For 35 seasons at Wichita State, loyalty and competition defined coach Gene Stephenson’s life in baseball.
Now those two words are at cross purposes as Stephenson attempts to revive the program he restarted in 1977. He fears his loyalty to players may be hurting the program’s ability to compete. He is strongly considering a tougher approach to roster management, perhaps over-signing recruits to protect WSU from draft losses or cutting players who aren’t meeting standards on the field or elsewhere.
“There are some tough decisions that need to be made, and are contrary to what my heart tells me,” he said. “Our reputation has always been that we try our best to take care of our players. But what I have to get across to our players is that you have an obligation to win like we have in the past.”
Over-signing (promising more scholarships than available) and similar tactics are common at many powerhouse schools, especially in the South. Stephenson said coaches tell him he won’t win big again until he changes. Changes in scholarship limits before the 2010 season forced him to cut aid to some players, but for the most part a scholarship offer to play for the Shockers is a four-year deal.
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“I really care for every player and every family that we have in the program,” Stephenson said. “We do our best to stay with guys, no matter what. But sometimes, we can no longer do it, either from lack of production or lack of performance off the field.”
College baseball’s scholarship limits and the timing of the pro draft complicate recruiting in ways unique to the sport. Teams are allowed 35 players, 27 on scholarship, with 11.7 scholarships to spread around. In past seasons, a player drafted in June could wait until August to decide whether to attend college or sign with a pro team. Many players commit to a college during the summer before their season and sign in the fall. Much can change in the year before they come to school, both with team needs and a player’s ability.
It all adds up to a system that can devastate a roster if safeguards aren’t taken.
The Big 10 allows limited over-signing, and Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn called the policy ridiculous in a 2011 interview with the Omaha World-Herald.
“We signed 16 kids this year, and 13 of them got drafted,” he said. “It’s just the way it is. We should have the freedom to do what we need to do, and we do. The Big Ten doesn’t.You’re never going to be able to compete with southern schools if you don’t let them over-sign. They have good players, but they don’t have enough depth.”
Eastern Oklahoma State College coach Craig Price used to blame NCAA Division I coaches for the problems created by over-signing. Some schools will cut players loose during the summer, limiting their options to find another school. Some bring in large numbers of walk-ons for the fall, removing them from the pool available to other schools, and then cut them before Christmas. The kindest coaches help players find a junior-college where he can earn playing time and make his way back to Division I, perhaps to the same school..
Now Price blames NCAA scholarship limits.
“The kids are the ones who get hurt,” he said. “Coaches, if they don’t have players and they don’t win, they don’t have a job.”
Price, whose team finished one win from advancing to the NJCAA World Series, said his top three players transferred from Division I schools after the fall semester. All three were sophomores who played some as freshmen and were told their playing time would be limited in the future. He saves scholarship money for the spring, knowing big-time schools will cut players after their freshman season and send them to junior colleges.
“They’re normally our best players, because they have such a chip on their shoulder,” he said.
WSU recruiting coordinator Brent Kemnitz is resigned to the fact the Shockers need to act more like the top programs. He doesn’t see WSU going to extremes of over-signing 10 players; he does believe it needs protection against draft losses. WSU’s roster took a major hit when its 2008 freshman class lost three players to the draft. Since then, WSU lost three more players drafted after round 20 with little time to replace them.
“There’s a happy medium,” Kemnitz said. “We don’t want to be a revolving door. We’re just not wired like that. We’ve always been that good guy that’s tried to do things the right way. Some times it’s hurt us. We’ve been a little thin at times.”