Dispatches From The Heartland: Wichita State

WICHITA, Kan.—Rosenblatt Stadium had a way of sneaking up on you, even if you were expecting it. One moment you’d be lazily climbing a hill through a working-class Omaha neighborhood on 10th Street, and the next instant Rosenblatt’s royal blue facade would be stretching skyward in front of you, monolithic against the horizon.

Wichita’s Eck Stadium does that, too. Like Rosenblatt, it has a larger-than-life quality, and it dominates its surrounding area. The first thing people always comment on about Eck Stadium is the height of the thing.

Eck Stadium

Eck Stadium

“The stadium kind of reminds me of the University of Texas,” said Todd Butler, Wichita State’s first-year head coach. “It’s up, it’s on top of the pitcher and the catcher. When you pull up, it’s kind of a shocking stadium—as tall as it is, the top of the press box is almost as high as the light standards.”

The second thing you notice about Eck Stadium is that it is covered with the trappings of its rich history. The Shockers treasure the memories of their seven trips to Rosenblatt from 1982 to 1996, and they celebrate their tradition in three giant murals above the concourse behind home plate; in trophies displayed in the All-American club that sits atop the press box; in banners saluting each of their 55 All-Americans lining the walls of their large indoor practice complex; and in the grand entry plaza known as the Ring of Honor that greets visitors outside Eck Stadium.

In the center of that Ring of Honor is a statue of a boy with a baseball glove and cap. He stands on a brick pedestal that is adorned with plaques on three sides. The plaque on the front says, “Gene Stephenson’s Wichita State University All-Americans.” The second says, “Gene Stephenson’s Wichita State University Freshman All-Americans.” The third says, “Gene Stephenson’s Wichita State University Scholastic All-Americans.” All three plaques are topped by bronzed carvings of Stephenson’s face, with his familiar mustache and stylized “W” cap.

Stephenson’s fingerprints—and his face—are all over Eck Stadium, of course. He was hired in 1977 to resuscitate a program that had been dormant since 1970, and had never been to the NCAA tournament. When he left his post as an assistant at Oklahoma—where he’d been a part of four College World Series teams in five years—he was told repeatedly by every coach and scout he knew that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever building a winning program at Wichita State.

Three years later, Stephenson had the Shockers in a regional. Five years in, they were national runners-up. In 1989, Stephenson led Wichita State to the school’s lone national title in any sport, before or since. He spent 36 years at Wichita State, winning 1,837 games (the second-most in Division I history). And last June, with a year left on his contract, he was fired—after leading the Shockers to a regional.

Gene Stephenson

Gene Stephenson led the Shockers to their lone national title. (Photo by Sam Lewis)

People around the program say they saw it coming. WSU had missed regionals three straight years before 2013, and the program hadn’t been to Omaha since 1996. Even the memories of Wichita’s back-to-back trips to super regionals in 2007 and ’08 were starting to fade. But Stephenson, 68, wasn’t ready to retire, not yet. He had a veteran team coming back in 2014—his best club since 2008, as he saw it—and he wanted a chance to make one more run at Omaha in the final year of his contract. But the administration was ready for a change and wasn’t willing to wait another year. The breakup was messy, and Stephenson said he was “devastated” by it for several weeks.

“For obvious reasons, for whatever it’s worth, I was humiliated and embarrassed over the way this whole deal went down, the way it was handled,” Stephenson said. “I think I was wronged, but you can’t change things. All you can do is think, somewhere, somehow, some good will happen. Right now, at least, I feel good, and at least I can do a lot of things very well for some people who might want me.

“Of course I wish it had been different here. All I can tell you is I’m probably the first guy who’s ever been fired for never having a losing season and winning the conference championship and going to the NCAA tournament. If they wanted to get rid of me, I would have lived with that, that’s fine. But at least give me some dignity and allow me to finish out the year, announce my retirement.”

So Butler found himself in a delicate spot after taking over as Stephenson’s successor. He must walk the fine line between celebrating Wichita State’s history—and making peace with the donors and alumni who supported Stephenson—and putting his own stamp on the program. He seems to have struck the right balance. He’ll have plenty of years to make his mark at Wichita—there’s no reason to turn his back on the past.

“I credit coach Stephenson,” Butler said. “He recruited me in ’86, so I kept up with the Shockers since 1986. So I have great respect for him and his vision and his commitment to the program. He built all of this, through the help of the city of Wichita and the state. To walk in here, you cannot replace him. But this is a great place. I just want to build on what he’s done, and give him all the recognition of the great things he’s done in the 36 years. We just want to keep building on what he’s done, and get all the former all-Americans and major leaguers involved. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’re going to take it one step at a time.”

Todd Butler

Todd Butler was caught in a difficult position in replacing Gene Stephenson.

Brent Kemnitz, Stephenson’s pitching coach for 35 years, found himself in an even more delicate position last summer. He is 11 years Stephenson’s junior, and he had made it clear for some time that he hoped to stay on as pitching coach under whomever eventually replaced Stephenson when he retired. WSU’s athletics director asked Kemnitz to remain in his role as pitching coach after Stephenson was fired, and he even enlisted Kemnitz to help with the coaching search.

Kemnitz said he got to know Butler as a coaching colleague in 1993, when Butler was the head coach of the Jayhawk League’s Liberal Bee Jays, and the Shockers sent some players to Liberal that summer. Butler went on to serve two stints as an assistant at Alabama sandwiched around three years as McNeese State’s head coach, and he joined Dave Van Horn’s staff at Arkansas in 2006. One by one, Butler watched his premier assistant coaching peers get their chances to run major programs, and he started to wonder when his chance would come.

He was near the top of WSU’s list from the beginning of their coaching search. As one of the nation’s best recruiters, Butler won his share of recruiting battles against the Shockers.

“When we recruited against him, it was draining,” Kemnitz said. “My joke when he got here was I knew he could recruit—I just didn’t know he could coach a lick. I’m joking, of course. Talking to my scout buddies in the area, they always said he was one of the best hitting guys around. I think he’s made us all better. He’s a home run hire.”

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It’s certainly an unusual dynamic—the 35-year veteran from the previous coaching staff working alongside the first-year head coach. After Wichita State’s win March 29 against Cal State Fullerton, Kemnitz headed up to the press box for his weekly radio show. He’s something of a radio celebrity in Wichita; from August to January, he appears regularly on a local show called “Sports Daily,” offering up opinions on college and professional basketball and football, and whatever else is happening in the sporting world. At Wichita State’s autograph day, fans kept approaching Kemnitz and telling him they love his radio work. Butler asked him, “Does anybody know you’re a pitching coach? Everybody things you’re a sports radio analyst.”

The two of them have great respect for each other, and their partnership makes plenty of sense. Kemnitz has long been one of the nation’s most respected pitching coaches, and Butler is content to let him run the staff. Butler said he likes the way Kemnitz keeps it simple with players, and he appreciates how Kemnitz has helped ease his own transition. Kemnitz knows what kind of pressure there is to win at Wichita State, and he knows how much fun it can be when the Shockers are winning.

“We’d kind of created our own monster,” Kemnitz said. “The Omaha trips, the super regionals in ’07 and ’08. Then ’10, ’11 and ’12 we didn’t go. So when you create a new watermark of here’s what we expect, there’s people that grumble, because people care. Baseball here is treated like a major sport—I mean, it’s treated big-time. Which is good, because people are into it, it’s a headline in the paper, people are talking about it on talk radio, I have my own radio show. That doesn’t happen. But it’s big time, people love it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to stay here, because you don’t want to labor in obscurity. The last three or four years, attendance was down, we hadn’t performed to what people expected—still good, still at the top of the league, but our RPI wasn’t getting us in regionals if we didn’t win the tournament.”

Change In Philosophy

When Butler took over, he was stunned to learn that Wichita State had zero players committed from the class of 2014 as of June 16, 2013. These days, major college baseball programs begin recruiting players as young as high school freshmen, and getting commitments from sophomores is fairly common. By the time they head into the summer before their senior years, most of the top players are committed. It’s the nature of college recruiting in the 21st century. But Stephenson balked at the prospect of signing players so early, and he found the idea of signing large classes to cover potential draft losses to be distasteful as well.

“One thing I want you to know we tried to do at Wichita State was never oversign,” Stephenson said. “We always told parents, we tried to take the best care of your young son, we’re going to make him a man and make him the best he can be. You have to take a philosophy, a way of doing things. I just couldn’t go into homes, sit down with parents and sell them that this is the place for them, and oversign a bunch of kids knowing that I had to run some off. I could not do that. Most coaches are saying today they have to do it to win. I don’t believe that—I really don’t. But there’s going to be a change of philosophy at Wichita State, I can already see that.”

Gene Stephenson

Gene Stephenson wants to return to coaching. (Photo by John Williamson)

Butler said it took him about five or six months to get caught up on the 2014 and ’15 signing classes. There has been plenty of overlap with players he recruited at Arkansas, and his vast network of connections in the Midwest has allowed him to hit the ground running at Wichita State. Kemnitz spearheaded WSU’s recruiting efforts under Stephenson, so between the two of them, they have many years of recruiting contacts and good will built up.

Kemnitz and Stephenson both wonder what could have been if their 2007 recruiting class hadn’t gotten decimated by the draft. If Derek Norris, Jon Gilmore and Pete Kozma had followed through with their commitments to Wichita State, maybe the Shockers would have kept winning regionals, and the fans would have kept filling up Eck Stadium, and Stephenson would still be there.

But Stephenson says that’s crying over spilled milk. After he dealt with the initial shock of being fired, Stephenson challenged himself to turn it into a positive. In October, he had his second back surgery in three years, and he said he is now pain-free for the first time in three years or more. He wants to coach again—he’s not looking to make a lot of money, and he is willing to groom a coach-in-waiting to take over for him when he retires for real—on his terms—in three to five years.

“I started thinking about it, and I thought, ‘You’ve been preaching this; let’s see how you live it.’ If things happen you can’t control, then you can’t change them,” Stephenson said. “You need to work on trying to make good things happen. I’m still trying to make good things happen. I still think I have a lot to offer a lot of people in a multitude of ways.

“A lot of people think we did great things here. One thing that people have always said about us, that are baseball people, is if you go to Wichita State, it may not be the best weather, it may not be the biggest campus life/atmosphere, it may not be the best conference, but all of them said if you go to Wichita State, you’ll leave there a better player and a better man. We never gave up on anyone, we always tried to make the most of every player. So if someone were to make an offer to me about improving their program—I don’t want to start another one like we did here. That was just really, really difficult, and required seven days a week every week of the year for years and years and years, of raising money. All of it that you see there was raised from numerous different times, eight or nine different major improvements there. It took its toll, because it was not easy to do that. We’ll never have that kind of money that the BCS schools have, the major conferences. I think we could have done even more if we’d been freed up to simply coach and work with our players, as opposed to having to raise money all the time.”

Stephenson sounds a bit wistful as he describes all the upgrades he pushed through over the years at Eck Stadium. He takes great pride in the amenities for the fans and the facilities for the players, including the huge indoor practice field, which has the same turf the Shockers use on their outdoor field and features three drop-down batting cages and a full-size infield. As Scott Gurss, Wichita State’s director of baseball operations, gives a tour of the indoor structure, he points out the photos honoring each of WSU’s College World Series teams, and a wall that lists all of the school’s major league alumni—in addition to those 55 banners saluting the All-Americans.

Casey Gillaspie

Casey Gillaspie is hitting .402 with five homers this season. (Photo by Robert Gurganus)

“Everywhere they look, they see the tradition,” Gurss says. “When you’re recruiting kids, they are impressed with the facility. Mom and dad come in and they know all about Shocker baseball and the history. The kids are like, ‘Really? OK.'”

Eck Stadium has a seating capacity of nearly 8,000, and hundreds more can bring their coolers of beer and food through the right-field gate and watch the game from Coleman Hill. Attendance has been very poor this year thanks to poor weather, the basketball team’s success, and the baseball program’s dip over the last few years. But Butler is confident the fans will come back in full force once they realize the Shockers are pretty darn good. They’re 16-11 right now, coming off a big series win against Cal State Fullerton, and they have the balance and experience to be very dangerous in the postseason.

“At Wichita State, just like basketball, they pack it in, and they love a winner like any program in the country,” Butler said. “I think if we can do something with this team—I would really like for this team to be special, and do something special to kick it off. I remember at Alabama in ’95, we go in there and they’d won 19 games, and we went to Omaha in two years and played for a national championship in three. So this first group needs to be that special group to get us back on track. They went to regionals last year, did a fantastic job. And you know we’re recruiting our tails off right now.”

A new chapter of Shocker baseball is underway. Before long, that tall stadium will be packed with people again, roaring at visiting teams.

“If you’re somebody from the outside, and you roll into campus, and you’re like, ‘Wow, look at that stadium.’ Because it goes up,” Kemnitz said. “Which I like, and that’s one thing Todd talks about: Arkansas goes out, and they have great crowds and a great stadium. We go up. I like that. It has more of an intimidating factor. Todd’s big on the bonding and the mental side, and I am too. Just the mystique, we’ve got to get the mystique back. We’ve got to get, when people come in here, they think they can’t beat us—we’ve got to get that back. And the intimidation, and the swagger. We’ve had a lot of talks with the players about that, and I think they’re embracing it.”