Wichita State athletic director Eric Sexton is about to embark on a coaching search unlike any in college baseball history.
He must replace Gene Stephenson, the man who built — no exaggeration — Shocker baseball out of — again, no exaggeration — nothing. The next coach must be willing to work with pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who will remain on the staff with his current duties and is negotiating an extension to his contract.
And, it goes without saying, the new guy better win a lot of games.
WSU’s men’s basketball team went to the Final Four, its women’s team played in its first NCAA Tournament and the volleyball team advanced to the Sweet 16. Sexton is not lowering expectations for baseball even after the departure of a coach who won the school’s only NCAA team title.
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“All of our programs are going to compete at the conference level and the national level as frequently and as fervently as possible,” he said.
He wants to find a coach who can build on Stephenson’s accomplishments. This is the first high-profile hiring of his five-year tenure. He knows people are watching to see how he takes care of the sport that kept WSU in the national spotlight for most of Stephenson’s tenure.
Sexton said he will begin a national search and declined to put a timetable on the hiring or discuss salary in comparison to Stephenson’s annual pay of $531,131.
Replacing Stephenson after 36 seasons won’t be easy. Sexton said he believes WSU can hire a high-quality replacement. He will point to Eck Stadium, the fans, and the tradition as his selling points.
“We’ll start to talk about what our community is about, and it’s about baseball,” Sexton said. “This is an important move we’re going to make, to move our program to the next level.”
Kemnitz, who joined the program as a graduate assistant in 1979 and became a full-time coach in 1980, is a key part of the transition. He is the recruiting coordinator and is charged with keeping together WSU’s 10-person class signed in November and adding to it this summer. He must work quickly to repair damage done to future recruiting efforts during the past uncertain months. Many high school juniors will begin to commit to colleges over the summer.
WSU fell behind in its recruiting efforts while Stephenson’s future was an issue. Sexton said Kemnitz would not be a candidate for the head-coaching job but is an important part of the program going forward.
Sexton is willing to live with Kemnitz’s spot on the staff potentially limiting his pool of applicants. Some coaches will be unwilling to take a job without the freedom to select a staff.
“He is an important bridge to our past that allows us to move forward,” Sexton said. “We are going to look for the highest-quality coach to move us to that next chapter and I believe that Brent Kemnitz is a key component with any head coach that is going to come in here.”
Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt said that the job will attract many good candidates.
“There’s going to be a bunch of people in the mix for this,” Fitt said. “I know a lot of coaches in the Midwest who are very intrigued by that job.”
WSU is not far removed from success under Stephenson. It advanced to super regionals in 2007 and 2008.
“I think they can still win a lot,” Fitt said. “I know the game has changed. Some of their advantages aren’t as great as they used to be. It has a great facility, great tradition, great fans.”
Stephenson, 67, took it to levels most people thought impossible in his 36 years. On Tuesday, Sexton fired him a day after they and university attorney Ted Ayres met at Stephenson’s Eck Stadium office. Sexton also said Stephenson will receive his full 2013-14 salary, scheduled to be $531,131. There is no specific early buyout by WSU written into any of Stephenson’s recent contracts. Also fired is Jim Thomas, who played at WSU from 1979-82 and returned as assistant coach in 1992, making $101,510 this year. He is on a year-to-year contract and receives no additional pay.
Sexton said Stephenson was given opportunities to end his WSU career differently than being fired.
“I don’t talk about personnel issues, but options were presented and ultimately this is where we ended up,” Sexton told The Eagle about an hour after Stephenson announced he was no longer coach.
Sexton pointed to a five-year trend of declining victories and fan support. No one issue caused him to fire Stephenson, he said. Over the past five seasons, the Shockers won one Missouri Valley Conference title, sharing it in 2010 with Illinois State. More revealingly, the Shockers did not compile a season resume worthy of an NCAA at-large spot in those seasons. WSU played in a regional in 2009 and 2013, both times needing to win the MVC’s automatic bid.
“A body of work over a period of time,” Sexton said. “It’s a larger, broad view of where our program is going. In order for us to begin to move that program in the direction we all have expectations for in my view, it was time to turn the page.”