Bob Lutz: A sad end, but hope for Wichita State baseball’s future

It wasn’t a defiant Gene Stephenson who seated himself in front of cameras, microphones and reporters Tuesday afternoon, inside a stadium he all but built with his own two hands.

It was an emotional Stephenson who confirmed that he indeed was out as Wichita State’s baseball coach after 36 seasons. There were a couple of spots during his address to the media — he did not take questions — during which rage started to build over what he deems to be an unfair decision by WSU athletic director Eric Sexton to fire him.

But the impending anger was extinguished by sorrow and grief.

After about 10 minutes, Stephenson began to sob while mentioning how deeply he cared about his past and present players. He rose from his chair, got into an elevator and rode off to who knows where?

Stephenson, 67, vowed to coach again. I hope he does. And I hope he wins.

But Shocker baseball had become stale in the past five seasons. There was a growing disconnect between Stephenson and the athletic department.

And while many Shocker baseball fans are concerned and even angry about the way Stephenson was treated here, it’s not as if he didn’t have a choice.

Stephenson was given the chance to resign. He chose to be fired. That’s fitting, really.

But he didn’t make it about him during his short comments. He thanked all the right people, expressed his belief that the WSU program was still in a good place, and made it clear that he didn’t understand the decision to let him go.

He didn’t get nasty about it, though. His biggest struggle was trying to stay composed and it was one he was never going to win.

Watching Stephenson trudge through his comments was difficult. He’s such a proud man, which has been one of his greatest attributes but also one of his biggest faults. Sometimes pride gets in the way, and it had a way of doing so for Stephenson.

He expressed his love for Wichita State and for the baseball program. Hopefully, someday, there will be an opportunity for Shocker fans to pay their respects to Stephenson and for the athletic department to honor him in a way befitting one of the most successful coaches, in any sport, in college athletics history.

The door seems to be open to such a reconciliation, although it might take some time for Stephenson to knock.

He’s angry. But mostly he’s sad. As sad as you can imagine for a man who has accomplished so much and now feels dishonored.

Was there a better way for this to end?

Maybe, but it’s important to understand that smooth endings aren’t necessarily a Stephenson trait.

Sexton looked tired when Eagle reporters caught up with him after Stephenson’s talk. Though he’s been on the job for more than five years, Sexton hasn’t had to make any personnel decision that even approaches the weight of this one.

According to sources, he offered Stephenson a chance to resign. But that was never going to happen.

The official wording in the athletic department news release was that Stephenson’s contract had been terminated. He will be paid for the final year.

In the release, Sexton thanked Stephenson for "his years of service and the efforts he has made in his life’s work building this program from the beginning."

Sexton wanted mostly to talk about the future, and about how the expectations for success will remain high. He’s happy that pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Brent Kemnitz has agreed to stay on and that a contract extension with Kemnitz is in the offing.

Sexton, normally a jovial man quick with a joke, was solemn as he talked about the decision to remove Stephenson.

Many Shocker fans, of course, are apprehensive. To them, Stephenson is Wichita State baseball. Stephenson’s former players spoke harshly about the decision Tuesday. So many things are up in the air.

In time, though, a new coach will be hired. It might be someone with WSU baseball ties, it might not.

I don’t agree with those who believe the Shockers will fall off. The opportunity exists for a baseball re-birth at Wichita State. While paying the proper reverence to Stephenson and his tremendous career, it’s OK to also look ahead with eagerness and excitement.

It won’t be easy for a new coach to be successful, but it won’t be impossible, either. Wichita State has great facilities and tradition, thanks to Stephenson’s hard work. The Shockers are just waiting for an ignition to take off again.

It’s incumbent on Sexton to find the right coach. Even those who most strongly lament the decision to terminate Stephenson’s contract can be won back.

Wichita State baseball is bigger than any one man, even one as big as Stephenson.

Tuesday was a sad day. Here’s to Gene Stephenson and an incomparable 36 years. And here’s to the future, which can also shine bright.

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