Former Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson belongs on the Mount Rushmore of college baseball, according to Baseball America writer Aaron Fitt.
Since coaches such as Skip Bertman, Ron Fraser, Augie Garrido and Rod Dedeaux aren’t available to replace Stephenson, WSU must find somebody else, somebody willing to build a resume at the program Stephenson built.
Athletic director Eric Sexton said the search is open to all, not just those with Shocker roots.
Whomever WSU selects, he must be willing to work with constant reminders of Stephenson’s success. Stephenson, fired on Tuesday, worked for 36 years to build a winning tradition and 7,851-seat Eck Stadium. Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who worked with Stephenson for 35 seasons, remains as a member of the coaching staff, a move Sexton believes will help the transition.
“It needs to be somebody that has unbelievable confidence, somebody that is not afraid of following Gene Stephenson,” Kemnitz said. “Somebody that sees what is in place and uses that to their benefit.”
The assets Stephenson, 67, built since taking over in 1977 didn’t disappear.
“They can be a perennial regional team,” Fitt said. “This is Wichita State. That name matters.”
The consensus is WSU offers a coach possibilities that match almost any school. But membership in the Missouri Valley Conference is a problem, because it makes building a lofty power ranking (RPI) difficult. Kansas weather needs no explanation. And high school talent in the state is limited by its small population and competition is fierce with two Big 12 schools.
Still, by most other measures, WSU is a top-level program with great potential.
“We have facilities that are clearly in the top of the country,” Sexton said. “We have a support system that we believe is second to none for the program, as well as a community that believes in Shocker baseball.”
Several people with past or current ties to the program spoke under the condition of anonymity, to avoid being perceived as criticizing Stephenson, about what attributes the next coach needs to succeed:
• Improving the program starts with recruiting.
In the past two seasons, the Shockers totaled fewer All-Missouri Valley Conference picks than Illinois State and Missouri State and the same number (three) as Bradley, Southern Illinois and Indiana State. This will likely be the second straight season no Shocker earns All-America honors. Former catcher Chris O’Brien (2011) is the only Shocker to earn first-team All-America honors since 2008. Baseball America hasn’t seen fit to honor a Shocker since 2008 on its All-America teams.
The next coach needs to be young, someone who will hit the road to recruit and relate effectively with teenagers. Stephenson’s regular complaints about a lack of toughness and baseball smarts by modern players helped sour fans on his tenure.
In addition to helping with recruiting and player development, a youth movement should play well with fans and signal Shocker baseball is moving forward.
The hiring of a second assistant coach can help with his area. That assistant should be an aggressive recruiter, one equally comfortable at national showcase events and American Legion games in a small Oklahoma town. Again, age and the ability to communicate with players is seen as critical. A coach who can bring new geographic recruiting ties, such as ones in Texas, would be attractive.
• Hitting, hitting, hitting.
Kemnitz covers the pitching. The new coach, and the new assistant, must teach hitting when they’re not recruiting.
Since 2005, WSU hit better than .300 twice (2006 and 2008). It hasn’t led the MVC in hitting since 2008, although this season’s average of .292 represented an improvement over the past two seasons. The Shockers hit 24 home runs in 2013, tied for second in the MVC, a drop from 2011 (41) and 2012 (31). Doubles also declined, from 122 in 2011 to 102 in 2013.
Defense also matters. At least one of the new coaches must be able to work with the fielders. That area is a strength for the Shockers, who set a program record with a fielding percentage of .977 this season.
• A style of play should recall Stephenson’s teams at their best.
Many of his top teams put pressure on defenses with speed and daring, using the hit and run and stolen bases. He surrounded power hitters with speed guys and set them loose.
With the BBCOR bats lowering scoring, bunting and execution matter more than in the juiced-up bashing days of aluminum bats. One run seems to mean more, because your cleanup hitter is less likely to bail out the offense with a three-run home run. That doesn’t mean Shocker fans want to see Creighton-style small ball, with sacrifice bunts in the first inning.
A new coach must blend his game plan with talent. Playing that aggressive style, especially on WSU’s home turf, seems to make sense.
• Head coaching experience is preferable, but not mandatory.
• Stephenson raised money for much of his tenure. That job now largely falls on specialists in the athletic department. Fund-raising, however, is always important and any new coach must be willing to chat up boosters, attend banquets and auction off his time for the good of the program.
• The new coach can’t be attached to the No. 10, the one worn by Stephenson. Nobody gets to wear that number again.