Image credit: Eric Wedge (Photo by Otto Greule, Getty Images)
Wichita State on Wednesday announced it hired Eric Wedge, former Indians and Mariners manager, as its next head coach. Wedge was a standout player at Wichita State, winning the national championship in 1989 as well as All-America honors that year.
Wedge returns to his alma mater and the college game after spending his entire career in pro ball. He began his coaching career in the Indians’ system in 1998 and worked his way up the ladder, becoming their manager in the big leagues in 2003. He was named American League manager of the year in 2007 after leading the Indians to the AL Central title and falling one win short of the World Series. After he was fired by the Indians following the 2009 season, he was hired by the Mariners before the 2011 season and spent three years as the Mariners manager. Since his time as Mariners manager, Wedge worked as a studio analyst for ESPN for two years and has been a part of the Blue Jays’ front office since 2016.
Wedge is a popular pick in Wichita, which is trying to recapture the glory days of Gene Stephenson. But he has no college coaching experience and walks into a difficult situation as the Shockers have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, an appearance that was later vacated due to NCAA rules violations.
To make things even more difficult, Wichita State moved to the American Athletic Conference two years ago, a more competitive league than the Missouri Valley. That gives the Shockers a better conference and helps its RPI, but it also means its competing with the likes of Central Florida, East Carolina, Houston and South Florida on a week-to-week basis.
But Wichita State followed a much more traditional path with its last hire, picking Todd Butler, who was an assistant coach at Arkansas and had been a head coach at McNeese State, to lead the program. That move didn’t work out, and Butler was fired Sunday after going 169-180-1 in six years with the Shockers. He raised the level of recruiting and landed back-to-back Top-25 recruiting classes in 2014-15, which produced Alec Bohm and Greyson Jenista, who were both drafted in the top two rounds last year.
Now, Wichita State will try something bolder. Former big leaguers returning to their alma maters have had mixed results. Darin Erstad has had a solid run at Nebraska. Tony Gwynn elevated San Diego State’s program. Troy Percival has struggled mightily at UC Riverside. None, however, have truly broken through.
Wedge is believed to be the first former MLB manager to be hired as a college coach since Don Kessinger was hired by Ole Miss, his alma mater, before the 1991 season. Kessinger spent one season as player-manager of the White Sox in 1979.
That is Wedge’s challenge at Wichita State. The program made seven College World Series appearances under Stephenson, most recently in 1996. Getting back to that level will be a big ask, but that’s what the Shockers are shooting for with this hire.