He Built It and They Came
In 1977, Gene Stephenson took over a non-existent baseball program at Wichita State. Since then, he has solidified his legendary rating as one of the premier coaches in college baseball en route to elevating the Shockers— the winningest Division I program over the last three decades— to elite status. Stephenson is the second-winningest coach (1,605-533-3 in 30 seasons) in the game behind Texas’ Augie Garrido, who has 1,629-755-8 record over 39 seasons. Under Stephenson’s leadership, the Shockers have made seven College World Series, winning in 1989. They are considered the benchmark for developing a winning tradition from scratch.
Interview by Kevin NewellCOACH: You grew up in Guthrie, OK and attended Guthrie High School, where you were a four-sport standout, including a first-team all-state selection in baseball and football your senior season. How did it feel spending your childhood and teen years in a small Southwest town?
STEPHENSON: I think it was a great place to grow up – a lot of red clay there. It was a small town atmosphere and the fact that we grew up in a poor setting; I never realized it until much later that other people had more things. People respected one another and cared about one another. And we all felt comfortable meeting new people all of the time. Maybe I wasn’t as worldly as I needed to be to tackle the rest of the world, but I think it gave me a good background for work ethic, number one. Understanding the importance of relationships with people. And that a man is only as good as his word.
I don’t remember how I got involved in sports other than I became a huge Oklahoma football fan around 1952. I had just turned seven years old. I would listen to the Sooner games every Saturday. I could almost recite every play after that. Then I just began to follow all sports as best I could. We didn’t have TV at the time. But we had a radio. That was huge. Like every other kid in a small town, we’d gather kids to play pick-up games and play baseball in the summertime in vacant lots, wherever we could find one. We’d emulate different players. Sports kind of became my passion even though at that time I didn’t know what passion was. It was something that occupied my mind all of the time.
COACH: In 1968 you graduated from the U. of Missouri, where you attended your first year on a football scholarship. However, you found more success in baseball, leading the Big Eight in hitting one year and earning all-league honors and All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) in 1967 as well as serving as team captain. How good of a player were you and did you ever entertain playing professionally?
STEPHENSON: In my own mind I am sure I thought I was a great player but I think it was very difficult to tell because we only played like 25 games in a season. We were in a cold weather climate. We were pretty good, we had some good players. But at the same time most of them were initially two-sport athletes. Many of the best players were football/baseball players. The scouts kept telling me that I could play, but I couldn’t see, because I had bad eyes and thick glasses. Contacts hadn’t been refined well enough at that point in time that you could wear them. I could really run. I was left handed all the way. My brother Phil had the benefit of being 15 years younger and he emulated me all the time. I played with him a lot when he was younger and tried to teach him different things. I don’t know if I was that good. I guess you’d have to ask my teammates. But I played the game hard, I played the game with great intensity, and I didn’t know any other way to play.
I started out in right field and played on the Big Eight championship team in 1965, and sometimes center field. I did that my sophomore and junior years. But I really, really liked playing first base better. Mainly because you’re closer to the action and you have more opportunities to be involved. My senior year I played first base most of the time.
I was a tail back in football. Back in high school, I played both ways. I was called a monster back on defense – just go around and follow the ball. I was a running back at Missouri. But I was hurt all of the time.
COACH: After a year at Missouri as a graduate assistant on the baseball staff, you served a three-year stint in the Army, spending one year in Vietnam. Upon returning to the U.S., you took an assistant coaching position under Enos Semore at Oklahoma, where you served as recruiting coordinator and hitting instructor and helped guide the Sooners to five Big Eight Conference championships and five College World Series appearances.
What did you learn about yourself and the game that led you to a life in college baseball?
STEPHENSON: I think the first guy that really gave me a feel for baseball and taught me that there was a game beyond the game – that the mental side of the game was important – was Eph Williams. He was my American Legion coach who had played with Allie Reynolds at Oklahoma State. Eph also brought back another Oklahoma State player from Triple A named Bobby Sloan, and both of them passed along valuable information on how to play the game.
The coach at Missouri at the time was John “Hi” Simmons, a Hall of Famer who was a tough old football guy who most football/baseball players thrived on, because we could take criticism from him a lot easier than from a guy who hadn’t played a lot of football. He was pretty tough on the guys verbally. He coached Norm Stewart in the mid to late 50s. Norm became the basketball coach my last year at Missouri.
The relationships you have during those times are amazing— how things turn out. When I look back and I think, Barry Switzer recruited me very hard out of high school when he was an assistant at Arkansas. That relationship has been maintained to this day.
When I went to Oklahoma to work for Enos Semore, Barry got the job as the head football coach. During the next couple of years he had me work and recruit for football. It was a great experience. I recruited J.C. Watts.
I have to thank Enos Semore for giving me the opportunity to start as a graduate assistant after I came back from the service. He gave me a different insight than I ever had before because he was a hard working guy. He was a self taught guy – trial and error guy. He was very honest. He allowed me to expand and do more things than perhaps any other assistant in the country at that time. It prepared me a great deal for the tremendous task that I had in front of me when I left to go to Wichita.
Two other men who were also very influential were Buddy Burris, my high school football coach, and my father.
COACH: When you were hired at Wichita State in 1977, your coaching friends were shocked. The program had been dormant for years and there was nothing resembling any glimmer of hope – no field, no equipment, and no team, not even a baseball. It was like the Bad News Bears without the Bears. What convinced you this was the place to be and what made you think Wichita State was a diamond in the rough?
STEPHENSON: I don’t know that I thought that Wichita State was a diamond in the rough, because they had no history of success in anything particularly.
What I was was a very confident, prepared coach from my experience with Enos Semore. I had been given a lot of responsibilities because he had faith in me. I had this unbelievable burning desire to be a head coach. And I just felt that there was no way I could fail.
I don’t know if that was being very realistic or smart, but no one ever claimed I was a smart guy. I had a passion and knew that we were going to make it successful. I think you have to be a little bit risky. And this was a huge risk. I left Oklahoma with the combination salary between football and baseball being $25,000. I had a new car every six months. I had free clothes. And I had access to football tickets.
It had started out in 1972 as a $2,500 year graduate assistants’ job. But now I was doing pretty darn well. We were good in football and doing really well in baseball, too. And it was getting better every year from a financial standpoint. But I left that situation to come to Wichita for $1,000 a month on a month-to-month contract and no guarantee beyond one month. No budget to speak of. We had six scholarships at that point.
Honestly, I just never allowed the thought that we would fail. To some people some thing may seem like an impossible task. But to others it may look like a great opportunity. It’s a matter of what you are willing to put into it. And what expertise you have in knowledge, education, work ethic and passion for what you want to be.
We never felt that even though we had no money, no players, no uniforms, no equipment, no field, and no practice field, we would not achieve our goals. I had an artist draw up a plan of what I wanted the stadium to look like and I put it on an easel and showed it to the recruits to let them see what we were going to be.
Our second recruiting class in 1978, which had among others, my brother, Phil, and Joe Carter, helped build the foundation. To this day Joe remembers me showing him the stadium picture and telling him that was where he was going to play. He told me, “What I didn’t realize is that one day you would have me paying for part of it.” So it took a little longer than what I had hoped.
COACH: How did you make this dream become a reality?
STEPHENSON: First of all, you have to be so confident because at every turn I was told no. It’s impossible. It can’t be done. They only had eight percent of all the high schools in Kansas at the time that even played baseball. The population of the state was not very high. So there were no players to speak of. And you already had two major institutions in the state with Kansas and Kansas State that were probably going to get the players, if they wanted them.
We would work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months out of the year. We had to figure out how to go see a player. I didn’t have any recruiting budget.
In Wichita I am known, unfortunately, as Wichita’s longest running beggar. I hate that but it’s true. I’ve raised money annually for the program for so long that it’s now part of the terrain. We had nothing, not even a ball. I brought a desk with me from Oklahoma that I had no place for because I didn’t even have an office. So I put in the football film room. They allowed me to put a sign on the door that said, “Gene Stephenson, Head Baseball Coach.” But any time the football team needed the room, they would toss the sign on the floor and I was told to get out. I still sit behind the same desk today. And I suppose I will sit behind the same desk till the day I am fired, retire, or die.
COACH: You have become a leader and a spokesman for college baseball, campaigning vigorously for 15 years on behalf of the majority of college head coaches who would like to see a later starting season and a uniform starting date. Fifteen years ago, you also introduced the concept of a 20- and 90-second clock to promote quicker play in the Missouri Valley Conference. What are your current views on the state of college baseball?
STEPHENSON: I think it’s an all-time high in terms of interest. There are ways we can make it better, obviously. One of the ways I have advocated over the years, and still do, is that we need to make baseball the third major sport in college. The only way you can do that is by playing during baseball season. If you’re going to have an 80 or even a 100 game schedule that you play from April to the second or third week of August, and then play the College World Series.
But therefore you would see nationwide coverage, television, get everyone excited to be part of it. We’d have major national television contracts that would make it financially appealing to all schools across the country. And you wouldn’t see the schools from the south dominate like they have until recent years. Oregon State is an exception. Wichita State is an exception.
The problems people bring up are the eligibility requirements. You can still have the same eligibility requirements. You don’t have to have the kids go to summer school. It’s just fall and spring and play in the summertime. You also have some of the major coaches and programs asking, “What about my summer camps?” Well, you can set your schedule so that you’re home for a certain week. You can have camps during the week that you’re home. And have your players work the camp. Wouldn’t that be a great recruiting rule? There’s always ways around things.
COACH: Growing up in Oklahoma, what kind of influence and impact did Bud Wilkinson have on you from afar, and later Barry Switzer. How did the football coaching mentality translate onto the baseball diamond, especially when it comes to recruiting and the importance of personal relationships?
STEPHENSON: The overriding thing has always remained the same: It’s all about people. You can say all you want about having great facilities, but you have to have, first of all, an ability to recognize ability. Everybody knows who the greatest players are. That’s no secret. It’s the ability to recognize ability that’s within that’s not there, that hasn’t surfaced yet. That’s really special. It’s trying to find that diamond in the rough that’s difficult. Good people should attract other good people. The key is to find young people that can recognize that it’s not about me, it’s not about I, and it’s not about my. It’s about us. And it’s about ours, and we. Then they can begin to realize that success can be almost unlimited.
COACH: Expound upon the 11.7 rule, in which a fully funded D-I baseball program can only give out 11.7 baseball scholarship equivalents. How does that affect recruiting and allow for more players to walk-on?
STEPHENSON: Here’s one of the things I do not understand. Just go through the last four or five years of recruiting and signings and the subsequent publicity about them. You will find that there are numerous programs that seem to sign 18, 20, 22, and 24, sometimes 25 or 26 players. If you bring all of those players to your program, and I am talking about highly touted players, you don’t have to be a great mathematician to figure out that at 11.7, and you do this every year for four years, that’s impossible. Something’s got to give. Something has to happen somewhere. Either there’s money that’s being spent that is circumventing a rule or players are being let go.
I think it’s more of the latter, but I don’t know. Our recruiting class is 7, 8, 9. Whatever we lose or whatever we think that we’re going to lose. Then we make the most of those guys. But if you’re signing 20 a year for four years, that’s 80 people. There’s only room on the roster for 30-35. So something happened to those people.
COACH: For most of the day on July 10 2005, you were the head coach at Oklahoma, having decided to leave Wichita State. Several hours after you accepted the position you decided to remain with the Shockers, citing scholarship issues at Oklahoma. Recently, Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan was faced with a similar situation when he accepted the head-coaching job of the Orlando Magic before rescinding and returning to Gainesville, FL.
Creighton basketball coach Dana Altman also struggled with a similar situation. What was that time like for you, considering that you had grown up a Sooner fan and had said that it was the only job you would even ponder taking? What advice can you give a coach who may be faced with deciding between loyalty and greener pastures?
STEPHENSON: I think what really needs to happen is that the coach be given more time to really make a good, solid decision. It really amazes me, for example, that the schools can take up to 30 days, 60 days, whatever, in some cases, to decide who they want to go after and offer the job to. But they want the coach to make a decision within 48 hours. I think that’s tough for a coach because you’re being pulled for a lot of different reasons and a lot of different ways. Money could be an overriding factor in what to do. But money should not be what drives somebody unless all other things are equal. Coaching is about people and the relationships you forge. You just can’t walk away from things like that.
COACH: What is your position on the proposed ban of aluminum bats? Several states have already implemented laws as it applies to youth baseball.
STEPHENSON: I believe that when you have tools of the trade, that they all have to be equal in order for teams to have an equal opportunity to succeed. That is why I am a big proponent of aluminum bats. If George Steinbrenner decided he wanted to give Florida State major league wood, he’s going to get them whatever they want.
At Wichita State, for example, what are we going to get? There are huge differences in the quality of wood bats. Regarding aluminum bats, there are things that people have legitimate gripes about, like the sound. But they now make composite bats that sound just like wood bats.
COACH: What is your opinion as to why we are seeing fewer and fewer African-American players in baseball? Wichita State’s 2007 roster included only one African-American, Ken Williams (son of the Chicago White Sox general manager).
STEPHENSON: For several reasons, and this is just my personal opinion. I think that baseball is much more difficult sport to refine. It takes time, more so than football and basketball. And the money is to be made after you make the big leagues. Sure, there is bonus money if you’re a top draft pick.
But the real money will only be made if you make the big leagues and spend some time there. All colleges are on part scholarships. So if you’re a young African-American player and you have athletic ability, I can see why they might turn more to basketball and football, where they can receive a full scholarship, because they can achieve success faster and make money quicker because they won’t have to toil in the minor leagues.
COACH: How do you get your players to buy into the importance and relevance of fundamentals, especially when you look at professional baseball today and watch players who have no idea how to sacrifice bunt or hit a cut-off man?
STEPHENSON: I don’t know if we do it very well but I will say this, I think that we emphasize it all the time. I believe it’s more about the unselfish attitude and understanding how to be a ballplayer. If you look at the minor leagues, what do all of the organizations always say when they bring guys in and talk to them? They tell them that they don’t care if they win, it’s all about development. The player rationalizes that and thinks, yeah, the development only matters in what my numbers are. So the player has the immediate mindset to focus on his personal success and not winning and not team play.
To some extent that filters down to the lower levels. Nobody really puts an emphasis on unselfish team play. All that matters is, am I a ballplayer? Meaning, do I work on the things that I don’t do well so that I can become a more complete ballplayer.
If you’re a great athlete, you will work for hour and hours on the things you do well over and over again. But they won’t work on the things they don’t well, in a public setting, in front of all your teammates, for fear they may get ridiculed. What we need are more ballplayers. Guys who are willing to understand the basics of the game and be willing to work on them, even if it means coming out privately, to avoid embarrassment, to work on the things you don’t do well.
COACH: When you reflect on all that you have accomplished – turning what was for all intents and purposes a sandlot program into a national powerhouse – what is your most vivid memory through all the trials and tribulations?
STEPHENSON: Honestly, I don’t have time to reflect. Someday I suppose I will. But I think the most rewarding times are always about specific people and specific instances. And how they grew and matured as people and what they overcame to be something special and become successful. It’s all about the people and players we’ve had come through the program, and their families. We recently had a 25 year reunion for the 1982 College World Series team, the very first team from Wichita State to play in the CWS. You reflect back and you think that was just four years after the very first team and we’re playing in the national championship game, on national television. And that’s when we had no seats, no bathroom, and no dressing rooms. Guys were changing clothes in their cars. That’s just unbelievable. Phenomenal!
COACH: What do you think your legacy at Wichita State will be when you finally retire?
STEPHENSON: It’s simple. The people that you leave behind, the people you have had some influence with, did you help them in some way become more successful? Did you give them some guidance along the way, even if it was some anecdote that helped them in some small way to have a better life? It’s not rocket science. It’s just about making a difference.