Bob Lutz: Kevin Hooper has what it takes to coach Wichita State baseball

06/06/2013 5:19 PM

06/07/2013 10:17 PM

The baseball coach who replaces Gene Stephenson at Wichita State better come with cast-iron resolve and the ability to glance respectfully backward while keeping his eyes on the future.

The new coach needs to be able to recruit, teach, coordinate, administrate, orchestrate, sing, dance and tell jokes.

There will be people — and not just Stephenson supporters upset by the way his ousting came about this week — on the lookout for any misstep. They will be in wait to pounce on the first sign of weakness or doubt.

It will be especially difficult for anyone deemed an outsider.

Wichita State isn’t embarking on just any coaching search. The Shockers are trying to find someone to replace a legend, an icon, an all-time great.

It helps that 35-year WSU assistant Brent Kemnitz is still around. Not only is Kemnitz an outstanding pitching coach, he’s a sturdy bridge between the past and the future of Shocker baseball. The new coach will be able to lean on Kemnitz’s knowledge of the program. That’s a big plus.

But Kemnitz can only do so much. Ultimately, the new coach will have to swim on his own merits. Or sink, but nobody wants to even consider the ramifications of that possibility.

There is one obvious candidate. He has been an obvious candidate for a while now, even before Stephenson was let go by those who saw the end coming.

His name is Kevin Hooper and he has important ties to the Shocker program. He played for WSU from 1996-99. He arrived as a wisp of a middle infielder and left four years later to embark on a 10-year professional playing career that culminated with one big-league hit with the Detroit Tigers in 2005.

Hooper has always had to listen to people telling him he wasn’t good enough. That, as much as anything, inspired him to become good. He was a good player, a good coach and is now a good manager.

He’s a winner, plain and simple. That’s a term thrown around too often, but with Hooper it fits. He reminds me of Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall in that way. And of Stephenson during his many glory years.

Hooper, 36, is family man who loves Wichita and WSU. He has no college coaching experience, and while that’s a legitimate concern, it shouldn’t be one that slams the door in his face. He recruits long and hard to fill the Wingnuts roster every season. And while that’s not going into the living room of a prospective college player and selling him and his parents on why Wichita State is the best place to be, it’s getting somebody to tell you “yes.”

Besides, all you have to do is talk to Hooper for five minutes before you’re sold on whatever it is he’s hawking. He’s passionate, but not fake.

The Shockers need a Shocker and Hooper is as Shocker as they come. He was touched by the baseball program as a player, as so many were, and when his time was finished in professional baseball he returned to his college baseball home.

Sometimes the best choice is the one right in front of your face. And while I applaud Wichita State’s spoken desire to conduct a national search for Stephenson’s replacement, I think the best candidate is in their backyard.

This is an attractive job. Don’t buy the bunk that WSU can never be as successful as it was during the heydays of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, it’s unlikely Wichita State can ever go to five College World Series in six years the way it did from 1988-93, it’s just as unlikely the Shockers can’t set their sites realistically on Omaha from time to time.

Hooper was a gutsy player and he has the same intensity as a manager. But it rarely boils over.

He’s level-headed and smart. He knows baseball and he would equally impress WSU’s biggest donor and the guy who sits on the outfield hill at Eck Stadium with a bag of popcorn.

Hooper isn’t a slam dunk for the WSU job because there are many other qualified candidates. But none have Hooper’s package of familiarity, loyalty, knowledge and reverence for the history of Shocker baseball.

Hooper is one of Stephenson’s favorite Shockers. He embodies the kind of player the former coach pushed others to be. Hooper squeezed every ounce of ability out of his diminutive frame. The guy batted .402 in 1999.

But it’s not fair to call Hooper an over-achiever. People with his drive and ambition rarely over-achieve, even though they set the bar extraordinarily high.

Hooper would work tirelessly to succeed, which is what he’s done his whole life. Nothing in baseball came easy. He toiled away in the minor leagues forever, it seemed, before finally getting a chance. He’s one of few players in major-league history to finish his career with one hit.

There’s symbolism there. Hooper was the farthest thing from a big-league prospect when he first put on a Wichita State uniform. But he made it.

He found a way to make it.

Athletic director Eric Sexton will find attractive candidates. I don’t think he’ll find one more attractive than Hooper, who has been proving himself his whole life.

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