Gene Stephenson enters College Baseball Hall with well-developed coaching tree

06/21/2014 5:13 PM

08/08/2014 8:25 PM

When P.J. Forbes, perhaps weighing 140 pounds, came to Wichita State in 1986, reality hit with an assessment from coach Gene Stephenson.

“He told me I’m not big enough, not fast enough and not strong enough,” Forbes said. “That kind of punched me in the eye. He flat-out told me I was going to have to play smart to beat the game.”

So much for Forbes’ dreams of starting as a freshman. Forbes listened to Stephenson, worked on his skills and started as a sophomore on his way to a career that briefly carried him to the major leagues.

He is one of numerous Stephenson players now coaching in the professional or college ranks, part of a legacy that will be celebrated on Saturday. Stephenson, WSU’s coach from 1978 to 2013, will be inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas.

Stephenson’s coaching tree ranges from Eric Wedge, who managed the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners, to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville assistant Danny Jackson. Mark Standiford is building an NAIA power at Tabor College. Loren Hibbs, a former player and assistant, took over at Charlotte in 1993 after helping Stephenson build his national power. Arnie Beyeler is first-base coach for the Boston Red Sox and Kevin Hooper is in his sixth season managing the Wichita Wingnuts. Phil Stephenson, Gene’s brother, completed his ninth season at Dodge City Community College.

WSU’s 2014 media guide lists 16 former Stephenson players and assistants now in coaching and there may be more.

When they speak of Stephenson’s influence on their career, they often start with his ability to push players and get the most out of them.

Just like when he challenged a little guy from Pittsburg and turned into him a defensive wonder at second base and a career .311 hitter.

“He knew I would respond,” said Forbes, now managing a Los Angeles Dodgers Class-A team. “He knew who he had to love up. He knew who he had to flat kick in the ass.”

Stephenson wants little credit for developing a line of coaches. He said he started out to build athletes into good people, no matter the line of work. He said he started seasons by telling his players to become the best possible students, players and sons. WSU produced 27 academic All-Americans (a total it claims led the nation from 1982-2013) and two NCAA academic Players of the Year during his tenure.

“That’s far more important to me,” he said. “I think we did a great job developing young men into responsible and accountable people. There were going to be some players who wanted to be like us.”

Wedge, the 2007 American League manager of the year with Cleveland, learned how the tough times of baseball can prepare a person for real life. Stephenson’s insistence on doing things the right way, on and off the field, helped with that lesson.

“I don’t know how you could go through that program and come out without being a better person,” Wedge said. “He’s a big part of who I am.”

That same influence extends to a younger generation of Shockers. Jackson, who played on the 2007 NCAA super regional team, majored in psychology and considered a job with a bipolar disorder organization or in medical sales. When the El Dorado Broncos offered him a summer job as a hitting coach, he asked Stephenson.

“Gene said you need to take this job and get into coaching,” Jackson said. “I guess he saw something in me, maybe how I worked with younger guys. Maybe because I didn’t mind standing up and arguing with him.”

Stephenson worked the phones to get him an NCAA Division I job. Jackson coached three seasons as a volunteer assistant at Saint Louis before coming to SIU-E in 2010.

“I love it,” he said. “The one thing I took away from Gene and WSU was the energy and enthusiasm for the game. I don’t think many people know about his enthusiasm for the game. When we didn’t have it and he did, we would feed off him.”

Stephenson played a similar role as mentor for Beyeler. After playing in Triple-A in 1991, Beyeler returned to Wichita with an offer to work as a scout. The lure of playing remained strong. Stephenson pointed out the upside of being a young man in the scouting business, as opposed to a utility player in the minor leagues at 27.

“He always cared enough to get to know people,” Beyeler said. “Once you’ve been through there and played for him, you were part of the family.”

Russ Morman, manager of Double-A Richmond, got his start as WSU’s designated hitter in 1982. Those were the days before Stephenson coached third base and Morman paid attention as Stephenson discussed strategy in the dugout. When to hit and run? How is the pitcher attacking hitters? How does the outfield play a pull hitter?

“I was always listening,” Morman said. “I got some extra information that way.”

Standiford, who took Tabor to its first NAIA World Series this spring, patterned building his program after what Stephenson did at WSU. Phil Stephenson is also making progress at a school with little previous success, winning 30-plus games in three of the past four seasons. Both draw on Gene Stephenson’s experiences restarting WSU’s program in 1977.

“The biggest thing is not to expect anything less than their best, not only on the field,” Phil Stephenson said. “His style of coaching was to teach players and do everything you can to help them.”

Like Gene Stephenson, Standiford set goals that seemed unrealistic, withstood the skeptics, and won.

He admired Stephenson’s knack for managing a game, for calling for a hit and run at the right time, diagnosing a pitcher’s pattern and working with hitters. Stephenson didn’t need many rules — the players called him “Gene” — and allowed them to be individuals.

“Expectations had to be changed at Tabor,” Standiford said. “Gene was the same way. I’m sure people looked at me and thought I was crazy.”

Standiford was a 5-foot-7 second baseman who developed into a prodigious home-run hitter. Forbes and Hooper came to WSU as scrawny freshmen who failed the eye test until they started gobbling up ground balls and banging base hits. Even Wedge came to WSU as a player with more toughness and desire than talent. Stephenson challenged him to improve his arm and his catching skills, often angering Wedge.

“Eric Wedge was talented, but not talented to the level he played at,” WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “Gene pushed him, and obviously the result was a huge plus.”

The common thread is that Stephenson saw something and gave them a chance. In Hooper’s case, Stephenson gave him a shot as a freshman even when it meant benching a senior.

“I’m a nobody at that point,” Hooper said. “For him to give me that opportunity meant so much to me. He’s going to want to put the best product out there he can to win a ballgame. That’s how I manage. I’ve got three guys who played in the major leagues. This isn’t the major leagues. I’ve got to put nine guys out there who I think are going to help me. I think I got a lot of that from him.”

Kemnitz, who worked with Stephenson for 35 seasons, watched those players come through the program on their way to coaching. He started as a 21-year-old graduate assistant living in the dorm in with his pitchers and learned from Stephenson, as well.

“I had never coached,” Kemnitz said. “He gave me the pitchers my very first year. I had an area where I could either fail, or make a mark. He challenged me, just like he did players.”

Stephenson’s induction may or may not cap his landmark coaching career. WSU fired him in 2013 after 36 seasons, seven College World Series titles and the 1989 NCAA title. At 68, he would like to coach again. Regardless of his future, his legacy is secure.

“He deserves to be in every hall of fame there ever was,” Kemnitz said.

The guest list for Saturday’s induction ceremony reads like a WSU hall of fame. Stephenson expects Wedge, Darren Dreifort, Don Heinkel, Doug Mirabelli, Matt Brown, Drew Moffitt and others to attend, as well as former player and assistant Jim Thomas, fans and family.

Kemnitz, however, will not be in Lubbock.

He kept his job last June and helped hire current coach Todd Butler. Next weekend, recruiting duties and a tournament at Eck Stadium will keep him on campus.

An appearance in Lubbock, in addition, would be awkward. It’s the fallout from Stephenson’s firing last June and his unhappiness with WSU’s administration.

In his farewell news conference, Stephenson called the decision by athletic director Eric Sexton to keep Kemnitz on staff a plus (at that time Stephenson said Kemnitz would remain one year) and a move he requested.

Those feelings soon changed for reasons Stephenson will not discuss. Kemnitz also declined to comment on their relationship.

The lack of comment from two men who worked together for 35 years says enough.

They haven’t spoken since the day after the firing. Soon after Stephenson spoke to the media at Eck Stadium on the afternoon of June 4, 2013, WSU announced Kemnitz would continue his duties as pitching coach with a contract extension.

“I tried to reach Gene several times last June and never heard back,” Kemnitz said.

The relationship between the two is now as far apart as the familiar posts they once manned in the dugout, Stephenson at one end and Kemnitz the other.

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