Todd Butler walked through Eck Stadium on Sunday and let the enormity of the task ahead of him sink in.
He took his time looking at the Ring of Honor out front. The giant mural of Wichita State’s greatest moments and players, which greets fans inside the front gate, stirred up memories.
He walked onto the field and looked back at the 7,851-seat stadium that has housed some of college baseball’s greatest players.
After 36 years, WSU has a new baseball coach in which to invest its hopes and dreams.
“In 23 years, which is almost half my life, this is the finest day of my coaching career,” Butler said Monday when introduced to media and fans at the stadium. “As a young coach, I didn’t want to take a job where I wasn’t prepared to lead men and be in control of my actions and attitude and mind. Where you weren’t able to handle things when you get that big win and everybody gets so excited or when you have that bad loss and you let it affect you for two weeks.
“At an early age, I wasn’t ready to stand here before you. With all the great players I’ve worked with, with all the great coaches I’ve worked with, that is what has prepared me to be a wise and knowledgeable head coach ready to lead a program. “
Butler, 46, an assistant at Arkansas the past eight seasons, has agreed to a seven-year deal worth $300,000 plus incentives annually. A contract has not yet been written, university counsel Ted Ayres said.
Butler’s introduction to Wichita, which culminated in a meet-and-greet with fans Monday night, was the end of 14-day process that started with athletic director Eric Sexton firing longtime coach Gene Stephenson, who re-started the program in 1978 and won a national championship in 1989.
On June 10, sources said Sexton met with Dallas Baptist coach Dan Heefner. Heefner withdrew his name a day later. Sexton wouldn’t talk Monday about other candidates.
Last Wednesday, Sexton traveled to Tulsa — on his way to a national athletic directors convention — to meet with Butler.
“I thought, based on everything that I had, that that was the guy who was right for us and I had nothing disconfirming (that) when we met,” Sexton said.
Butler, who said he interviewed for two other open jobs, said he was offered the WSU job by the end of the meeting. An agreement was in place, though his wife and daughters were traveling and wanted to visit Wichita on Sunday before an announcement.
The Eagle reported Butler’s imminent hiring Saturday afternoon.
Butler coached against WSU in Stephenson’s last game, a 3-1 Razorbacks win June 1 in the NCAA Manhattan Regional.
“I had a chance to see this team play in a regional, and I really liked what I saw,” Butler said. “I won’t know exactly what we have until the fall, though. It’s about assembling a team that has nine players that all work together.”
Butler has been an assistant on five CWS teams at Arkansas and Alabama.
“I want to thank Gene for having the vision, determination and persistence to build this program into what it is,” Butler said. “To start off without a ball, without a bat and then to win a national championship ... I can’t say enough about it.
“Our mission is to get back to Omaha. That’s a bold statement, I know, but the one thing that makes me feel good about it is that it takes five wins. Now there’s 56 games before that that’s a concern, but if you get to that point you just need to win five. Then you need to win five more to win a national championship.”
Butler, who said he has spoken to Stephenson since accepting the job, played at Oklahoma in the 1980s. Stephenson was an asssistant for Butler’s coach, Enos Semore, in the 1970s.
“It was a very fast, very busy week,” Butler said. “I had an interview last week with another university, actually two, but Eric was very quick with the movement to get me and I was very interested from the get-go.”
Butler inherits one holdover from Stephenson’s coaching staff in pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who helped Sexton in the search for a new coach.
“It’s a situation where I’ve known Brent for a long time, I welcome that,” Butler said. “It was a fantastic move, and it helps the transition with me as a head coach. I also believe Brent is the best pitching coach in the country, so it’s fantastic to keep that going.”
Kemnitz, along with several current WSU players, watched Monday’s news conference. WSU president John Bardo and several of WSU’s other head coaches — including men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall, women’s basketball coach Jody Adams and softball coach Kristi Bredbenner, were also there.
“We found out (about Butler) like everybody else, through Twitter and social media,” WSU shortstop Erik Harbutz said. “It was kind of anxious time for all of the players, wanting to know who they were going to hire and which direction the program was headed in.”
After the news conference, one player hugged Sexton and whispered, “Hell of a hire.”
The hiring process included Kemnitz fielding calls from friends in the coaching profession — and having to give them honest evaluations on their chances.
“I took all the calls and I was honest in telling them that I had input, but it wasn’t ultimately my decision,” Kemnitz said. “I didn’t big-league anybody, but about halfway through the process I realized, ‘Hey, we’re eventually going to hire somebody and about half of these guys are going to be mad at me.’”
Ultimately, Sexton went with Butler, who had a direct message to WSU fans.
“We have a great history, but let’s go farther,” Butler said. “Let’s do more. We want you to be a part of this, we want you to be a part of building the relationships needed for continued success.
“In closing, watch out for the Shockers.”