Eric Wedge makes first appearance as coach
After 27 seasons building the Charlotte baseball program essentially from the ground up, Loren Hibbs announced his retirement as head coach on Friday in order to join Eric Wedge’s staff at Wichita State as the program’s director of operations.
Like Wedge, this will be a homecoming for Hibbs, 58, a Wellington native who was a star outfielder for WSU from 1982-84 and an assistant coach for the Shockers from 1985-92. In the 27 years since, Hibbs became Charlotte’s all-time winningest coach, compiled an 819-682-5 record and led the 49ers to seven regular season conference championships, four conference tournament titles and five NCAA Tournament appearances.
So why was the appeal of returning to his alma mater in a lesser role too hard to turn down now?
“Because we’re going to get this thing turned around. It’s going to happen, I’m telling you right now,” Hibbs told The Eagle. “Don’t take that as me being arrogant, it’s just that is the mentality that goes with being a Shocker baseball alum. That mentality centers around toughness and treating people the right way and the things Eric talked about in his press conference.
“Nobody can predict a timeline on this thing, but when you get those qualities back and put the right people in place and get the right players, it might take a little bit of time but it’s going to happen. People need to get on board right now.”
In the three weeks since WSU athletic director Darron Boatright parted ways with coach Todd Butler, the WSU baseball program has taken a turn to return to its roots. Boatright hired Wedge, a standout catcher for WSU from 1987-89, who then decided to retain Mike Pelfrey, who pitched for the Shockers from 2003-05, as the team’s pitching coach, and hired Hibbs.
The hires have rejuvenated a program that has seen its attendance dip in recent years and hasn’t played in an NCAA Regional since 2013, a Super Regional since 2008 and a College World Series since 1996.
Adding Hibbs to his staff is a home run hire for Wedge, who has a wealth of professional managerial experience but none in recruiting or the day-to-day aspects of the college game. Hibbs fills those voids and with him taking the director of operations job, it allows Wedge to hire another experienced coach on his staff for the lead assistant role.
“I honestly didn’t think we would be able to check off as many boxes with one hire like we did,” Wedge said of Hibbs. “He’s somebody that’s done everything in college baseball as a player, as an assistant, as a head coach. He’s worn all of the hats. To have someone like that right by my side is invaluable, especially at the outset. I can’t say enough about how great it is to have him back in the family.”
Leaving Charlotte was a difficult decision for Hibbs. For starters, there’s a sense of ownership after 27 years. It’s also been home for nearly three decades for Hibbs and his wife, Lisa, and three children.
When Hibbs saw WSU had hired Wedge, who he called “the best leader besides (former WSU coach) Gene Stephenson I’ve ever been around,” Hibbs was intrigued about the possibilities at his alma mater. But leaving wouldn’t have been an option if Hibbs didn’t feel good about leaving Charlotte’s program with a talented roster, above-average facilities and a promising future.
“Having that talk with my players is the hardest conversation because they understand how much I love Charlotte, but they also know Wichita State is my school,” Hibbs said. “Our players at Charlotte got to hear a lot of stories and a lot of things that happened in Wichita during my time there. They understand what it means to me and it’s just part of who I am. That’s just special when you get a chance to come back to my school and my community and basically come full circle.”
Charlotte athletic director Mike Hill understood as much in his statement in Charlotte’s release.
“Loren Hibbs has given his heart and soul to this program,” Hill said. “We are sad to see him go, but understand and respect his desire to return to his alma mater. In many ways, he is leaving home to return home. We owe him a debt of gratitude for all he has done for the Niners’ baseball program, and we wish him and Lisa the very best.”
Like Wedge, Hibbs doesn’t want to put a time table on when WSU will return to postseason play. And he more than anybody understands the new challenges in college baseball, but Hibbs is also confident that it can and will be done again at WSU.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years now in Division I and it’s a lot harder to win now than it was back in the 1980s and that’s nothing against our generation of guys who were there,” Hibbs said. “But it’s just harder. There’s more programs that are putting money in and more emphasis on player development. But when you look at Wichita State and the tradition and the leadership now with Eric, we’ve got a great chance.
“We’re going to need everybody’s support in the community and we need to make Eck Stadium the toughest place to play in the AAC. We’re going to need that help to turn things around and get things going back in the right direction.”