It’s been a few weeks now since I retired from the Wichita Eagle after nearly 43 years. I was the sports columnist for the paper – the paper I grew up with in Derby – for almost 21 years. It was my dream job, and part of the reason for that is my early love for the Wichita State Shockers.
My aunt, Phyllis Burgess, was a professor at WSU and she provided my father with two season tickets to attend Shocker football and basketball games. Since my dad and I were buds, he took me to countless games, and I saw, up close, the likes of Dave Stallworth, Kelly Pete, Warren Armstrong, Terry Benton and so many others. Shocker basketball became a passion.
I dreamed about the players, who were my heroes.
Years later, my journalistic training zapped the “fan” out of me. I learned that to be trusted as a journalist, I had to be unbiased. Slowly, but surely, my love for the Shockers turned into respect for the Shockers, but with a wary eye. Something strange happened – my journalistic credibility usurped my love for Wichita State basketball.
I was the beat writer for WSU sports on two occasions and spent six years in all covering the Shockers, including their run to the Elite Eight in 1981 when they knocked off Kansas in the Battle of New Orleans. I also covered Shocker athletics from 1991-95, when the basketball program was struggling. And that’s putting it kindly. Every road trip I made during those years to cover WSU basketball, it seemed, resulted in a loss.
But the baseball Shockers were flying high and made it to the College World Series in 1991, 1992 and 1993 while in the midst of an amazing run of five CWS appearances in six years. As columnist from 1996 through the spring of 2017, I was around Shocker sports a lot. Some difficult years and some great ones, including Wichita State’s Final Four appearance in 2013. After more than a decade of hardship, Shocker basketball finally found its legs in 2000, when then athletic director Jim Schaus hired Kansan Mark Turgeon, from Topeka, to take over the coaching duties from Randy Smithson.
Turgeon, who played at KU, lifted the Shockers out of their doldrums and produced an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 team in 2006. It was the first tournament appearance for the Shockers in nearly 20 years. And what Turgeon started, Gregg Marshall – his successor – has built upon. Marshall has accomplished the unthinkable in his 10 seasons as the Shockers’ coach by taking Wichita State to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments. And when the Shockers have gotten to the NCAAs, they’ve often made noise.
Realistically, no one could have expected WSU to ever add a second Final Four to its résumé, adding to the 1965 appearance in Corvallis, Ore. But Marshall has never acknow-ledged barriers. He has been able to recruit smart, heady and athletically-gifted players and gotten them to buy into his defense-first mentality. Under him, the Shockers outgrew the Missouri Valley Conference, which had been their home since 1945.
This fall, WSU will debut in the American Athletic Conference against the likes of former Valley members Tulsa, Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati. I won’t be around to cover this monumental change, at least not for the Eagle. But that’s OK. I have a radio show on KFH with my son, Jeff, that airs from 4-6 on weekday afternoons. I’ll still have my hand in the media cookie jar, to some degree. And I’ll never stop writing.
I had a long newspaper career, but the newspaper is shrinking on an almost daily basis as the industry moves more and more digital. Hey, it’s evolution. And some would argue that I’m a dinosaur. I loved my small part of the process in putting out a daily newspaper for so many years. I loved working for the newspaper I grew up with and read as a child. I mostly read about the Shockers because I couldn’t get enough.
I was mesmerized by Stallworth, and many years later I would be able to honor him with a column after his death. It was my pleasure to talk to and write about so many of the great Shockers of the past and future. There has always been something special to me about Wichita State athletics. But being a journalist was even more special.
I spent more than four decades doing what I loved.
Do I become a Shocker fan again? I’ve pondered that question seriously. The answer I keep coming up with is this: I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure my brain would allow me to be a fan of Wichita State. Or Kansas. Or Kansas State. Or any of the teams I’ve covered over the years. My wife, Debbie, is a Shocker fan. Many of my friends are Shocker fans. I’ll miss covering WSU for a daily newspaper, but I’ll still be around. Maybe not cheering, but definitely observing. And respecting.
And remembering those times, way back, when I was a Shocker fan like no other.