Wiedmer: Chris Early dismissal not the easy call for UTC Coach John Shulman

Wiedmer: Chris Early dismissal not the easy call for UTC Coach John Shulman

January 10th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC coach John Shulman, right, talks to Chris Early during a game at McKenzie Arena in this file photo. Early was dismissed from the team on Monday, he had been on suspension since Dec. 16 when disparaging tweets about Shulman were revealed to the coach.

UTC coach John Shulman, right, talks to Chris...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman doesn't do easy.

If he did, he wouldn't ask his players to run one of the most physically taxing, high-risk defenses in all the sport.

If he did, the Mocs wouldn't thin their confidence each autumn by going on the road to play the likes of Indiana, Kentucky, Memphis, Missouri and Tennessee.

If he did, well, senior forward Chris Early would again be a Moc today, all forgiven for the savage tweets he directed his coach's way in November.

Easy would have been for Shulman to stand atop McKenzie Arena's glistening court Monday afternoon, stare into the television camera lenses of three of the city's stations and say something along the lines of: "To err is human, to forgive is divine."

Or, "Everyone deserves a second chance."

Or, as Shulman did, "Chris is a nice kid, a sensitive kid who made a mistake."

Easy would have been to reinstate the burly 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior with the 7.4 scoring average and 6.0 rebounding average as of Dec. 16, the day the tweets questioning his coach's skills first came to light and the player was suspended.

All Shulman would have had to do was tell the Mocs Nation that Early would have to earn his way back to the starting lineup through hard work and game-day performance.

Early could have then said how ashamed he was and how he loved UTC with all his heart and he was so, so sorry he'd let down his coach, his teammates, his family, the fans and the university.

And had all that happened Monday, everybody could have somewhat put this ugly incident behind them and the Mocs would have at least been a much more formidable team on paper, if not in fact.

After all, as Shulman noted of Early's teammates, "They're kids. They just want to play ball."

But Shulman also couldn't forget the past. Couldn't forget all the times he'd previously gone the extra mile for Early long before Tweet-gate.

Couldn't forget the promises he'd made to Early's family to make him both a responsible adult and a college grad.

Couldn't forget that day during the fall when he flew on a single-engine plane to Early's hometown of Huntington, W.Va., to attend the funeral of the player's aunt, who had done so much to raise Chris.

Couldn't forget the tweets, of which Shulman said, "Once you push 'send,' you can't take it back."

So he weighed two options, knowing he could neither win nor lose in the court of public opinion, whichever his decision.

He could push Early out the door and hear it from those who would find such a move too harsh and cold and unforgiving. He could take Early back and hear it from those who believed him too soft and concerned only about winning, even as he said, "I'm not selling my soul to win a basketball game."

And long before Shulman stared into those television cameras Monday afternoon, his decision seconds from becoming public, he'd heard far more options than those from each side of the argument.

"Everybody wanted to give an opinion," the coach said.

Yet he kept his circle small. Early and those closest to him. UTC athletic director Rick Hart. Two or three Mocs players. A couple of coaching buddies. Nobody else.

Finally, at just after 3 p.m. Monday, Shulman said of Early, "He's played his last game as a Moc."

Then he told the rest of the story, the story that needs to be the first thing Mocs fans remember about this decision instead of the last. The thing that really should always be most important for college athletes and their coaches but too seldom is.

Said Shulman: "He's going to finish up his degree. He's just got a few courses left, a couple of internships. We didn't have to bring him back on scholarship, but we want Chris to always be a part of our basketball family. He's going to make his legacy by getting his degree and working with the youth of Chattanooga."

It all sounds good today. But as of today Early hasn't walked around campus as a former Moc after a big win or tough loss. He hasn't gone to class knowing he has no basketball game to look forward to. He hadn't spent a Saturday night in a campus apartment knowing his teammates were working and sweating without him.

That's when we'll all really know how serious Early is about earning a degree and making his late aunt proud.

But he certainly sounded ready for the tough road ahead when he told this newspaper Monday: "All I want to do is finish my degree and play professional basketball. I feel like Coach has the best interest of the team."

Said Shulman: "It's not a great situation for everybody involved. But maybe we can change a life or two."

And whether you agree with his decision or not, taking the easy way out never accomplishes that.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.