Q&A- Wichita State's Gene Stephenson

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You don't tell a rough and tumble man from Guthrie, Oklahoma that you can't take pressure. That's one thing I've noticed about Gene Stephenson's teams Wichita State, they're usually mentally tough and have an ornery disposition.

But that's also why I've noticed Coach Stephenson grousing about his teams the last few years. He's gone on record at the Wichita Eagle that his recent teams haven't had a toughness about them, haven't been mentally strong and have shown a lack of aggressiveness.

For a man who played football at Missouri and went to the frontlines in Vietnam, that inexcusable, bordering on sacrilege. He didn't earn his 1,606 victories by playing tentatively. If he hadn't been aggressive and confident, his Wichita State program might not have ever gotten off the ground, much less been in the College World Series four years after being reborn in 1978.

Yep, this is an impressive man. And an impressive program. He was the one in charge of kick-starting Shocker baseball again after it had sat dormant for seven years. A thankless task, sure, but he made something special out of it right away. His first team went 43-30-1. And that was no fluke, because his second team went 65-15. And remember, that's 107 wins in two years after having nothing to work with. This is no George-Horton-and-a-truckload-of-NIke-money situation.

I got the chance to catch up with the winningest coach in Division I just as his team was taking batting practice before Sunday's getaway game at Long Beach State.

Me:
Hi coach, I'm Eric Sorenson from CSTV.

Coach Stephenson:
Did you play at Creighton?

Me:
Nope. Just a fan of theirs from growing up in Omaha. But I did go to Creighton's basketball camp, if it matters (knowing that it didn't).

Coach Stephenson:
Okay, must be a different Sorenson I'm thinking of.

Me:
Probably Scott Sorensen from the early 90s. Coach, if you don't mind, I'd like to go way back a bit. I was going to ask how this whole Wichita State job came available for you? How did you know about it? And how things got started.

Coach Stephenson:
Well I was at Oklahoma for five years, working for Enos (Semore), we'd been to the College World Series five years in a row and things were good. I was recruiting for football as well for Coach Switzer and we were doing well there too.

Me:
You recruited for Switzer. That's awesome.

Coach Stephenson:
Yeah, because I'd been a football player at Missouri, as well as a baseball player. And Coach Switzer recruited me out of high school when he was an assistant at Arkansas. So that's how we knew each other. So eventually, Wichita sent out a release, looking for a baseball coach. At the time I was frustrated because I had never considered taking another job. Back in those days there wasn't a lot of turnover as there is today. Things weren't nearly as competitive as they are now. Especially with the money that people put into their programs.

Me:
Right.

Coach Stephenson:
So there were no openings out there. Enos had given me a lot of responsibility on his staff and prepared me to be a head coach. So I was better prepared than just about any other assistants out there, but there were no jobs. So when the Wichita thing came across as a possibility, I jumped at it. At the time I didn't care about the money. I was more concerned about the opportunity. I think at the time there was something like 82 applicants and I had no idea who they were. I think - to be truthful - maybe I was the only one that was really interested in taking it. (small laugh)

Me:
So I assume Coach Semore put in a good word for you and everything?

Coach Stephenson:
Oh of course. But the problem was it wasn't an attractive position. It only paid one thousand dollars a month and it was a month-to month-to month job. There was no office. No car. No phones. No benefits at all.

Me:
When you were there early on - I mean, I'm sure you were a confident guy - but did you anticipate having that much success early on as you did?

Coach Stephenson:
Well I was a little stupid and a little naive probably. Because at the time I never doubted it. Never doubted that we'd be a winner. I never doubted that we'd be as good as anyone in the country in four or five years. We kept that belief the whole time and we were able to bring in players that had that same belief. The one thing we had was an ability to recognize talent that hadn't been refined yet. And honestly, we got some guys to come in right away because they knew they were going to get a chance to play right away.

And we also scraped together enough money to get an astro-turf field, which was a big deal at the time. It also made us play a faster game. And four years later, we're in the championship game of the College World Series.

Me:
Amazing. Really.

Coach Stephenson:
And back home, we had no stands, no seats, no press box, no locker rooms. Nothing.

Me:
I was going to ask you about that, just how bare bones it was for you then?

Coach Stephenson:
There wasn't anything. No locker rooms meant that the guys changed clothes in their cars.

Me:
(laughing) My God.

Coach Stephenson:
Yeah. We just had good players. That's all. And that was the most important thing, that they believed they were good players.

Me:
Do you see anything like this happening in this day and age? I mean, maybe Oregon because they are going to have a lot of money behind them

Coach Stephenson:
No, nothing like that is going to happen again. I mean, there will be a program where you have something come from nothing, but only because they have a lot of money. I don't think you'd see anything like what we did happen again.

Me:
Was you biggest influence on you Coach Semore?

Coach Stephenson:
Well there were a number of people of course. My parents. I mean the work ethic that my mom and dad gave me was one. Everything was based from growing up in small-town Guthrie, Oklahoma. You earn what you got and that was it, you know?

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(Longtime Oklahoma coach Enos Semore)

Coach Stephenson:
So having spent time in the service, including a year in Vietnam, it kind of gave me a toughness, you know? Then five years at Oklahoma was great because Enos gave me a lot of responsibility because he trusted me. So I gained confidence from that. But that was a big thing too. Enos was a hard-working guy, really committed to being excellent in every way. Honest man, straight up. Good as they come. But the most important thing was that we got players that weren't afraid of hard work.

Me:
Good guys that weren't afraid to get their hands dirty, right?

Coach Stephenson:
Not afraid of a challenge that we don't have as much as anybody else, but that doesn't keep us from being as good or better than anybody else. We had ornery guys in some cases... but tough guys too, you know? Then we had our share of really first class people like Joe Carter... Charlie O'Brien and Jim Thomas, my long time assistant. They were all successful because they were hungry for it.

Me:
Kind of like you were coming out of Guthrie, right? I'm guessing that's where you got your work ethic.

Coach Stephenson:
Oh yeah. Sure. That's the kind of tough players we wanted to get. Back then you found athletes where you could. A lot of these early guys never played baseball in high school. Kevin Penner (from Omaha) came to us on a basketball scholarship and he wanted to be a baseball player and he became an All American for us. Mike Lansing made the major leagues and he didn't play high school ball. Pat Meares didn't play in high school. Joe Carter played maybe five or six games in high school because the program he came from was terrible.

Me:
That's amazing to think about.

Coach Stephenson:
Oh sure, because back then you didn't have all these showcases and Area Code Games and traveling teams. Back then you had to go out and find players that were raw talents. Players that wanted to play hard and be great players. And that really set us apart from other programs.

Me:
Do you find it tougher to find players like that nowadays?

Coach Stephenson:
Sure I do. Society has gotten softer. Parents want to give in more, even to the point of going into debt for their sons. It's a sad thing, you know. Parents want to give them everything they want. Now they're all spoiled to an extent.

Me:
I know you'd been a long-time proponent of a common start date.

Coach Stephenson:
Yeah. For about 35 years now. (Laughs)

Me:
Now that that's happened, and I know it's early, do you notice any difference this year?

Coach Stephenson:
No there's nothing different so far. But what it really does is that it supposedly doesn't allow anybody to practice before we do. Supposedly it doesn't allow anyone to play games before we do. And it forces every team in the country to play the same amount of games in the same amount of time. So I think that's fair. But, do I think that the weather is ever going to be conducive to it all evening out? No. But let me be clear, I've been saying this all along too, I think the only fair way to handle college baseball is for everyone to start April 1st and have the regular season end the first of August, then have the College World Series finish up at the end of August. That's the only totally fair way.

Me:
Quick questions here, what's the best pitching staff you've had in all your years at Wichita State? Is there one you can single out more than others?

Coach Stephenson:
Wow. I don't think you can single one out. I know the ones that people remember the most are the '82 staff because we had Bob Heinkel, who still holds the college record for most wins in a season. We had Brian Oelkers who was the fifth pick overall in the '82 draft, one pick ahead of Dwight Gooden. So he was pretty good. And the third guy on that staff was Erik Sonberg, he was a first round draft pick in 1983. Those three guys won 18, 17 and 16 games. So that's 51 wins from three guys. I don't think you could ever top that. Then our fourth guy won 11 games.

Me:
Was that the 72-win team?

Coach Stephenson:
73 wins.

Me:
Well I don't guess that'll be broken anytime soon, huh?

Coach Stephenson:
No, probably not. And there were a lot of other staffs that were really good.

Me:
Yeah, I remember a few of those staffs from the early 90s.

Coach Stephenson:
You had Kennie Steenstra that went 17-0 in '91 and he played in the big leagues. Darren Dreifort and Jamie Bluma, both of those guys pitched in the big leagues too. And Tyler Green was a first round pick. That '91 team ended up losing in the finals.

Me:
To LSU, that's right. And that was also the team that you guys played that great game against Creighton in the College World Series.

Coach Stephenson:
Yep. Jim Hendry was coaching that team. They had a great team. But the only team they couldn't beat was us.

Me:
Oh yeah, I remember you guys owned them.

Coach Stephenson:
We played them eight times that year and we beat them all eight times. In fact, the only close game was the one in the World Series that went extra innings (a 3-2 Shocker win in 11 innings)

Me:
One of the greatest games I've ever seen. But I wonder, do you think Coach Hendry should've sent that runner from second on that play where the guy was tagged out at the plate?

(See the play at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjPiLHAKRAw)

Coach Stephenson:
I don't think he had a choice. I don't.

Me:
I've always been curious as to what you thought about that.

Coach Stephenson:
Well, it was a pinch runner so you figure he had to be quick enough. (Laughs). But that was a whale of a throw from center field to get him

Me:
Oh, Jim Audley? Hell yeah. That was incredible. Since '96, the last time you've been to the College World Series, what was the best team you've had that didn't make it? Was last year as good as it got?

Coach Stephenson:
You can look at a lot of teams that could've gone. '98... '99... that was the year that Christenson did his stupid stuff, you know.

(He's referring to the incident at Evansville where ace Ben Christianson beaned EU lead off batter Jeff Molina in the eye because he thought he was standing too close to home plate during warm-ups... for the record, I didn't bring this incident up, Coach just rolled right into it.)

Had that not happened, I think we would've won it all because he was the number one pitcher around. But he... (pause, kick the ground with his cleats for a moment) I still don't understand what he was doing on that one.

But 2004 and 2007 were both really good teams too.

Me:
I'll be honest, I thought you guys had that one last year. Home Super Regional. Playing a No. 2 seed.

Coach Stephenson:
I did too. I tell you.

Me:
I underestimated Irvine and I had seen them play a couple of times last year.

Coach Stephenson:
I think everybody underestimated them. Because they played the game so well because they weren't an over-powering offense, but they had a really good approach to the game. If their pitchers were on - and they had to be really on - you were going to have a tough time scoring runs on them. And so... we pitched really great against them, but you know, we couldn't get the right hit at the right time.

Sometimes that just happens in baseball. You know, we've had a lot of good teams since '96 that were good enough and were even better than some of the teams that have gone to Omaha. The RPI is a heavy factor and it's unfair the way it's set up, it still favors the Southern teams. But I think creation of the Super Regionals has made it tougher to get there, unless you're playing a lot of home series in the Regional and Super Regional. But it's also important that your team is playing well at the right time and getting the right bounces.

In the major leagues you play 162 games and then a best-of-seven playoffs, but in college you can be bad in one 24-hour period and get two losses and be sent home.

Me:
Two more things I wanted to ask you about before I go, the status of the Missouri Valley Conference, the last 10 years what have you seen that has made it better or worse?

Coach Stephenson:
I think every team - every team - has two quality starting pitchers, at least. And that's what makes it so much tougher. Everybody has somebody that can beat you. It wasn't always that way. Not 10 years ago. So that quality of pitching has made a big difference. We've had a lot of success in that league, but it's never easy. Especially nowadays. It's a lot tougher.

Me:
Okay, lastly, who's a better coach, you or your former player Eric Wedge?

Coach Stephenson:
(Laughs) That's easy, Eric Wedge. He was the American League Manager of the Year last year with the Indians, so he is.

Comments

Great interview with Coach Stephenson. It's always interesting to get the coaches' often unique perspectives on issues affecting the game- especially those who were around back when college baseball was just starting to become popular.

Nice Job, as a Shocker fan it is always fun to hear Coach Stephenson discuss the team...he is just so honest (or seems to be) about it. Great interview!

Great article, thanks for doing it. I don't always think he gets the respect and notoriety that he deserves. He is truly a legend among college baseball coaches and we are honored to have him at Wichita State. GO SHOX!!!!!!

No prob guys. I've always wanted to talk with him about his early days in Wichita. He was a fun interview. Kind of like I expected, gruff and tumble, but straightforward. No b.s. at all. He did talk a little slower - or should I say more carefully - than I expected. And as I said in the column, he surprised me by bringing up the Christensen beaning. Sure I probably should've brought something up about his flirtation with the Oklahoma job, but I was afraid he was gonna kick my ass.
(insert one of those creepy 'just kidding' smiley faces here).

E.

Thanks for the interview. This was great insight. Gene has done an unbelievable job at Wichita State. It is hard to believe that he started with nothing and was in the College World Series Championship game in 4 years. His record over the past 30 years is incredible. He is truly one of the greatest coaches in College baseball history. Thanks for all of the insight!

Gene stephenson has denied that Ben Christensen beaning forever! What a hypocrite! He didn't even visit Molina in the hospital. Give me a break, Stephenson is a phony! He knew about the beaning and his team hasn't been back to college world series since the incident.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert