Wiedmer: UTC's Rick Hart admits finances figure in

Wiedmer: UTC's Rick Hart admits finances figure in

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

Asked once upon a time if his team wasn't better than its record, former NFL coach Bill Parcells famously replied, "You are what your record says you are."

Asked Friday if money constraints led him to retain embattled men's basketball coach John Shulman for at least one more season - knowing the coach still has two years left on his contract - University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart said, "Finances are always a factor."

In other words, UTC is what its bank account says it is: too poor to pay Shulman $280,000 to go away after eight feast-or-famine seasons.

Not that Hart was quite that harsh. Nor should he be. It is in no one's best interest at this point to put a negative spin on his coach's return.

Beyond that, Shulman is one of three SoCon men's basketball coaches to reach the NCAA tournament during the past eight years. And just like Wofford's Mike Young and Davidson's Bob McKillop, he's done it more than once. Beyond that, he's won or shared four SoCon North crowns in those eight years, including last season.

So despite the Mocs going winless on the road this year for the first time in school history and posting the school's first 20-loss season (11-21) during its Division I era, perhaps it's best to take the coach at his word when he says of what he's learned the last five months: "I'm a better coach for having gone through this. The record doesn't show it. But there's no doubt."

There is also no doubt that this past season was Murphy's Law, a pitch-black comedy and perfect storm all rolled into one.

Shulman can't or won't say it, but this year's senior class was pretty much a disaster from the get-go, torn apart by everything from a canyon-sized rift between two of them to a suffocating sense of entitlement from others, to too many injuries from the first day of practice forward.

Though the coach began the year saying this was the season he'd been waiting several years to enjoy, by February it was clear to everyone close to the program that this had become a season everyone couldn't wait to forget.

But that was then. This is now. Young as the 2012-13 team may be overall, the presence of rising seniors Drazen Zlovaric and Dontay Hampton, junior Zaccheus Mason and sophomores Rico White, Lance Stokes, Jared Bryant and Trey Brown - plus a promising freshman class - gives Shulman a realistic chance to finish .500 or better, despite the expected overall improvement in the Southern Conference.

Beyond that, to look beyond all those losses was to see subtle improvements. Sensing his team needed nurturing instead of needling down the stretch, Shulman calmed his demeanor, literally kept his coat on for the first time in his career and appeared to coach to his talent (or lack thereof) instead of his system.

He mixed defenses and offenses. He stayed positive, even as the Mocs lost 10 games by six points or less. And for those who argue he can't X and O, he diagrammed five plays coming out of timeouts at No. 1 Kentucky and all five scored a goal or delivered a point-blank shot.

And Hart took all of that into consideration as the losses mounted and Shulman's support essentially shrank to his wife Amy, three sons and a few close friends.

"No matter what happened, that team never stopped competing," Hart said. "I liked the attitude of the coaching staff. I'm encouraged by the prospects of the current student-athletes and those who'll join us next season."

Cynics can say it's all about the money and they might well be right. After all, until super booster John Murphy came along, Hart stuck with struggling football coach Rodney Allison out of necessity.

Had someone slipped Hart $500,000 or so to remake the basketball Mocs, we might have a different story to tell this morning.

And honoring the current contract is not the same as extending it. Every player Shulman attempts to sign this coming autumn for the 2013-14 season will be reminded by an opposing coach that the UTC boss will have only one year left on his contract when the player hits campus.

"We're all on one-year contracts these days," Shulman said. "I always tell our recruits that. If they don't want you, they can buy you out."

At least they can if finances aren't a factor.