Gene Stephenson Born: August 30, 1945 (Guthrie, OK)
Graduated: Guthrie High School (Guthrie, OK), 1964; University of Missouri, 1968
By now, you have probably heard the story. When Wichita State University decided to revive its baseball program after a six year absence in 1977, they hired a little known assistant coach from the University of Oklahoma. Wichita State didn’t have a field to call their own, they didn’t have any players, they didn’t have any tradition of success, and had virtually no baseball equipment. But, Gene Stephenson took that as a challenge and built one of the most successful collegiate baseball programs in the history of college baseball almost entirely from scratch.
Rising to a challenge was nothing new for Gene Stephenson. It was, as we Kansans say, his bread and butter. Known across the country as one of the fiercest competitors to step on the diamond, Stephenson wrote off the naysayers that said building a program at Wichita State couldn’t be done. For the next thirty-six years, Stephenson proved each one of those naysayers wrong.
It didn’t take Stephenson long to produce a winner either. In Wichita State’s first season following the six year hiatus, Stephenson guided the Shockers to a 43-30-1 record. By year number two in 1979, the Shockers were fifty games above .500 with a record of 65-15. In year three, Stephenson had the Shockers in the school’s first NCAA Tournament. And in year five in 1982, the Shockers made their first of seven College World Series appearances and finished as runner-up.
The numbers Stephenson compiled over his coaching career are astonishing and set him apart as one of the greatest coaches of any sport in collegiate athletics. His career record of 1,837-675-3, all of which came as head coach of Wichita State University, rank him first in all-time wins in Division I history. Stephenson’s teams won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season twenty-six times in thirty-three seasons from 1980 to 2013. The Shockers also claimed the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title eighteen times and never suffered a losing season during Stephenson’s tenure.
Stephenson was named the National Coach of the Year three times in 1982, 1989, and 1993, and guided the Shockers to seven College World series appearances in fourteen years from 1982 to 1996, including the 1989 National Championship and three runner-up finishes in 1982, 1991, and 1993. Add in that his teams made the NCAA Tournament twenty six times and it is easy to see the dominance of the Shockers exhibited on the diamond under Stephenson.
One hallmark of any successful coach is the success of their players. Again, the numbers tell the story. The Shockers produced fifty-five All-Americans, averaging nearly two All-American selections per season under Stephenson. He also coached 157 first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference players, 92 second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference players, 159 players who signed professional contracts, and thirty-four players who played in the Major Leagues. Additionally, Stephenson coached twenty-seven Academic All-Americans at Wichita State.
A quick walk through the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame and it is easy to see the impact that Gene Stephenson has had on the landscape of collegiate baseball in Kansas. Players like Joe Carter, Don Heinkel, Darren Dreifort, and Phil Stephenson, Gene’s younger brother, were all recruited and played Wichita State under Stephenson before being inducted to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
To go along with his three National Coach of the Year Awards, Stephenson has also been inducted to the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
You shouldn’t tell Gene Stephenson it can’t be done. If history has shown anything, Gene Stephenson will probably prove you wrong.