As the story of Gene Stephenson’s final season unfolded over the past four months, my overwhelming emotion was sadness. In February, I wrote a story about the school’s unwillingness to offer him an extension and it became clear that things were headed this way.
Well before WSU won the MVC Tournament last month, athletic director Eric Sexton looked at four-plus seasons and decided Stephenson no longer was the best man to coach the Shockers. This season became a painful exercise in watching his tenure fizzle out. Stephenson and I talked a lot, just as the normal course of covering the season, and I always left his office unable to imagine what it felt like to have devoted 36 years to a place and then be told that your contributions are no longer valued.
That is the tough life of big-time college athletics. The last five seasons put Sexton in a position where he had no choice. Sexton is a Wichitan and a WSU graduate, and I think he took the job as AD predisposed to give Stephenson every opportunity. After five seasons without an at-large worthy team, the trend became undeniable.
The flip side of that is that Stephenson earned some hefty paychecks for his 36 years (although he was quite a bargain in the early years) and he brought some of this on himself. He turned off some fans with his complaining about his players and an apparent inability to connect with today’s athletes. Others simply felt it was time to go. He turned off some with his trip to Oklahoma and the stalking accusation (settled out of court) turned off others, fairly or unfairly.
Bottom line, however, WSU didn’t win enough, which activated all the gripes about Stephenson that people kept quiet about during the years he won big. It’s been a tough season for the coaches and the players, playing under all these circumstances. For them, the sense of relief that next season will be all about baseball is palpable.
Some other developments from the past few days:
There’s no doubt in my mind the WSU job will attract a great pool of applicants. I talked to a major league scout today who confirmed that, saying the job created a lot of interest among coaches in his circle. It is seen as a big-time job where a coach can win a lot of games.Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz remains on the staff and I think that is a good move. I also think there are questions that need to be asked about that situation and the risks inherent. I got a text at 4 a.m. from him to start a polite dialogue about that issue and how it was presented in Wednesday’s Wichita Eagle. He is convinced it’s a plus for any coach interested in the job and certainly that is a strong possibility. It will be up to him to convince prospective coaches that they can run the program they way they want with him on board. His experience and success rate with pitchers make him an asset to coaches comfortable with the situation. His personality should be a good fit.In the short term, retaining Kemnitz brought immediate benefits. He can talk to current Shockers and the recruits who signed in November. He can tell other recruits to hang on, because somebody is coming soon. The experience factor that has worked against the Shocker the past two seasons turns in 2014. WSU will have 10-plus seniors and almost that many juniors returning and that is often a good start on success. A new coach may come in with designs on a talent upgrade, but he will not be forced to scramble for numbers next season.Kemnitz did at least two radio shows and three TV interviews. His mini-media blitz, which included a special edition of his weekly radio show, turned the story from Stephenson’s firing to the future. Smart move. He struck the right balance of giving Stephenson his due while talking about the future. Kemnitz is clearly excited and energized about the future and that is exactly what disappointed Shocker fans need to hear. Over the past five seasons, they’ve heard a drumbeat about the RPI being unfair, about BCS schools improving, about the difficulties of competing with football, about players not working and not caring. Shocker fans need to hear that program can win again.Will Stephenson be honored in some way at Eck Stadium? I’m sure it will take time, and perhaps a change in administration, before Stephenson wants to come back. That is usually the way these things work. For the near future, rolling Stephenson out for a ceremony will feel fake and forced. “Right now is a time for pause and reflect on the legacy and to begin to move forward,” Sexton said. “We will, and want to, find the opportunity to respect and honor our legacy. We want to do it when it will be best received and we’ll look for those opportunities.”