Charismatic. Smart. Tough. Aggressive. A competitive nature that enables an athlete to get the very most out of his talent. Those are the guys who typically make the best coaches in any sport.
If you think this is yet another column singing the praises of the local university’s basketball coach, it’s not. It’s about someone else who fits that profile. His name is Kevin Hooper, and if he’s not named the next baseball coach at Wichita State, score it a swing and a miss for the Shockers.
Hooper is graduate of Lawrence High and Wichita State and a longtime minor-leaguer who played in 14 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2005 and 2006 — he went 1-for-8 at the plate. He is in his fifth season as manager of the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association. He’s hugely popular because that’s who he is. Kevin should be his middle name, Fan Favorite his first name. He was that way in Toledo when he ran the bases with such gusto for the Mud Hens, the Tigers’ Triple A affiliate.
The Shockers need someone in charge of their baseball program who won’t cave to the pressure of expectations set by a winning tradition that grew a passionate fan base under just-fired coach Gene Stephenson. They need someone who considers that tradition a positive, not a burden. They need someone who won’t use playing in the Missouri Valley as an excuse for not recruiting star-studded rosters.
Hooper, an all-conference player in 1999 when he hit .402, was a favorite of Tigers manager Jim Leyland and could have worked in the Tigers’ organization, but preferred setting roots in Wichita.
Should Hooper get the job, he might have a chance to coach a left-handed pitcher from his high school. Albert Minnis is a junior who is eligible for this weekend’s Major League Baseball free-agent draft. He likely will be selected, at which point he will enter negotiations for a signing bonus. If he doesn’t like the size of the signing bonus offered by the team that drafts him, he could return to Wichita State for his senior season. He liked the sound of Hooper heading the program.
“He’s awesome,” Minnis said. “I met him through (LHS coach Brad) Stoll. He came around to a lot of practices the past couple of years. He’s an awesome guy, a lot of energy, real positive. I know everyone in the Wingnuts organization loves him. He’s a real players’ coach. I think it would be a pretty good fit.”
Minnis said he’s proud to have played for the legendary Stephenson.
“I think it’s almost like saying you played for Joe Paterno in football,” Minnis said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to say you played for one of the best college baseball coaches ever.”
Stephenson, 67, spent 36 years at Wichita State and compiled a 1,837-675-3 record. Some thought he deserved to decide when it was time for his career to end, but the cold, hard truth is, it’s better to make a change a year too soon than a year too late when a program is in decline.