The ballroom at the Drury Plaza Hotel was packed with more than 500 people, all there to honor one man.
A World Series hero, a handful of former Major League players, even more college baseball All-Americans spanning four decades had all been summoned back to the place where their careers began.
It was like walking into a time portal, transporting each person back to their favorite memory in the history of the Wichita State baseball program. A highlight film of WSU’s greatest moments streamed on the walls, not that the former players in the crowd had any problem vividly telling their own stories.
There was a lot of laughter, a few tears, then one big surprise for the person who was the thread that tied everyone together.
Gene Stephenson, the coach who resurrected WSU’s baseball program from scratch, made it a national power, then kept it there for most of his 36 years from 1978 to 2013, was being inducted into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame, the first time it has had a lone inductee. But the highlight of the night came when WSU athletic director Darron Boatright surprised Stephenson on Friday night by announcing WSU was retiring Stephenson’s No. 10, the first number retired in the baseball program’s history.
This was the feel-good ending that his former players always envisioned for Stephenson, but weren’t always sure they were going to get after the university fired Stephenson in 2013 with one year remaining on his contract.
Here is the story about how WSU repaired its relationship with Stephenson and the coach is still coping with the decision from five years ago.
“I tried to talk them out of having a big deal like this,” Stephenson said. “I didn’t ask for it, but I’m thankful. We never did this for the accolades, so I guess I’d say I would give all of this up if I could still coach them.”
‘It hurt like nothing ever before’
Stephenson won 1,837 games, took WSU to seven College World Series, including winning the 1989 national championship, won 20 conference titles and played in 28 NCAA Regionals.
By the end of Stephenson’s tenure, WSU was declining in NCAA appearances, victories and attendance, which led to the decision of then-WSU athletic director Eric Sexton to fire Stephenson following the Shockers’ quick exit in a 2013 NCAA Regional to cap a 39-28 season. WSU has not returned to postseason play since.
At the time, Oklahoman newspaper columnist Berry Tramel compared it to J.C. Penney firing James Cash Penny himself. To this day, Stephenson’s former players take issue with how the situation was handled.
“He’s the reason why the stadium is sitting where it is and it looks the way it looks,” said Kevin Hooper, who left WSU in 1998 and had a 10-year professional career.
“When he was let go, it was really tough on him but it also hurt the players who played for him,” said WSU legend Joe Carter, who left in 1981 and was one of Stephenson’s first stars. “He gave 36 years to the program and had one year left on his contract, so more than anything he deserved a farewell. You don’t get rid of a legend like that, but sometimes we make the wrong decisions.”
After Darron Boatright took over as WSU’s athletic director in 2016, he said it was important to him to repair the relationship with Stephenson.
“Because of the sacrifices and the challenges that Gene faced throughout this career,” Boatright said. “He led the ship, there was no doubt about it. We always wanted to properly honor Gene because he deserves it.”
But up until last year, Stephenson had severed ties with the university and there was no dialogue between the two. Boatright reached out in late 2017 and the two sides began talking.
In the meantime, Stephenson had relied heavily on his Christian faith to cope with his life after baseball. Time is known to heal wounds, but this wasn’t a wound. Baseball was part of Stephenson’s identity and it was taken away from him by a university that he had given 36 years to.
“For all of those years, I always told my players how tough they have to be and what they have to do when bad things happen,” Stephenson said. “It was like God said, ‘Well, you’ve been preaching this, let’s see how you like it, let’s see how you recover.’ That was the one thing that could have hurt me the worst, losing that job. Thirty-six years of hard, tough work, all done. I’ll be honest, it hurt. It hurt like nothing ever before. But it happened and could I do anything about it? No.
“I always told my players that some people might have more good than bad and some people might have more bad than good. It’s not the fact that things happen to you, what determines everything is your attitude toward it. How are you going to make chicken salad out of this chicken poop? Or are you going to be brooding over this forever? ‘Why me? I don’t deserve that.’ That’s not the question you should ask.”
‘It makes us finally complete’
After reconciling with Boatright, Stephenson made his first public appearance back with the WSU baseball team on Feb. 21, just days before the Shockers played in their home opener.
An important factor in bringing Stephenson back into the program was current coach Todd Butler, who took over for Stephenson in 2014. Some coaches would have been leery of bringing back the legendary figure they are trying to replace, but Butler made the situation smoother because he embraced the idea.
“I’ve been waiting on him,” Butler said at the time with a wide grin. “It is such a total joy and blessing to have coach Stephenson around. Our players have the ultimate respect for him and it’s good for our players to hear his stories and be around him. The one word I think of with him being back and being the lead man of the Shockers is it makes us finally complete.”
For players like Alec Bohm, who went on to be drafted No. 3 overall in June’s MLB draft, he thought Stephenson’s presence around a program trying to get back to Stephenson’s winning ways would help.
“He talks to us quite a bit and he shares his experiences with us, beginning with basically how he built this whole program,” Bohm said then. “It’s really cool hearing about the intensity they used to play with back when they were going to Omaha every year. He’s bringing that attitude back to us and we really appreciate that.”
To Stephenson, now 73, being invited back to the program was reinvigorating. He still retains the passion to coach.
“It was the greatest euphoric feeling you could ever ask for at my age,” Stephenson said. “I was back to my old self. I was enthusiastic and excited about every day. I wasn’t living a terrible life, but there’s nothing like the joy I get from being out there with the guys and showing them things that might help make them better. That, to me, is the most passionate thing that I can think of doing.”
‘The day I die I hope I’m coaching third base’
WSU actually tried to induct Stephenson into its Shocker Sports Hall of Fame 15 years ago, but his stubbornness always prevented it.
Stephenson may not care much for events like the fancy banquet on Friday or the Saturday ceremony during halftime of a men’s basketball game, but the one thing those observances did do was bring together so many of his former players.
“As a coach, you try to have a positive effect on players and not only try to make them into good players, but into good fathers, good husbands and good citizens,” Stephenson said. “You always hope you made a positive impact on their lives, but sometimes you don’t know after guys leave. You’re not sure. But to see the things I saw this weekend and how many of them came back, it was a humbling moment, it really was.”
Eric Wedge, who was the catcher on Stephenson’s 1989 championship team, was tasked with delivering the keynote speech at Friday’s banquet.
“The No. 1 concern for me was to make sure when he left, he felt how special he really is,” Wedge said.
So former players came on stage and told stories.
Like when the program started from nothing, nothing was not an exaggeration. There were no bathrooms (“I told them to go to the outfield, make it grow better,” Stephenson said) and no changing rooms (“I had a ‘78 Datsun, so I had the best locker room,” Charlie O’Brien joked).
Many took delight in recalling how much pride Stephenson took in his crushing handshakes, whether it was his own players or the opposing coach.
“That was one of my favorite memories,” Hooper recalled. “Every time he would go out to home plate for the handshake, he would come back so happy and be like, ‘I got’em again, boys. I crushed him.’ He was an intimidating factor and back then when we were as dominant as we were, I think Gene’s intimidation carried over to our teams.”
Chris Wimmer, one of WSU’s greatest shortstops of all-time, shed some light into the lengths Stephenson was willing to go in recruiting, which is how he was able to turn a cold-climate program like WSU into a national power.
“He came into our house for dinner early in the evening and he just continued to stay and stay,” Wimmer said. “Finally, I called my mom into the kitchen and said, ‘Mom, I don’t think he’s leaving until I commit.’ So my mom goes out and says, ‘We can make up the guest room for you if you want.’ We thought he was going to stay all night. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
For players like Wichita native Mike Pelfrey, who came to WSU after it was an established program, he spoke to the larger-than-life nature the program took on under Stephenson.
“I grew up in Wichita and remembered going to games and thinking the players were like superheroes,” Pelfrey said. “That is what Gene developed and he created.”
By the end of the night, Wedge had accomplished his goal.
“That was the best event I’ve ever seen,” Stephenson said. “I’m prejudice, but it was awesome to see those guys back together again from different decades and to interact with them once again.
“I love Shocker baseball and I love Wichita State. I know my players loved it, but not as much as I loved it.”
Stephenson said he would trade it all to still coach the Shockers, but this weekend was the next-best thing.
“I suppose some day it had to end,” Stephenson said. “But in my heart of hearts, the day I die I hope I’m coaching third base.”