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

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

March 21st, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

John Shulman, the boy's head basketball coach at UTC, speaks to media before a team practice in this file photo.

John Shulman, the boy's head basketball coach at...

Photo by Dan Henry /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?"