DAVE SKRETTA,AP Sports Writer
Gene Stephenson knew the end was near when he got on the phone with Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey, one of his best players during 36 years as baseball coach at Wichita State.
The two of them chatted for a bit Monday night, and Pelfrey came away disgusted that his mentor and friend was being forced out as the leader of a program Stephenson built from the ground up.
“He deserves to go out on his own terms. Forcing him out is not right at all,” Pelfrey said before Tuesday night’s game against the Kansas City Royals. “I don’t like the way they handled it.”
On Tuesday, Stephenson’s fate was sealed: He was officially fired after leading the Shockers back to the NCAA tournament this season and with a year left on his contract.
“I remember watching video of that place when he got there and it was nothing,” Pelfrey said. “I grew up in Wichita and that was the place to be and the place to go. When you think of Wichita State, you think of Gene Stephenson. To hear that they are turning their back on him is shameful.
“This guy is a legend and I don’t agree with it. It’s not right at all.”
Stephenson won more games during his tenure than any other Division I program, and his career record of 1,837-675-3 leaves him with the second-most victories among major college coaches.
Along with Pelfrey, he produced major leaguers such as Joe Carter and Casey Blake, and helped to deliver the school’s only national championship during the 1989 season.
“We have reached a decision to go a different direction with the leadership of our baseball program,” athletic director Eric Sexton said in a statement. “Following an evaluation of the program as a whole and a presentation of the options, the decision became clear that this is the proper time to move into a new phase of Shocker baseball.”
Sexton had met with the 67-year-old Stephenson on Monday and reportedly gave him an ultimatum to either resign or be fired. Stephenson met briefly with reporters at Eck Stadium on Tuesday and said he had been forced out in what was evidently anything but an amicable split.
“I am sorely disappointed about the way this went down,” Stephenson said. “I don’t think it was handled properly, but it’s not up for me to decide. We gave 36 years of our very best here.”
They were 36 years unlike the program had ever known.
Wichita State scuffled along for more than two decades before disbanding the program after the 1970 season. When the school decided to restart it in 1977, administrators looked toward the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach at powerhouse Oklahoma to put everything together.
Stephenson only needed three years — and the signing of Carter, a three-time All-American — to get Wichita State to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Two years later, the Shockers played in their first College World Series, losing to Miami in the national championship game.
The school won 73 games that year, setting an NCAA record for a single season.
Wichita State would ultimately win 20 conference championships and make 28 appearances in the NCAA tournament under Stephenson, and make seven trips to the College World Series. The Shockers reached the pinnacle of college baseball by defeating Texas in the 1989 national championship game.
The program had slid over the past couple of season, though, and needed to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 this season.
The Shockers were beaten by Arkansas and regional champion Kansas State last weekend.
Stephenson said that he hopes to continue coaching, though he’s not sure where. He also spent several minutes thanking his former players, coaches and staff during an emotional farewell.
Sexton said that pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who is under contract through 2014, will take over on an interim basis but will not be considered for the full-time job. Sexton said that a national search for the next coach will begin immediately.
“We thank Coach Stephenson for his years of service,” Sexton said, “and the efforts he has made in his life’s work building this program from the beginning.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.