Talk about a small world—I ran into Chris Harper’s parents yesterday down in Tulsa. They report that Chris is doing well in Seattle with the Seahawks. The former K-State receiver is back in the Pacific Northwest where he started his collegiate career at Oregon. The word is that all the receivers are marveling at the moves and quickness of recently acquired Percy Harvin, Harper will never break anyone’s ankles—but he’s a big receiver with deceptive speed who doesn’t mind catching balls over the middle. I believe that he will play on Sundays.
The Shocks go quietly into the NCAA night, something it’s hard to imagine Gene Stephenson doing. Gene always preached playing to the last dying breath—to never give up while there was a chance. It’s hard to imagine that a man who lived his entire competitive life by that credo even giving in without a fight. The flip side though is that Stephenson was always performance based in his personnel decisions, if you didn’t produce you didn’t play. It would be interesting to know if Gene has formed an opinion on his performance of the last few years and whether or not it has approached the unwavering standards that have typified Shocker Baseball over time.
I’m not sure if I’m more worried about Wichita State making a change---or not making a change. Stephenson’s sweat equity in the program can’t be quantified---but the $560,000 a year he makes can be. The history of the program is impossible to balance with its present—Gene Stephenson has been a bargain through most of his 36 years, but he’s clearly not producing the necessary rate of return on the university’s current investment.
Every brick, every plank, every blade of artificial grass at Eck Stadium has Gene Stephenson’s name on it. He fought tirelessly for every bit of improvement to his program and the facilities it is housed in. However if the man leaves Wichita State, he leaves as one of the greatest winners in college baseball history. Don’t think that a change will guarantee success at WSU—don’t think that you just use the program’s baseline over the last few years and that a change of leadership will just improve things from that standard. This program could get worse before it gets better; change is always traumatic, to what degree at Wichita State remains to be seen.
Gene’s legacy will far outrun the nature of his departure from the program that he built from the ground up with his own two hands. We will remember him for the wins, the championships, the big leaguers and the men he helped to produce. We’ll remember the four trips to the National Championship Game and the one time he won it. It was the one time in my thirty year career that I shed tears of joy at the outcome of a game.
I don’t know if anyone ever really knows when it’s time to leave gracefully. How do you expect a person who’s worked so passionately for so long to just give it all up? Shocker Baseball is Gene Stephenson—this is a man who recruited top players to a new program armed only with that passion. Sure, he had the blueprints of his dream—a dream that, much later would become Eck Stadium and he showed them to every recruit who came into the program those first few years. But it was his ability to sell that dream, to get youngsters to believe in it-- that was his true mastery. That dreamer, that competitor, that worker still exists—it’s just that somewhere along the line the incredible standards that he set for himself and his program—have caught up with him.