After a stressful two days of change, things look a little more normal for Wichita State baseball. Everything is different without coach Gene Stephenson, yet much remains the same because pitching coach Brent Kemnitz is still around.
“It’s going to make everything more smooth,” pitcher Kris Gardner said. “It’s going to be a good setup for any new coach coming in. Brent is a cool guy, an interesting guy. It seems like he gets along with everybody.”
WSU fired Stephenson after 36 seasons on Tuesday. At the same time, athletic director Eric Sexton announced that Kemnitz, an assistant to Stephenson for 35 seasons, will remain on the coaching staff and receive a contract extension.
Sexton called him an important bridge from past success to the future. Kemnitz, while praising his former boss, didn’t seem the least bit devastated by Tuesday’s events. In contrast, he seemed energized and challenged by the prospects of change during an impromptu round of radio and TV interviews on Wednesday.
“Gene will go down as the greatest coach in the history of college baseball,” Kemnitz said. “To be involved with Wichita State baseball, as we move forward, excites me. I can sell the city. I can sell the university and I can sell the baseball program and do it with total belief and total passion.”
Kemnitz said he believes his presence is a positive for the search. While some coaches may hesitate to look at a job with a holdover from the previous staff in place, Kemnitz maintains his experience and success with pitchers should make the opening attractive. For proof, he points to texts and voicemails on his phone from coaches interested in the job. He is not a candidate for the head coaching job and said he will help with the search.
“I’m on all-time high right now thinking about the excitement of the future,” he said. “You’re not inheriting a guy who is staying here because he had no other choice. I like my niche.”
Kemnitz joined Stephenson in 1979 as a graduate assistant and became a full-time assistant in 1980. His pitching staffs regularly rank among the nation’s leaders in earned-run average, finishing first in 1982 and 1991, second in 2007 and third in 2002. Fourteen of his pitchers reached the major leagues and 11 earned first-team All-America honors. He is popular with former players, often getting together with them on the road or trading texts. He may be the nation’s only pitching coach with a radio show.
“You’ve got a guy who knows how everything works,” former WSU pitcher Jaime Bluma said. “He’s been through so many different personalities, he’s good with dealing with anybody.”
Kemnitz also serves as the team’s recruiting coordinator and handles scheduling duties.
“I’m somebody who has a passion for what’s going on here,” he said. “I’m connected from a recruiting standpoint, connected in Wichita. I’m a link to what’s going on right now.”
Stephenson lost his job, in large part, because the Shockers won one Missouri Valley Conference title and played in two NCAA regionals the past five seasons. The new coach must get the Shockers back on top of the MVC and in position to earn NCAA at-large bids. If the new coach sees a different way of doing business, Kemnitz is open to listen.
The Shockers finished 2013 with a 39-28 record, finishing second in the MVC. They won the conference tournament to return to a regional for the first time since 2009.
“I’m easy to work with,” he said. “I’m going to work for him. I’m going to respect whatever the new guy’s passion is, whatever his vision is. New, fresh ideas, that’s a good thing.”
Kemnitz is contacting returning players and recruits to let them know the situation. For both groups, his presence is comforting during a trying time.
“You want someone in the program who knows a little bit about you,” infielder Erik Harbutz said. “This was not something we expected. We came in with Gene. He was our coach.”
On Monday, Stephenson met with the players and sent them to their summer destinations. While the players sensed the coming news, they left uncertain of the next step. The next step includes Kemnitz, the guy who has been running “flow” meetings for pitchers before practice and standing at the opposite end of the dugout from Stephenson during their careers.
“We definitely wanted to see a familiar face coming back,” WSU junior pitcher Aaron LaBrie said. “He’s a positive-energy guy.”
Both Sexton and Kemnitz said the search for Stephenson’s successor will include a wide range of candidates. Kemnitz’s presence may suggest a former Shocker is on tap. Kemnitz said they will not limit themselves to people with WSU ties.
“You need a guy that will embrace the past, that will embrace Gene Stephenson and what he’s done,” Kemnitz said. “A Wichita State guy obviously knows what it takes to play here and win here. If you go outside the family, I think Wichita State’s history speaks for itself.”
WSU signed 10 players in November and Kemnitz said he believes all remain on board. Things could change after the Major League draft that begins Thursday night.
Pitchers Brandon Peterson and Albert Minnis are the current Shockers most likely to be selected in the early rounds. Baseball America ranks Peterson the No. 2 prospect in the state and No. 238 nationally.
Baseball America ranks pitcher Sam Tewes, from Waverly (Neb.) High, as the state’s top prospect and ranks him No. 175 nationally. Kemnitz said he could go in the top five rounds.
“I think we’re safe with him,” Kemnitz said. “He could potentially be a high draft, but I think he really sees the benefits of going to college and, in particular, coming to Wichita State with the tradition we have of developing pitchers.”
Tewes, on Tuesday, caught advance word of Kemnitz remaining on the staff and liked that possibility.
“I’m not really wavering,” he said. “I’m pretty much sold on Wichita State.”
Creighton pitcher Tommy Strunc, Missouri State pitcher Jon Harris, Bradley shortstop Tyler Leffler, Dallas Baptist outfielder Austin Listi and Missouri State outfielder Tate Matheny were also named to the team.