Wiedmer: The end should be here and now for Shulman's time at UTC

Wiedmer: The end should be here and now for Shulman's time at UTC

March 11th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC men's basketball coach John Shulman.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should UTC fire basketball coach John Shulman?

Could it be that John Shulman actually wants to quit coaching the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs as much as the vast majority of UTC basketball fans apparently want him to stop?

Is the most divisive period in the school's long, rich basketball history about to reach an amicable conclusion?

We can only hope.

With Sunday's statement to this newspaper that he would not want to be a lame-duck coach for the 2013-14 season after nine years on the job, Shulman didn't just crack open the door for his possible departure, he blew the hinges off.

"It would not be a lot of fun," the coach told our David Uchiyama when asked about the lame-duck scenario after the Mocs concluded a 13-19 season with a Southern Conference tourney opening-round loss to UNC Greensboro on Friday night.

"If you really want my honest answer -- no. Why would anyone feel comfortable with that?"

So new UTC chancellor Steve Angle has his first leadership test more than three months before he's officially put in charge on July 1. He can either:

1) Decide that with a renovation to McKenzie Arena about to begin, the school also needs a new coach to heighten interest in new paint and seat cushions. Shulman's two straight losing seasons, four consecutive non-winning campaigns and 145-146 overall record would seem to make this the easy choice, especially given the paltry number of fans actually in the stands this winter.

2) Precisely because of the renovations -- and the not-so-little fact that it will likely cost the school at least $350,000 to bring in a new head coach and staff -- Angle could force Shulman to remain for the final season of his $138,000-a-year contract in order to get his money.

Option 2 might even be more appealing for Angle since no new coach is likely to come on board until he knows who his athletic director will be, and UTC is probably close to two months away from filling that position.

Quite a mess, huh?

The case against Shulman is obvious. After beating big brother Tennessee on its home court and reaching the NCAA tourney in his first season on the job in 2004-2005, a slow but steady decline has enveloped the program almost every season since.

Yes, the Mocs got back to the Big Dance in 2009, but that fine achievement was somewhat dampened by an 18-17 overall record following an embarrassing 103-47 loss to UConn in the NCAA tourney's opening round.

The four seasons since have ended with records of 15-18 (2009-10), 16-16, 11-21 and this year's 13-19 mark. His Division I record the last three seasons is 33-56.

All of this has intensely divided a fan base that either wants to A) shoo Shulman aside in hopes of finding a coach to return the program to its 1990s glory, when it averaged 21 wins between the 1990-91 and 1996-97 seasons, reached four NCAA tourneys and the 1997 Sweet 16, or ...

B) believes in sheltering Shulman for at least one more year, given that this year's record was better than last year, former athletic director Rick Hart hamstrung the coach by banning junior-college transfers and academic exceptions, and he remains one of only three current SoCon coaches to reach the NCAA tourney.

If attendance is any indication -- it's declined for five straight years -- far more want Shulman to resign than return.

In fact, when this newspaper asked for fans to voice their opinions on the coach's future last week, the only ones who responded in time for the Sunday edition's deadline, all wanted him gone.

But this comment also arrived late Saturday:

"The arrangement (two years ago) was to rebuild the basketball program with high school players only -- no transfers and no jucos. This has not (previously) been done in Chattanooga for good reason ... Time and patience needs to be given in order for more than one group of freshmen to be brought in to UTC ... The Mocs are and will still be young (next year) so give our coaches the time needed to develop the program -- one year is not enough."

- David and Carol Gibbs

As I've written before, I was lucky enough to sit on UTC's bench for last year's loss at eventual national champ Kentucky. The Mocs may have lost, but Shulman diagrammed good shots or successful stops following every timeout.

But Shulman also can't talk endlessly about nothing mattering at a mid-major except the three (or four) conference tourney days in March, then lose in the event' opening round, as he has the last three springs.

You also can't brush aside at least a few of those losses by pointing to the opponent having a "senior team," then turn in the worst mark of your career a season ago with your own senior-laden roster.

Yet for all who believe spending $138,000 to get rid of Shulman will guarantee winning seasons and NCAA berths down the road in an improved McKenzie, consider the case of Jeff Lebo, whom Shulman followed at UTC after Lebo went to Auburn.

Lebo convinced Auburn to build a new arena early in his AU career, then failed to get the Tigers to the NCAA tourney in any of his six seasons there. The arena set to open before his seventh season on the Plains, the prediction became that no new coach would work a game in the old gym and Lebo would never coach in the new one.

When Lebo left, his coaching record at AU was 96-93 overall and 36-61 in the SEC. His replacement, Tony Barbee, currently stands 35-53 overall near the end of his third season and 12-33 in league play.

Change isn't always an improvement. But when Shulman says returning without a contract extension "would not be a lot of fun," a coaching change seems the only sensible option for both him and UTC.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.