Next week’s Missouri Valley baseball tournament will be Creighton’s last as a league member.
It also could mark the end of the line for another league icon.
The Wichita Eagle reported Thursday that legendary coach Gene Stephenson is facing an uncertain future at Wichita State. Stephenson, 67, will not receive an extension to his contract that runs through 2014.
Without an extension, it appears Wichita State has two options in dealing with college baseball’s second all-time winningest coach. It could fire him after the season and pay him the remaining $531,131 it would owe him. The school would also be on the hook for an additional $240,000 for Stephenson’s assistants.
Wichita State also could let Stephenson coach the final season of his contract and avoid a buyout. The risk to that is that it could further damage recruiting and attendance, both of which have fallen off in recent seasons.
The Eagle reported Athletic Director Eric Sexton would not comment on Stephenson, other than saying that he would be evaluated after the season ends.
Stephenson, who built the Wichita State program from nothing when he took over 36 years ago, was quoted by the newspaper as saying: “Anything is possible, I suppose. If the university doesn’t want us here, so be it. Those are things I can’t control. We’re doing the best job that we know how.’’
Stephenson went into Thursday’s nonconference game against Northwestern with 1,829 wins, second only to Texas coach Augie Garrido. Stephenson’s 1989 team won the national championship, and his teams made six other College World Series appearances in addition to winning 20 Valley championships.
But the Shockers haven’t been to Omaha since 1995 and hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 2009. Sales of season tickets have declined by almost 900 since 2008, and this season’s average attendance of 2,654 is on pace to be the lowest since 1999.
Creighton won two of three games at Wichita State last week, and coach Ed Servais said the atmosphere at Eck Stadium — which Stephenson’s fund-raising helped build — was unlike any he’s experienced in his previous trips there.
“There was no one there,’’ Servais said.
Stephenson sought out Servais before one of the games, and the two men had a lengthy conversation.
“Gene and I aren’t close but I have a lot of respect for what he’s done there,’’ Servais said. “I kept thinking that if this is the end, it’s really sad.’’
Few followers of the college would disagree. Stephenson can be grumpy and cantankerous but his teams played with ferocious intensity. He built his program by finding hidden gems on the recruiting trail and then developing them into stars.
At some point, that development started to fall off, as have the wins. Stephenson is finding out what many coaches before him have, that past results do not guarantee present-day satisfaction. When that happens, even legends can be shown the door.
Servais said a touch of melancholy gripped him as he left Eck Stadium last Sunday.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching in that stadium, and I knew it would be my last trip there as a member of the Valley,’’ Servais said. “Then I got to thinking, ‘Did I just coach my last time against Gene?’
“I don’t know what’s going to happen but if I did, that indeed is a sad thing.’’