Bob Lutz

Shield your eyes when looking at Wichita’s sports future

A new ballpark to replace Lawrence-Dumont Stadium could enhance Wichita’s sports outlook.
A new ballpark to replace Lawrence-Dumont Stadium could enhance Wichita’s sports outlook. File photo

The future of sports in Wichita depends on how long Gregg Marshall stays in Wichita.

OK, that’s an overstatement. And if Marshall ever decides the grass is greener somewhere, it doesn’t mean Wichita’s grass will dry up and die. It just means we’ll have to be extra vigilant when it comes to keeping it watered and fertilized.

Marshall’s build-up of Wichita State basketball has been one of the best sports nutrients in this city’s sports history. The Shockers are on an historical run of six consecutive NCAA tournaments. They’ve been so good that they were able to leave the Missouri Valley Conference after a 72-year run to join the American Athletic Conference.

But because sports fans always have one eye down the road, apprehensive of what might be ahead, it’s tough to live in the moment without fear that Marshall has one foot out the door.

Never mind that the 2017-18 season will be his 11th at Wichita State. Only Ralph Miller (13 seasons, 1951-64) coached the Shockers for a longer period of time in the 105-year history of the basketball program. So Marshall has gone above and beyond and if he ever leaves, Wichita State should be in position to find a replacement who can carry on something close, at least, to what Marshall started.

Shocker basketball success makes Wichitans, at least those who love the local university and its sports programs, cheery. That WSU is also swimming right along in most of its other sports helps, too.

It’s time, though, for baseball to take a turn for the better. Shocker fans were spoiled by the tremendous long-term success of Gene Stephenson and haven’t yet taken to his replacement, Todd Butler, who is in his fourth season and still trying to establish success. Many still remember the glory years of Shocker baseball, when Eck Stadium was often full or near capacity.

I also think there’s an upside for Wichita State women’s basketball and new coach Keitha Adams. Is it unreasonable to think that 4,000 to 5,000 people would consistently show up to watch a really good team with some local or at least Kansas players on the roster? I don’t think so.

There’s no question that building Intrust Bank Arena downtown was one of the best moves Sedgwick County and the city have ever made, even after some early trepidation. Laying down a sales tax is never an easy decision for government leaders to make, but in this case it was the right play.

Next is a new ballpark where a minor-league affiliated team could be playing as soon as 2020. Kudos to those who have helped revitalize downtown Wichita, which looks far different today than just five years ago. The arena, I believe, helped spur all of these great changes that have brought more people downtown to live.

Now comes Mayor Jeff Longwell’s plan to spruce up the west and east banks of the Arkansas River around Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, near the hugely-successful Delano District. The time is not far off when, potentially, Wichita’s night life will extend through blocks of downtown and into Delano.

Bob Hanson and the folks at the Wichita Sports Commission will continue to look for ways to add to Wichita’s sports culture and here’s hoping for a few out-of-the-box surprises in the coming months and years. Would Wichita support a WNBA franchise? An NBA D-League franchise?

Double-A or Triple-A baseball looks to be a likelihood for Wichita in the near future and thank goodness for that. It’s fun for baseball people like me to follow prospects through their development and a new stadium near the river will be fun for everyone. At least that’s the hope.

As I step aside as The Eagle’s sports columnist, my hope is that those who chart the course for the future of sports in Wichita will continue to be aggressive, think big and gently step past the naysayers. There will always be people who tell you something is impossible to achieve. But for achievers, those voices are muted.

It’s easy to be deterred but as we’re seeing from coaches like Marshall and mayors like Longwell, pushing forward has tremendous rewards.

Shocker basketball is the biggest sports entity in town and if Longwell can get a new ballpark and all the development around the river, it will go down as a crowing achievement.

To those who don’t care for progress or are content to live out their lives quietly, without bells and whistles, more power to you. That’s fine.

But understand that active Wichitans love to see their city vibrate. This place is alive right now with NCAA tournaments coming to town twice in the next four years. WSU basketball has taken off and is soaring.

Do you own a pair of sunglasses? Because the future of Wichita sports is bright.