Sexton made a tough decision, but the right one

Sports Column

A few weeks ago, the Wichita State Baseball program saw a heart-wrenching departure when legend Gene Stephenson was fired as head coach.

There were mixed feelings from around Wichita and surrounding areas, and from anyone with emotional investment in WSU Baseball.

On the one hand, Stephenson did not perform well in the past few seasons. The team’s best record since 2008 was in 2010 when they went 41-19. To put things into perspective, they went 39-28 this past season. You can’t win 11 more games, lose, and still be considered a top team.

On the other hand, even with all of the man’s faults, Stephenson was the cornerstone of WSU Baseball. The program was little more than a pipe dream before he came along and not only made it successful, while giving them an elite status in college baseball.

The man remains a legend. I don’t think anyone is denying that. But that same status is perhaps what put him and athletic director Eric Sexton in such a precarious position.

Do you let a coach go who is not living up to the standards expected of the program, even when he was the one that set those standards? Or do you let him finish his last year and risk losing good recruits and gaining a bad season?

Let’s face it: if you know your contract isn’t going to be renewed, you’re probably not going to try very hard. And the season would have been less successful.

It was an impossible situation for anyone, but when reports started coming in about Stephenson meeting with Sexton days after the team had an embarrassing loss to Kansas State in the NCAA tournament, we all knew his time was done.

Stephenson was given the option of going out on his own terms – quit or be fired. In the end, his stubborn nature held true as he and his entire staff (aside from pitching coach Brent Kemnitz) were fired.

I have found myself indifferent to the entire scenario. I was initially dumbfounded about the decision. The team had just completed their best season in years, after winning the Missouri Valley Tournament and getting a bid in the NCAA tournament.

I kept asking myself why anyone would not allow this man, one of the best things to ever happen to WSU athletics, to finish out one last season. I was disappointed in the decision and a little angry at how it had all come about.

Then came the conversations with Kemnitz, the only man left in a program full of ghosts – excited and confident about the future. If this man who had just seen so much crumble around him was okay with the decision, who was I to disagree?

The speculation of who could possibly take over the coaching position added excitement. There were many people who would fit nicely and help return the program to the glory that it once held. I could see where Kemnitz’ confidence was coming from, and now I was on board with him.

In the end, it was finally announced that the new head coach was going to be Arkansas associate head coach Todd Butler.

As the speculation and debate about the next head coach come to a close, they are switching over to how well he will perform and fit in. That’s where the fans come in.

The team still has a lot of potential. Butler is proud and excited about the opportunity, and Kemnitz isn’t going anywhere as far as we know. But don’t expect them to succeed if fans don’t help him during the transition.

This is a unique time, the likes of which the WSU Baseball Program has never seen before.

It’s not the closing of the book, just the beginning of the next chapter.