By Will Kimmey
July 12, 2005
Eight hours after standing before an Oklahoma backdrop, wearing a Sooners jersey and tearing up at the thought of fulfilling a lifelong dream to coach Oklahoma’s baseball team, Gene Stephenson changed his mind Monday night and returned to Wichita State.
The decision stemmed from what Stephenson termed “unresolvable scholarship issues” at Oklahoma. The Wichita Eagle reported that Stephenson became nervous when Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione told him during a July 8 meeting the Sooners were four scholarships over the 11.7 limit for the 2006 season.
After their introductory press conference Monday, Stephenson and assistants Brent Kemnitz and Jim Thomas, who came with him from Wichita State, met with the Oklahoma players and could not find a resolution to the scholarship overrun. Stephenson, a Guthrie, Okla., native, then decided to turn down his dream job in his home state and return to Wichita State, which has become his second home after he resurrected the program in 1977 and won 1,506 games and the 1989 College World Series there.
“We are very appreciative for the opportunity to coach at the University of Oklahoma,” said Stephenson, 59, who had not signed his Oklahoma contract. “However, some scholarship issues have arisen that are unresolvable to our satisfaction. We have worked over the years at Wichita State in order to use our scholarships and to plan for the use of our future scholarships.
“As we assessed the Oklahoma baseball scholarship situation, we would be too limited in our ability to take the program in the direction that we think it should go. OU has always been our dream job, and it is most unfortunate for all of us that this could not work. We dearly love the University of Oklahoma, and are very thankful to have been given the opportunity.
“Unfortunately, the scholarship issues have forced us to reconsider, and have made a decision to stay at Wichita State University.”
Stephenson and his assistants returned to Wichita Monday night and began calling Shockers players and recruits to inform them of the decision.
“This is very much a Gene decision,” Wichita State president Don Beggs told the Eagle. “Needless to say, it’s a surprise. This was Gene’s day, and I know it’s been a hard decision for him, but when I spoke to him it was not an emotional discussion. From my perspective, this is the final decision.”
The change suddenly ends the unrest surrounding Wichita State. There’s no more worry about finding a coach, losing players who were rumored to be following him to Oklahoma or preserving the stature of a national program.
That pressure all has shifted back to Oklahoma. Castiglione now must resume his coaching search, and the eventual hire will technically be the fourth Sooners coach since May, when Larry Cochell resigned following racially insensitive comments. Top candidates include Sunny Golloway, who finished the season as interim coach, Louisiana State coach Smoke Laval and Hawaii’s Mike Trapasso, who played two seasons at Oklahoma State.
“We’re obviously disappointed in Gene’s decision,” Castiglione said. “Every coaching job, especially in a time of transition, has obstacles. As is the case with any incoming staff member, we disclosed issues we anticipated before the job was accepted.
“We believed in the decision to hire Gene and would have enjoyed the opportunity to work with him. This is unfortunate, but we’ll move forward to fill our position. Gene Stephenson is a very fine person and a fine coach and we have to respect his decision and move on with our selection process expeditiously.”