He’s back

New Shocker Hall of Famer Gene Stephenson reflects on career, future

Written by Joe Stumpe

“Hey, Coach!” a fan yells at Gene Stephenson from across a McDonald’s on Wichita’s east side. Stephenson waves and offers a pleasantry. It’s five years since Stephenson coached the Wichita State University baseball team, but to many fans, he’ll always deserve the title.

Stephenson, after all, took a dormant program to the College World Series title game in five years, won the school’s only national championship in 1989 and never posted a losing record in 36 seasons.

On this morning, the 73-year-old Stephenson looks like he should still be in the dugout. He’s dressed in a baseball jersey from the American Legion World Series, sneakers and wrap-around shades. It’s a few days before he’s to be inducted into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame, at a banquet attended by 500 fans and former players, and Stephenson is in a talkative, philosophical mood.

Baseball “is like life itself,” Stephenson says. “Everybody loses. It’s how you react.” Ironically, after years of preaching that message to his players — preaching that all that mattered was the next at-bat, pitch or ground ball — Stephenson lost the thing that was most important to him, the WSU baseball program. He doesn’t pretend to be over his firing, calling it “an unbelievably heartbreaking experience.”

The question now is: Can Stephenson take his own advice?

At his Hall of Fame induction, former players such as Major League Hall of Famer Joe Carter talked about how Stephenson helped mold them into players and men. At the fast-food restaurant, between hellos from a couple more fans, Stephenson chooses to tell the story of his own formative years.

He grew up in Guthrie, Okla., the son of a gas company employee who was adamant that his son attend college. Stephenson was a heavily recruited four-sport athlete who accepted a football scholarship to the University of Missouri. Discouraged after several injuries, Stephenson told his father he planned to quit. Here’s the ensuing conversation, as he recalls:

Dad: “No, you’re not, you’re going back. You gave your word that you would play with them.”

Son: “I don’t think I am.”

Dad: “I don’t give a damn what you think. The only way you’re not going back is if you whip my ass, and I don’t think you can.”

Retelling the story a half-century later, Stephenson grins and says: “I don’t believe I could have either.”

Stephenson ended up telephoning the Missouri coach, who let him remain on scholarship while playing for the baseball team. Stephenson went on to win the Big Eight batting title in 1967, became captain of the team and was named to the all-conference squad.

“What I got from him,” Stephenson says of his father, “is when you give your word, you keep it. I think my players would say I kept my word when I gave them my word.”

Like many young men of the time, Stephenson hoped college would keep him out of the Vietnam War. It didn’t. But first, his sports background got him an assignment coaching baseball and football teams made up of Army personnel in Berlin, long before its famous wall came down. Stephenson had to find and recruit players from among the troops. Not surprisingly, their superior officers weren’t always eager to free them up for practices and games. Nevertheless, the teams won two European Army championships.

When he got out of the Army, he wrote college baseball coaches, asking for the chance to become a graduate assistant. Oklahoma gave him the chance. He became a full-time assistant shortly after, then got a side job as a recruiter for football coach Barry Switzer. Both programs racked up conference championships, with the baseball team qualifying for five straight College World Series and the football team winning a national championship.

“Loved the guy,” Stephenson says of Switzer. “He was confident. Good times, boy.”

Stephenson brought that same swagger to the position of head baseball coach at WSU, which he accepted in 1978 at age 31. “Everybody said you’ve lost your mind,” he says. “I was so confident I could get it done.”

Stephenson didn’t just create a team where there was none. He established a whole infrastructure for the program, starting with a baseball field to play games on. Given meager resources by the athletic department, he went out into the community to raise money for travel, scholarships and facilities such as Eck Stadium and the Bombardier Learjet Practice Facility.

Early on, the best sales pitch Stephenson could offer to recruits was simple: “Son, you’re going to play.” He’d also show them an artist’s rendition of the impressive stadium he promised was in the works.

There was one other thing he stressed when talking about what it meant to be a Shocker. “The terms we used were ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘ours.’ It was never about ‘I’ or ‘me.’ ”

The rest is literally baseball history: 20 Missouri Valley Conference championships, 26 NCAA tournament appearances, seven trips to the College World Series, dozens of All-American and future major league players.

There were a few blips along the way, including the bizarre 1999 beaning of an opposing player in the on-deck circle and Stephenson’s 2005 decision to jump to OU, which he took back within hours. When Stephenson was fired in 2013, it had been 16 years since the team’s last College World Series appearance and the team’s winning percentage was down from the gaudy early years.

In Stephenson’s opinion, what really led the school to dismiss him was partly his fault: although popular in the community, he says, “Every [WSU] administration, I was at odds with. I made no real friends in the administration.”

Even so, it’s difficult for him to swallow that he wasn’t allowed to set his own timetable, given that there was just one year left on his agreement with WSU. “I would have been willing to do anything to finish that contract.”

Stephenson is now engaged to Janet Howser, daughter of the late Kansas City Royals coach Dick Howser, his first marriage having ended after 43 years. “She loves being in Wichita, loves sports and believe it or not, loves me,” he says.

Stephenson’s rapprochement with WSU actually started last season, when his successor, Todd Butler, invited him to work with some players. “I love having him around the team,” Butler says. “It took some time and that’s been a big deal for me.”

The day after his Hall of Fame induction, Stephenson received a standing ovation at a Shocker basketball game. He will speak at the baseball program’s annual First Pitch Banquet on Feb. 1.

He seems finally ready to heed the advice he dished out for so long: “The only thing that matters is, what are you going to do today?”

Stephenson doesn’t know what role, if any, he’ll play in the baseball program going forward, but says he’ll do “anything we can do to give back to Wichita State.”

“We put our heart and soul into Wichita State.

 
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