Paul Suellentrop

Wichita State's makeover defined last decade

The story of the year for Wichita State athletics is the story of the decade for Wichita State athletics.

On May 19, WSU won the Missouri Valley Conference All-Sports Trophy without much help from the department's marquee sports. At WSU, it's no longer clear exactly what defines a marquee sport.

The men's basketball team finished in a tie for fifth in the Valley. The women's basketball team finished last. Baseball struggled to third place and endured its worst season under coach Gene Stephenson.

Yet the strength of the entire department carried WSU to its fifth All-Sports title this decade.

Another good year. A whole bunch of them made it a great decade for a department once known for dropping football and NCAA probation in the tumultuous '80s and losing in basketball in the '90s.

Those days are gone, swept away by a wave of improvements that made the past decade perhaps the best in the athletic department's history. It seems long ago that decaying Levitt Arena housed most of the athletic department and athletes took study hall on bleachers in the arena. It seems long ago that changing coaches, embarrassing off-the-court drama and dwindling crowds defined WSU men's basketball. It seems long ago that fans waited for baseball season for a reason to celebrate.

Former athletic director Jim Schaus took over on July 1, 1999, effectively ending the dark days of that decade. Schaus and university president Don Beggs started the next decade with two decisions that served them well.

First, WSU renovated and expanded what is now Koch Arena (as well as other facilities). Second, they determined that WSU would succeed by doing what it did as well as possible — and not try to be something it isn't.

Over-spending on football, hiring win-at-all-cost coaches, over-reaching in unrealistic attempts to compete with higher-profile schools — not on their agenda. WSU worked to fund its programs at the top of the conference and let regional and national success grow from that foundation. Schaus and Beggs played to WSU's strengths, hired good coaches and backed them as much as possible.

It worked, in ways that seemed impossible in 1999.

In 1999, it seemed impossible for fans to dream about men's basketball in the Sweet 16 or ranked No. 8 nationally. Drawing 5,000 fans to a volleyball match? Impossible. Raising $25 million for the arena? Many thought WSU needed to move its basketball games to a downtown arena.

Ten years later, the department is full of success stories.

* Men's basketball played in three NITs, the 2006 NCAA Tournament and won the 2006 MVC title. Coach Mark Turgeon started a streak of 43 straight regular-season sellouts. Under coach Gregg Marshall, another streak could start soon — WSU is 11-1 and the talk of the city.

* The baseball team ended years of frustration by advancing to super regionals in 2007 and 2008. Baseball's decade didn't always go smoothly — coach Gene Stephenson briefly took the job at Oklahoma in 2005 — but the Shockers continued as a consistent NCAA qualifier. The recent opening of the indoor practice facility next to Eck Stadium is another important addition to the department.

* Out of anonymity, coach Chris Lamb built the volleyball program into a power. The Shockers played in their fourth NCAA Tournament since 2004 in December and finished eighth nationally in attendance with an average of 2,892 fans.

* The track and field programs do more work than any in securing the All-Sports honors. WSU's women's track won six MVC titles this decade, including four straight outdoors. The men won three straight outdoor titles. The women's cross country team won its fifth straight title last fall.

* The men's golf team won seven MVC titles and made seven trips to NCAA play.

* The men's tennis team won two MVC titles and played in two NCAA tournaments. The women's team did that three times, winning the first NCAA match in conference history in 2007.

* The softball team earned an at-large spot in the NCAAs in 2005.