Tuesday's announcement of Wichita State baseball head coach Gene Stephenson's firing from the Shockers program didn't completely come as a shock.
Before this year, the Shockers hadn't made an NCAA tournament appearance since 2009 (which was the last year Wichita State had won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament) and hadn't been regular season champions since 2010.
However, considering the Shockers' success in 2013, it seems like Stephenson ended up getting the "raw deal" by the athletic department for all of his work in building up the program. The Shockers were able to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and return to the NCAA tournament, where they traveled to Manhattan and lost to nationally-ranked Kansas State and Arkansas in back-to-back games.
It wasn't enough as the coach and the athletic program had, by all accounts of those in attendence, as a very far from amicable split. Not much of a thank you if Monday's reports saying Stephenson was told to either resign or be fired.
Thirty-six years of literally building a dormant program from the ground up to a national powerhouse is Stephenson's legacy. He never had a losing season with the first team he coached finishing 43-30-1 and won his first league title and earned his first NCAA tournament bid two years later. The closest he came was in 2009 and the Shockers still won the tournament title and earned an NCAA bid.
A record of 1,837-675-3 (more wins during his tenure than any other Division I coach); 20 MVC regular season titles; 18 MVC tournament titles; seven College World Series titles and the 1989 NCAA Division I title (national runner-up in 1982, 1991 and 1993).
Fifty-four All-Americans including brother, Phil, the baseball head coach of Dodge City Community College; perennial Major League All-Star Joe Carter; former major league catcher and manager Eric Wedge; reliever Braden Looper and current Minnesota Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey.
"I remember watching video of that place when he got there and it was nothing," Pelfrey said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I grew up in Wichita and that was the place to be and the place to go. When you think of Wichita State, you think of Gene Stephenson. To hear that they are turning their back on him is shameful."
I have read some media stories hinting the game had passed Stephenson by and that he wasn't able to get the prime recruits like he did in the past. I have to say from a distance — and in my time when I was in Augusta and El Dorado — that it probably was tougher to get the prime recruits; but only because other coaches in the league sat by and just copied Stephenson's ingredients to success.
It's tougher now to stay above .500 and Stephenson was able to keep the Shockers with the winning record, especially with the schedule the team had in 2013. Wichita State finished 39-28 in Stephenson's final season.
They way the Shockers athletic department decision on how to handle their decision of sending Stephenson on their way — almost like throwing the baby out with the bath water — showed little respect for the person who built the nationally-recognized program and all of the improvements not only with players, but facilities as well.
“We have reached a decision to go a different direction with the leadership of our baseball program,” Sexton said in the press release. “Following an evaluation of the program as a whole and a presentation of the options, the decision became clear that this is the proper time to move into a new phase of Shocker Baseball.
“We thank Coach Stephenson for his years of service and the efforts he has made in his life’s work building this program from the beginning.”
…I’m guessing with a unstated “don’t let the door hit you as you walk out” ending.
If the season was a “do-or-die” situation for Stephenson with a Shockers club with only two seniors, there are only two aspects that would even warrant any thought of a departure considering how well the Shockers players overall to earn the tournament and NCAA bid.
One is how the Shockers played in Manhattan, but you have two teams there that have been buzzsaws all season — the Big 12 baseball regular season champions in Kansas State and the team that was the top-ranked squad before the season started in Arkansas.
The Wildcats’ offense has been the baseball version of he 1990’s Loyola Marymount basketball team and showed that early. Arkansas has had one of the strongest pitching staffs in the nation.
The other involves their overall record against teams that had made it into the tournament. If you count the two tournament games, Wichita State lost all seven games to NCAA teams (three to Kansas State, two to Oklahoma State, and single games to Arkansas and Central Arkansas). They also lost both games to the Kansas Jayhawks.
Stephenson had one more year on his contract and had 17 players with three years experience in the Shockers’ program under the released coach.
If anything, how could one more year where you have a stronger ballclub with your chief rival (Creighton) leaving the league where firing the coach could be beneficial? This decision of going a new direction may have made more sense if this were the 2014 with an underperforming team, but not at this time.
Even then with everything Stephenson has done for the program, Pelfrey said it right when he stated: “He deserves to go out on his own terms. This guy is a legend and forcing him out is not right at all.”