Bob Lutz

Through all the changes, Wichita sports fans remain constant

Gregg Marshall acknowledges the crowd after cutting down the net after his team won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament last month in St. Louis.
Gregg Marshall acknowledges the crowd after cutting down the net after his team won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament last month in St. Louis. The Wichita Eagle

Remember those 72 years when Wichita State played its sports in the Missouri Valley Conference?

Yeah, well, those days are (almost) over.

The Shockers are in the American, baby. The American Athletic Conference. And we’ll start to see teams from schools like Temple, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Memphis swing through town in the fall.

In my 20-plus years as The Eagle’s sports columnist, WSU’s conference switch is one the biggest things to happen in local sports. One of the most-needed changes, for sure. And some pretty big things have happened, including a new downtown arena that I and others pushed for pretty hard.

One of the reasons for my strong allegiance to building a new arena downtown rather than refurbish an existing arena in Park City was because I knew — I just knew — that someday the NCAA would regularly bring its men’s basketball tournament here for the first time since 1994, when it was held at the Kansas Coliseum.

After some tense moments and a few doubts, it’s happening. Not once (the NCAA comes next spring) but twice (in 2021, too).

There’s validation when the NCAA takes notice, as it first did by bringing its women’s national tournament to Intrust Bank Arena in 2011.

When voters approved the downtown arena more than a decade ago and it opened in 2010, you could almost feel our city puff out its chest.

There’s pride here now, and it spreads into many different places.

When I became the paper’s sports columnist in 1996, Shocker basketball was atrocious. Mike Cohen had failed as coach after taking over for Eddie Fogler, and Scott Thompson was in the process of failing after replacing Cohen. Former WSU player Randy Smithson provided a bit of relief, but he was fired after four seasons. And then, finally, the Shockers got it right when Jim Schaus, the athletic director at the time, hired Mark Turgeon in 2000.

If that was a home run hire, Schaus slammed a shot heard ’round college basketball in 2007 when he plucked Gregg Marshall from Winthrop to replace Turgeon, who left for Texas A&M after a highly-successful run that included an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 run in 2006.

Marshall had a rough first season and a so-so second season but he’s blown the lid off since and is in the midst of a current six-season run of NCAA Tournaments that included a Final Four in 2013. Shocker basketball dominated the Missouri Valley Conference to the point of making it uninteresting and provided the impetus for the move to the AAC.

Not everything associated with sports in Wichita has been so hunky-dory. We lost our affiliated minor-league baseball team — and that affiliation was with the Kansas City Royals — in 2007. The Wingnuts, an independent team in the American Association, have provided a lot of winning baseball in the meantime but it’s crazy that a town our size has been without affiliated baseball for this long.

That could change, though, in the near future. Mayor Jeff Longwell is pushing for a new stadium where Lawrence-Dumont currently sits and he hopes to attract an MLB affiliation. Stay tuned, but signs are promising.

Wichita’s professional hockey team, the Thunder, has landed on hard times. I regard the Thunder as an integral part of the city’s sports culture, but it’s an easy thing to cast aside when the losses mount. And for the past couple of seasons, the losses have mounted. Time to figure out how to make hockey work again here.

It’s been a pleasure to write about Wichita’s sports scene for so many years, especially as columnist. This forum has given me a chance to share my opinions and, hopefully, to sway some of yours.

I’ve written about some of the lowest lows in Shocker basketball history and some of the highest highs. Yet even when it was bad, Wichita State fans remained passionate and loyal.

WSU baseball is currently experiencing difficult times and that rarely happened during Gene Stephenson’s long tenure from 1978-2013. Crowds are down and interest has waned, but fourth-year coach Todd Butler is fighting to make the Shockers relevant again.

It’ll never be like it was, most likely, when Stephenson led Wichita State to the College World Series five times in six years from 1988-93. But with its facilities and tradition, WSU should never have sunk to its current level.

Wichita sometimes gets a bad rap as a sports town, but this city’s bond with Shocker basketball, and WSU athletics as a whole, dispels that. This is a good sports town with a lot of good sports fans. I hear from them regularly and I can feel their pain and their joy.

It’s been a good run.