Shocker fans rejoiced the return of excitement in the Wichita State baseball program on Wednesday when news broke that Eric Wedge, 30 years after leading the Shockers to the 1989 College World Series championship, was returning to lead the program as coach.
Season ticket sales for the 2020 season already spiked, a spokesperson for WSU said. A unscientific Twitter poll conducted by The Eagle, which drew 938 votes, gave Wedge a 91 percent approval rating. Talk about returning to the postseason, which WSU hasn’t competed in since 2013, was a hot topic on Wednesday.
Restoring the Shockers as a national brand is the clear goal for WSU athletic director Darron Boatright, who fired Todd Butler on Sunday after six seasons that saw WSU compile a 169-180-1 record and no NCAA Regional appearances.
“We move forward with our same program expectations: to compete at the highest level nationally and in the American Athletic Conference,” Boatright said in a news release on Sunday.
That’s what every WSU fan yearns for, a return to the winning of the Gene Stephenson era that saw the Shockers make seven College World Series, 26 NCAA Tournament appearances, including 14 straight from 1987-2000, and win 20 conference titles. His teams never had a losing record and his winning is the reason why WSU still ranks No. 6 in Division I winning percentage.
But the facts remain: WSU hasn’t played in a NCAA Regional since 2013 (which was later vacated because of NCAA rule violations), a Super Regional since 2008 and a College World Series since 1996.
College baseball has undoubtedly changed since 1996. More schools are pumping more money to compete in baseball, not to mention WSU has moved up weight classes to the American Athletic Conference from the Missouri Valley Conference.
Is it realistic to think Wedge can return the Shockers to a national contender? Baseball America analyst Teddy Cahill doesn’t think so when he evaluates WSU on a national level.
“To think that this team should year-in and year-out be a NCAA Regional team is probably a little bit living in the past,” Cahill told The Eagle. “You look around the American and there are really solid, consistent programs that didn’t get in this year. Houston missed it, (Central Florida and South Florida) both missed it. All three of those schools have the biggest recruiting advantage and none of them are in the tournament.
“I think it’s hard looking at these schools that are going through natural ebbs and flows. Why would Wichita be able to do something that these programs are struggling to do?”
Cahill admits that there is always the possibility that Wedge is able to recapture the magic that his former coach, Stephenson, found at WSU. After all, Wedge played for Stephenson and saw how he built the program, and now he has nearly two decades of successful professional baseball experience to lean on.
But WSU’s move to hand over the reins to a former MLB manager is almost unprecedented. According to Cahill, Wedge is believed to be the first former MLB manager to be hired as a college coach since Don Kessinger returned to his alma mater at Ole Miss for the 1991 season.
“There’s not really a guy we can point to and say, ‘This guy has done it before,’” Cahill said. “Now there are former big league players who have come back to lead their alma mater, but even that happens pretty infrequently and there’s been mixed results with those guys. I think (a return to national prominence for WSU) could be done with the right person in charge, but I think it just shows just how good Gene Stephenson was at his job.”
Although Butler was never able to win enough with WSU, he proved you can still recruit to Wichita. Butler landed back-to-back top-25 recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015, which netted Alec Bohm and Greyson Jenista, who were both drafted in the first two rounds in the 2018 MLB Draft.
But Butler, who was a former assistant at Arkansas and head coach at McNeese State, came to WSU with a recruiting background. Wedge has none in terms of college recruiting, although he has spent the last three years with the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization evaluating college-aged talent.
Recruiting was a major topic in conversations with Wedge and Boatright came away believing Wedge will be a natural at it.
“You evaluate the talent and then you communicate, that is the recruiting process,” Boatright said of Wedge. “Now he’ll have to transfer that to the college game and there will be a learning curve there. But the game is still the game. The evaluation of talent is still the same. Now he gets the chance to show these guys how to get from Point A to Point B.”
Cahill said there is a precedent for someone with name recognition in the baseball world like Wedge to use that to their advantage in recruiting. He listed former MLB players like Darin Erstad (Nebraska), Tony Gwynn (San Diego State) and Troy Percival (UC Riverside) all returning to their alma maters and seeing an uptick in recruiting.
“The kids he’ll be recruiting might not remember him in the majors, but their parents will and that does help,” Cahill said. “Wedge wasn’t an all-star player, but he still should be able to sell that big-league experience. The assets are there at Wichita. There’s still fan interest and a big stadium and all of those banners hanging up. You can make a pretty decent sales pitch.”
But the selection for the NCAA Tournament this season only reenforced how difficult it is for teams in the AAC to make it to the postseason. Despite being rated the No. 5 conference in RPI, the AAC only netted three bids, while the SEC (10), ACC (8), Big 12 (5), Big Ten (5) and Pac-12 (5) combined for 33 of the 41 bids from multi-bid conferences.
WSU could once again become a national power, but from his perspective, Cahill believes it’s more realistic for WSU fans to expect regionals most years with an occasional deep run rather than that be the norm.
“It’s really hard for some of these programs with great traditions to maintain it,” Cahill said. “It’s the unfortunate reality of college sports that the Power Five still holds all the power. But that’s something Wichita State fans I’m sure are used to over the years with their basketball team.”