published Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Mark Wiedmer: Shulman was Mocs hoops at its best and worst

  • photo
    John Shulman, the boy's head basketball coach at UTC, speaks to media before a team practice in this file photo.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

John Shulman stood in the McKenzie Arena hallway outside his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball team's locker room three weeks ago, recalling the first day he realized he wanted to be a college coach.

Not 18 hours earlier his Mocs had been crushed on McKenzie's glistening new court by UNC Greensboro, a loss that seemed to doom Shulman to unemployment as his ninth season sputtered to a close.

But he was discussing none of that on that 22nd day of February. Instead he was remembering one of the most pivotal moments of his life, the game-changer in whether to become a fireman, a cowboy, a pro tennis player or a basketball coach.

"I was seven or eight years old and my father took me to a Tennessee-Kentucky game in Knoxville," he said. "UK had one of their Final Four teams and UT had Ernie [Grunfeld] and Bernie [King]. The Big Orange won and the place went nuts. It was shaking. Absolute bedlam. Right then I knew I wanted to become a college basketball coach one day."

And so he did. He paid his dues, working assistant's gigs at Wofford, East Tennessee State (his alma mater), Tennessee Tech and UTC. Then Jeff Lebo left the Mocs for Auburn and Shulman took over.

In one of those serendipitous moments that tells your inner self that you're doing what you were meant to do, Shulman's Mocs beat Tennessee on the Vols' court in his first season as head coach. Then he capped that first year by going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years. Talk about destiny.

"I looked at [assistant] Dave Conrady after that first year," the 46-year-old Shulman noted Wednesday afternoon at the press conference announcing his UTC career was done, "And said, 'What now?'"

The entire Mocs Nation is asking that today. What coach now? And when?

And there are no certain answers for that. UTC is starting over for the first time in nine years. It's going to take at least a few weeks to replace Shulman because there's no permanent athletic director in place to hire a new coach. There probably won't be one until late April at the earliest.

Until then, expect Moc maniacs to focus on former UT coach Bruce Pearl and his former assistants Steve Forbes and Tony Jones, though it's hard to see Big Brother UTK approving that. Also, LSU director of basketball operations Tom Kelsey. And former Alabama head coach David Hobbs. Maybe even one of those Duke assistants -- Jeff Capel, Chris Collins or Steve Wojciechowski.

But that's the future. Today is for closing the book on the Shulman Era, its two NCAA berths, its numerous SoCon divisional crowns and that magical week on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," when Shulman became the "The Don Juan of the SoCon."

Despite his voice cracking on occasion -- "I'm doing better than I thought I would," he said with a forced smile -- he tried mightily to put the best face on this painful day.

"You're not supposed to stay at a school nine years," he said. "You're supposed to be 'Five and die,' or 'Five and move on.'"

But it was never just about the Mocs with Shulman. It was also about home. And family. And community. All those corny, comforting words that we all need to embrace more intensely and completely every day of our lives.

Or as Casey Long, the assistant who will lead the program on an interim basis until a new coach is named: "We lost one of our father figures. The players aren't taking it very well. They love Coach Shulman. He did it the right way."

But the program was going the wrong way. Slowly, perhaps. But also steadily. It wasn't just that he was 145-146 overall. He was 145-146 after going 39-24 his first two years. He was 145-146 after going 24-40 his last two, even if this year's 13-19 effort was a vast improvement in effort and execution over last year's 11-21 train wreck.

This is not to say Shulman couldn't have or shouldn't have coached next season rather than accepting the $138,000 buyout.

The school seemed willing to let him have that season without an extension, a season to further develop his young team, a season to prove he deserves more seasons.

But maybe that was too much of a risk for too little reward. He's pretty much been on the hot seat the last two years. A third understandably seemed too daunting. You could even argue this was one of his best coaching moves. Give me a longer contract or pay me not to coach. Not a bad strategy.

But this much is also true moving forward. The median income in this country was a shade over $50,000 in 2011. At $138,000 a year, Shulman was making nearly three times that. For that much money -- however little it is compared to the Kentuckys, Indianas and UCLAs of the world -- more wins than losses is to be expected.

There's also this, for those who believe this job isn't what it once was, when the Mocs were the toast of the SoCon: There are 347 Division I head coaching jobs in the whole country. For perspective, there are 753 lawyers in the Chattanooga Bar Association. Even for $138,000 a year, UTC is a coveted job. Someone good will surface.

You can say Shulman's ouster isn't fair, and you might be right. You can say it was long overdue, and you'd have a fair point.

But as he recalled his journey to this point, the clouds literally dark and forboding that February day, Shulman said, "Don't worry about me. I've gotten to live my dream. How many folks ever get to say that?"

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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basketball1486 said...

Why not ask someone who who has win in the area? We always want to look for a big name. Why not Tommy Brown? There has been plenty of years that one would think Lee University would win an head to head battle... I think Tommy is a star in waiting. Taking the program to D2 next year. Why not? From Chattanooga. When to UTC for grad school. Again I ask Why not??

March 21, 2013 at 9:15 a.m.
ordinaryguy said...

Very simply put away retreads or assistants at other schools...we DO NOT, repeat DO NOT want another Jeff (Loser) Lebo...the answer lies right here in river city...Jay Price

March 21, 2013 at 9:35 a.m.
basketball1486 said...

Price?? He not even the best JUCO coach in the area? Why find a JUCo coach when one of the Top 3 NAIA programs in the state is up the street. And also hands down a Top 10 program in the US. Tommy Brown is easy choose. I do agree no Lebo. Also no Kelsey. To old. Tommy just turned 41. Has already over 330 wins. Again went to UTC.

March 21, 2013 at 9:44 a.m.

Hey Mark, why not John Calipari? He was whining about looking around after his beanch full of high school all-americans were handled by the mighty Robert Morris Colonials.

The Mercer Black Bears looked like winners last night. Maybe that guy would like to bring his game to Chattanooga?

March 21, 2013 at 10 a.m.
ordinaryguy said...

I commend your loyalty to Brown...however, there is a fanbase to be re-energized, and Jay Price can do that, local who went to Brainerd, college hoops at the home of the clorox orange, and respected among the basketball community...I am looking at the big picture perhaps, but the fans must come back, and Price in my humble opinion is the best fit

March 21, 2013 at 10:02 a.m.
hometownhero said...

Forget Cleveland, or Chatt State. You chattanoogans keep going after hometown boys, really? Thats pretty small minded in my opinion. An NCAAB coach is a national position. Mocs hoops should really make a push to make themselves relevant on the national stage with their coaching hire. Get a Proven NCAA Division 1 coach! There's nobody here in this town that can do it, so stop it!

March 21, 2013 at 10:46 a.m.
Mocsfan1995 said...

As a UTC alum and long-time Moc follower, the man I want as the next UTC basketball coach - New Mexico assistant coach Craig Neal! His younger brother Shane was a part of the Moc glory days of the 1990s under Mack McCarthy and he still has a lot of pull with the athletic department and alumni affairs. Craig Neal was a standout at Georgia Tech under Bobby Cremins, played a few seasons in the NBA and has been Alford's right-hand man for the last few seasons at New Mexico. He would be perfect to bring back the old Moc glory to the ROUNDHOUSE!

March 21, 2013 at 11:02 a.m.
basketball1486 said...

With all due respect ordinaryguy but Brown also went to school here. At the school about 1000 feet from price at Boyd. Played at Coveant and went to UTC for Grad school. Big picture to me is this. The socon isn't very good. So bring someone who is a winner at the NAIA level. One of the best as a matter of fact. Go ask Shulman why he never played Lee.. There is a reason chance the would get beat were high. Price is a JUCO guy I live him there. But Brown would get this community again. Lee packs out at their games. Mostly all games. UTC needs that. Tommy Brown should be the next leader for the Mocs

March 21, 2013 at 11:09 a.m.

Tommy Brown is an obvious candidate in my opinion. He's 41 and has 334 collegiate wins. He's taken 8 straight Lee teams to the NAIA National Tournament and won 20 games every season he's been there. I think that's a proven winning track record. He grew up in Chattanooga, he's got all kinds of ties. I think Chattanooga needs someone like Tommy Brown to turn the program around and win.

March 21, 2013 at 11:40 a.m.
basketball1486 said...

Thank you. Glad someone see it my way. Wins and is young

March 21, 2013 at 11:50 a.m.
Silverengine3 said...

I was born and raised in chattanooga and can understand the desire for a local guy. Both Brown and Price were mentioned in the comments and both have strong resumes in basketball. Based on the current situation neither of these coaches will likely be given serious consideration for the job. New chancellor, new ad, and both will feel the need to make a strong statement in their first big hire. The new basketball coach will have a division 1 connection and will come from 1 of 2 places:- 1- a current D1 assistant in a strong conference or 2- a former D1 head coach who had success and is looking for a job.

March 21, 2013 at 1:18 p.m.
basketball1486 said...

I think the other way. New people lets bring in a face everyone knows. People don't like change so when a lot is taking place bring in a face people know will help IMO

March 21, 2013 at 1:51 p.m.
hometownhero said...

Basketball1486.. do you not watch collegiate hoops? In college ball the coach is the star. Therefore if you're an AD trying to make noise on the national level, your not looking at your local hometown no named basketball coach.

March 21, 2013 at 3:29 p.m.
basketball1486 said...

Hold on you ask me if I watch hoops and them say Tommy is a No name. Ok your right. Lee had dunk on ESPN 3 times just this year. You know what happens people watch ESPN see that dunk go to lee website. Boom hits. UTC on the other hand didn't win a road game last year. And was not to much better this year. So before you run your mouth about who is a no name or not think please. I agree Tommy is NAIA and that isn't the top level but when you look at what coaches have their teams playing late in march regardless of the level Tommy Browns team is always. UTC needs someone who can coach Late in march that what we need and want. I think Tommy Brown can do that

March 21, 2013 at 4:08 p.m.
hometownhero said...

Oh ok got ya so one highlight on ESPN a year ago and he deserves a job? There are middle school kids making ESPN highlights now. So stop it! Just because hes in your back yard doesnt mean he is qualifie. You obviously have never left this area long enough to know that you don't consider NAIA Tommry Brown when you have a country full of qualified D1 coaching prospects.

March 21, 2013 at 4:45 p.m.
basketball1486 said...

1st off again not just a year ago. 2nd off you never not look in your back yard when it comes to hiring. You may not hiring that person but you always look at someone who can connect right away to locals who understands your states high school basketball. Who has coach 3 1st team All Americans at the NAIA. We can agree to disagree that maybe when's its all said and done Tommy Brown isn't the right man but to say not to look at him is crazy. If you can win and recruit that we'll to CLEVELAND tn then what about the great city of Chattanooga. Again I ask why did UTC never play Lee men team but played the ladies??

March 21, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
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