Wichita State Fires College Baseball Titan Gene Stephenson

Gene Stephenson, the second-winningest coach in college baseball history, has been fired after 36 seasons as Wichita State’s head coach.

One of the most important figures in the sport’s history, Stephenson, 67, built the Shockers from the ground up, going 1,837-673-3 (.731) and leading the program to seven College World Series trips, the 1989 national title, and 28 regionals—including the Manhattan Regional this year, the Shockers’ first postseason trip since 2009. That three-year drought was Wichita State’s longest since it made its first regional in 1980.

Gene Stephenson

Gene Stephenson (Photo by Sam Lewis)

Speculation swirled around Stephenson’s job security all season long, and the Wichita Eagle reported Monday that he was given a choice to resign or be fired. The school made it crystal clear which choice he made when it sent out a short clarification e-mail Tuesday that read, “Gene Stephenson was fired, he did not resign, he did not retire.”

The program has slipped in recent years—it has been largely out of the national spotlight since winning back-to-back regionals in 2007 and ’08, and it hasn’t been to Omaha since 1996. The Shockers finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference this year and earned the league’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

But that wasn’t enough to save Stephenson’s job. Rather than let him finish out his contract—which was set to expire after next season—and retire on his own terms, Wichita State elected to terminate his contract now.

“We have reached a decision to go a different direction with the leadership of our baseball program,” director of athletics Eric Sexton said in a 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.”

When Wichita State opened the season by getting swept at home by Pittsburgh, it marked the first time the Shockers had been swept at home in a three-game series since 1970—the program’s final active season before Stephenson restarted it in 1978. Stephenson had been 69-0 at home all-time in the month of February before that series. So while that series was a sign that Wichita State has lost some of its mystique, it also highlighted just how remarkable Stephenson’s tenure was.

Stephenson’s program has long been characterized by an aura of toughness—even ruthlessness—that comes from the top. A program built with hard-nosed, blue-collar players accustomed to the unforgiving climate of the Great Plains, Wichita State was the bully of the Valley for decades. The biggest stain on the legacy of Stephenson and longtime pitching coach Brent Kemnitz was the 1999 incident when WSU ace Ben Christensen beaned Evansville’s Anthony Molina with a warmup pitch while Molina stood in the on-deck circle, 24 feet from home plate. The ball struck Molina above his left eye, breaking bones and permanently damaging his vision. At the time, the Wichita Eagle quoted Kemnitz as saying he taught his pitchers to brush back hitters in that situation.

In 2005, Stephenson actually left Wichita State to become the head coach at Oklahoma—for one day. Several hours after accepting the job, he changed his mind and headed back to Wichita.

So Stephenson’s legacy is complicated, but his place in history is secure. The team’s 1989 national title was a unique accomplishment, as it’s the only one for a team out of the Sun Belt or California between Ohio State’s 1966 title and the Oregon State back-to-back crowns of 2006-2007. And Stephenson’s .735 winning percentage entering the season ranked third among active Division I coaches behind North Carolina’s Mike Fox and Florida State’s Mike Martin.

Sexton said in the release that Kemnitz, who joined Stephenson’s staff as a graduate assistant in 1979, will assume day-to-day responsibilities and operations of the baseball program. “Negotiations have begun to extend Brent’s contract (which already runs through 2014) to remain on staff, and be a part of Shocker Baseball moving forward,” Sexton said. “He has removed himself as a candidate for the head coaching position.”

Wichita State produced a number of major leaguers under the guidance of Stephenson and Kemnitz, from Blue Jays’ 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter to infielders Mike Lansing, Pat Meares and Casey Blake, to current big leaguers such as Mike Pelfrey, Conor Gillaspie and Andy Dirks. And righty Darren Dreifort was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1993 draft, the highest-drafted player in Shockers history.

The Wichita job will draw plenty of interest from quality candidates, because the facilities, fan base and tradition are very appealing. Arkansas assistant Todd Butler, long regarded as one of the best available head coach candidates among the assistant ranks, would seem like a strong contender. Oklahoma State’s staff features two big-name assistants who could be targeted—Rob Walton and Marty Lees. Dallas Baptist head coach Dan Heefner has MVC experience and has turned the Patriots into an annual contender. The Shockers might make a play for another coach in the Valley, such as Illinois State’s Mark Kingston. Saint Louis head coach Darin Hendrickson has done a masterful job building the Billikens into an Atlantic 10 Conference power despite limited resources, making him another interesting possibility.

And former Arizona State coach Pat Murphy would be a very intriguing choice to follow in Stephenson’s footsteps; he has the resume, confidence and persona to succeed one of college baseball’s most prominent figures. He already did it once, when he took over for Jim Brock at ASU.