For two days, Wichita State baseball fans packed the stands at Kansas State’s Tointon Family Stadium to watch their team in an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2009.
That they may have witnessed the end of an era after two straight losses by WSU — to Kansas State on Friday and to Arkansas on Saturday — wasn’t lost on any of them.
With WSU coach Gene Stephenson’s fate now uncertain after 36 seasons leading their team some rose quickly — and angrily — to his defense in the moments after the game. Some said they understood why a change might be coming.
Stephenson’s contract has not been extended by WSU athletic director Eric Sexton beyond 2014. Rather than allow him to coach a lame-duck season, it is possible that WSU will buy out the final year of his contract and end a tenure that started in 1977 when he revived a dormant program.
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"Right now it is important to reflect on this season’s accomplishments and the team’s strong finish in the MVC Tournament, and congratulations to them for qualifying for the NCAA Regional,” Sexton said in an e-mail. “As is protocol, every one of our coaches is evaluated at the end of each season on the state of their respective programs.”
Sexton did not attend the regional because of his duties, as a member of the NCAA men’s golf committee, at the NCAA Championships in Atlanta. He was scheduled to return to Wichita on Saturday.
Stephenson is unsure what will happen next.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.
Stephenson defended his program and spoke optimistically about the future. The Shockers will lose two seniors. The draft may take pitchers Albert Minnis and Brandon Peterson, but is not expected to deplete the roster of returners.
“I don’t know how people can be upset,” he said. “We win the (Missouri Valley Conference Tournament). We go to the regional. We have a great group of guys returning. We will be better.”
The uncertainty and pessimism regarding the program took a toll on the players, he said.
“I am proud of our guys because they took a lot of heat all year long,” Stephenson said. “There was a lot of negativity and a lot of naysayers from all different corners. They weathered the storm and did a good job.”
Stephenson guided the Shockers to the 1989 national title and seven College World Series appearances — the most recent in 1996 — and the program’s three consecutive seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance before the trip to Manhattan was the longest in his tenure.
Longtime Shocker fan Lloyd Phelps sat behind Wichita State’s dugout on Saturday and became emotional as he talked about Stephenson and the possibility that he might be gone.
“They call me ‘Loyal Lloyd’ because that’s what I am, I’m loyal,” Phelps said. “I’ve been going to games since 1980 and I’ve seen a lot of good times with this team there’s no way the city of Wichita or Wichita State can do more for Gene than he’s done for them. If this is just about politics and people not liking him as a person, that’s not right. They should not fire him. That would be absolutely wrong.”
The Shockers had to win the Valley Tournament in order to get into the Manhattan Regional and finished the season 39-28 after losing 3-1 to the Razorbacks. Stephenson, the second-winningest coach in college baseball history, has never won fewer than 30 games in his career, but the Shockers have only won more than 40 games once in the last five seasons after 31 straight seasons of 40 or more wins.
“I hear speculation, sure, but that’s from some people that I feel like have a low level of information, that don’t understand baseball,” WSU fan Todd Hook said. “He should get as many years as he wants. What, exactly, is he on the hot seat for?”
Wayne Parker, the father of WSU junior shortstop Dayne Parker, became a fan of Stephenson and the Shockers in the early 1980s while he was playing junior-college baseball in Oklahoma.
“I think sometimes you do need the new to come in or the old to change with the times,” Wayne Parker said. “I’m not saying (Stephenson) has to either go or stay, but when you have all the records for the wins you also have to take responsibility for the losses. Sometimes you need change one way or the other with (Stephenson) on the hot seat and the speculation about his job all year, there’s been added pressure for the players, sure, but for him, too.”
Another parent of a player, junior third baseman Erik Harbutz, put his support behind Stephenson.
“I think he should keep his job because of the whole history of what he’s done for this school,” Alan Harbutz said. “I think he needs to go out on his own terms. I don’t understand the backlash because as I’m watching the games and his decisions, I still think he’s doing the right thing. The execution isn’t always there, but his decisions are right on.”
Tom Sawyer began going to games in 1978, Stephenson’s first season, when he was a student at WSU. He made the case for this season’s success as enough for Stephenson to keep his job.
“I can’t imagine any other coach at WSU making it to the NCAA Tournament and being fired,” Sawyer said. “Gene ought to at least get the same amount of respect as any other coach at WSU.”