Wichita State to honor Gene Stephenson

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WICHITA, Kan. (WSU Athletics) -

Former Wichita State Baseball head coach Gene Stephenson has earned a permanent and illuminated spot in all of college baseball history. Stephenson built Shocker Baseball into a nationally dominant program with numerous national NCAA Division I records over his 36 years as head coach, highlighted by the 1989 National Championship.

The Pizza Hut Shocker Sports Hall of Fame will honor his legacy as the sole inductee of the 2019 Hall of Fame Class.  The induction events and ceremony will take place over the weekend of Dec. 14-16, 2018 with more details to follow at a later date.

“The program was built on the backs of many, but only under the leadership of one and we can’t think of a better way to honor Coach Stephenson,” said Darron Boatright, WSU Director of Athletics. “The Shocker Sports Hall of Fame has never had a sole inductee in a class honored this way and this gesture is a tip of the cap to Gene and his career of unprecedented success. I have serious doubts that anyone else could have started and led the Shocker Baseball program with the speed and to the heights of Gene Stephenson.” 

Over his tenure, Coach Stephenson’s teams led the nation in Academic All-Americans at all levels of NCAA Baseball in addition to 54 baseball All-Americans.  His teams made seven College World Series appearances (three runner-up finishes), won 20 MVC regular season titles and 17 MVC Tournament Championships, made 27 NCAA Tournament appearances and recorded a 1,768-673-3 overall record.  Coach Stephenson is one of only three NCAA Division I head coaches in the history of the game to compile more than 1,500 wins.  The other two are Augie Garrido and Mike Martin.

A Guthrie, Oklahoma native, Wichita State hired Stephenson, on February 11, 1977.  Then in his fifth year as assistant coach to Enos Semore at the University of Oklahoma, their teams had taken five trips to the College World Series in those five consecutive seasons. 

Gene would become the new head coach of a restart WSU program, one that had not played since shutting down in 1970; a team that had no field and no baseballs. The Shockers shared practice space with the marching band and played games at McAdams Park and Lawrence-Dumont Stadium before Shocker Field, the forerunner to Eck Stadium, opened during the 1978 season. 

“What he did for college baseball (nationally) and what he did for Wichita State, it’s really unmatched in terms of what has happened in college baseball over the years,” said Loren Hibbs, former Shocker player, Shocker assistant coach, and current head coach at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“He was on a mission,” says Brent Kemnitz, who joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 1978 and later became pitching coach.  “It was - this is how we’re going to do it. It was never a question of whether it was going to happen.  Five years into the program we were playing in the national championship game of the College World Series in Omaha.”

From the modest beginnings came a national powerhouse, one that yearly competed with other national perennial rivals such as Arizona State, University of Southern California, Texas, and other warm weather schools.  When Wichita State won the national championship, the Shockers became one of only two “cold” weather schools to have ever won the national championship, which dates back to 1947. The other is Ohio State.

Stephenson was also a national advocate for advancement and visibility of the game.  He argued for pushing the season later into the spring to give weather parity to all schools, for more televised games and for adding a 20-second pitch clock to speed up play in the early 1990s.  He knew that for televised coverage to expand which would further popularized college baseball, the game must speed up.  He famously insisted on playing an ESPN televised home game in the snow.

Stephenson, on his own and in concert with others such as LSU’s Skip Bertman, Miami’s Ron Frazier, Oklahoma State’s Gary Ward, and USC’s Rod Dedeaux, continued to grow the game in popularity, which yielded more televised games each year, including the NCAA Tournament and the College World Series.  

Coach Stephenson fundraised $18M to build Eck Stadium, a college baseball stadium of such stature, his vision set a new national standard of excellence.

Stephenson coached National Players of the Year Joe Carter, Phil Stephenson (his brother who currently holds the most individual NCAA Division I Baseball records in the history of the game,) and Darren Dreifort.  He coached 13 first-round MLB Draft picks, 16 MVC Players of the Year and 12 MVC Pitchers of the Year.

Coach Stephenson was named National Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association in 1982, 1989 and 1993.

“He is a tremendous evaluator of talent,” Hibbs said. “He could find kids that were really good athletes who decided (late) to play baseball.  You had to be able to identify them, and then you had to have things in place to develop them.”

Gene Stephenson’s coaching legacy stands alone.  From the multitudes of NCAA records to the sole national championship coach in Wichita State Athletics history, he will be honored accordingly over the coming year.

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