Baseball

An Unceremonial Goodbye

I’ve been following this possibility for a couple weeks, and yesterday it happened.

Gene Stephenson, the long-time coach that started the baseball program at Wichita State University and brought the program to prominence on a national scale, was fired yesterday by athletic director Eric Sexton.

It was apparent at the Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament here a few weeks ago that something was in the works. Sexton was around for some of the tournament, but even congratulating Stephenson after a victory against Indiana State, the disconnect between the two was obvious.

How do you fire a future Hall of Fame coach, one that has the second most victories of any active Division I baseball coach?

Reading remarks from Wichita sportswriters and commenters, there’s a clear divide on whether Gene should stay or go, but does the record really merit the dismissal?

I will say this – there have been moments where Stephenson hasn’t endeared himself to the fan base, leaving for a short time to take the job at the University of Oklahoma, only to reconsider and return to Wichita the next day.

There is the reported sexual harassment suit against Stephenson that was later settled privately with no mention of terms.

But if either of these were grounds for dismissal, why now and not then?

I talked to a W.C. Fields-looking Shocker fan when the tournament was being played in Normal. The gentleman, who looked like he could have seen every one of Gene’s 1,837 wins in person, theorized that Gene would be given an additional year with a coach-in-waiting hired to make the transition, a la Mark Kingston assuming the reins from Jim Brownlee at Illinois State.

“He’s 67 years old,” Mr. Fields told me. “He needs to move on or get a coach to mentor.”

Clearly, that didn’t happen.

Wichita fans like to talk about their loyal fan base. The Wichita paper quoting athletic director Sexton publically complaining about Duffy Bass Field as a host for the tournament, citing the minimum requirements for hosting not being enough to merit inclusion into a rotation that has previously included the Shockers, Creighton and Missouri State.

But those minimum requirements easily held the 25-30 clearly identified Wichita State fans in attendance. Exactly where is this fan base?

Absent a real stake in the entire discussion, I will just say it’s a shame.

Wichita has a beautiful stadium, an indoor facility, a national championship, and countless NCAA appearances and Missouri Valley Championships.

They added one appearance and championship each this season.

And yet, the throne now sits empty, watched over by long-time pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who was the director of possibly the most embarrassing moment of Stephenson’s career when former pitcher Ben Christensen beaned Evansville player Anthony Molina while standing in the on-deck circle, effectively ending Molina’s career baseball aspirations.

This is who you leave in charge? I understand that Kemnitz is the recruiting coordinator, but is the possibility of another job so remote that he has to stay on board. This alone is a kick to Stephenson’s shins – I certainly hope Gene was an advocate of the move.

The landscape of college baseball has changed since the 80’s and 90’s when Wichita State was a dominant baseball power. New stadiums have popped up on campuses across the country, games are regularly televised, and there is considerable parity in the sport. As one commenter noted, “Stephenson is being held accountable to the standards he set.” I’m not sure it’s fair to kick a legend to the curb that actually put his school on the map, using his own successes against him.

I have a friend with some connections to Shocker athletics, and I asked him about the athletic director and the entire Gene situation, without asking which side he falls on in the debate.

“He’s [Sexton] a really nice guy who was raised by a Shocker football legend of a father, so he’s got a lot of perspective. But he also strikes me as a bit out of touch with fans, which is why I think it’s taken him a while to raise the buyout money. He’s been the AD for five years now and never had to make a major hiring or firing. Will be a great test for him.”

I watched Sexton closely when he made his way around the confines of Duffy Bass Field. I watched him exuberantly congratulate Stephenson when his team won a loser’s bracket game in the tournament, keeping them alive in what would result in a championship a couple days later.

I commend him for being there. But what was the purpose – looking for that final bit of dirt to justify a decision that had already been made, only to see the legend post one final championship?  I suppose that happened in a 20-11 shellacking against in-state rival Kansas State at the NCAA Regional instead.

I’m just a college baseball fan. I don’t have to make the tough decisions to hire or fire coaches, or even to understand the inner-workings of the athletic department.

But after 36 years, a national championship and a state-of-the-art stadium constructed on the back of a program he created, I think Gene deserved better.

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