficult to find the diamond-in-the-rough players the Shockers once monopolized. Baseball academies, in particular, have made it easier for the big-time programs to keep the big-time players all to themselves. Talented high school players are going to camps, tournaments and showcase events designed to condense the recruiting process.

That has hurt the Shockers, especially when it comes to identifying potential position players. The WSU pitching staff, despite a bit of a down year this season, has remained consistently strong.

With all the changes in college baseball recruiting, it’s also fair to say that Wichita State has been slow to made adjustments. And it’s not like Stephenson or his longtime assistants, Brent Kemnitz and Jim Thomas, to be slow to anything. They are far and away the highest-paid staff in the MVC and one of the highest-paid in the country. With those lucrative salaries comes accountability.

Whatever recruiting strategies have worked in the past aren’t working now. And I refuse to believe that Wichita State has ceased being an attractive destination for high-level high school players.

No, WSU doesn’t have a football program. Yes, the weather can be cold at the beginning of the season.

But how many places in the country have as enthusiastic a fan base? Where are college baseball players more revered?

It’s time for Stephenson to take an analytical look at his program, and he should start with a self-examination. Does he still have the drive that he was so famous for earlier in his career? Does he have the energy? It’s not easy getting older and Stephenson has put a lot of his heart, soul and sweat into Wichita State.

If he decides he’s as gung-ho as ever, then fine. But he has to dig deep to find out why recruiting has fallen off and determine whether he and his coaches have the same eye for talent they once did.

The status quo isn’t working. Dramatic changes are necessary. Stephenson’s loyalty is commendable, but only to a point. Perhaps it would benefit the Shockers to have a young, hungry, dynamic, up-and-coming assistant coach to help energize everyone and to help expand recruiting horizons beyond Kansas, Oklahoma and surrounding states.

Wichita State baseball has much to sell. There can be no more excuses for why things aren’t what they were, only a determined commitment for a return to national prominence.

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