Wiedmer: Fairly rating Shulman's performance needs some perspective

Wiedmer: Fairly rating Shulman's performance needs some perspective

March 9th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

John Shulman needs to go.

That's the overwrought view of many in Mocs Nation concerning their University of Tennessee at Chattanoooga men's basketball coach. They grind their teeth and bite their nails over three non-winning records in the past five years, no 20-win seasons since 2005 and an overall record just south of .500 (105-106) against Division I opponents and figure enough is too much.

But should you even consider dismissing a coach who has won outright or shared in three Southern Conference North Division titles in four years, not to mention two NCAA appearances in seven years?

Not a single SoCon men's coach has won as many division titles in that span, and only Davidson coach Bob McKillop has been to more NCAA tournaments since 2005 than Shulman.

Moreover, an asterisk could easily accompany McKillop's success, since it can be largely traced to a single player - Stephen Curry, who became an NBA lottery pick. At last check, UTC hadn't had a player drafted in either the first or second rounds since 1997, eight years before Shulman took over the program.

So maybe the Mocs Nation should feel blessed to have Shulman. Maybe it should shake off the past two seasons as growing pains and instead focus on 2011-12, when the Mocs could start four seniors and apparently will welcome their best recruiting class since Shulman took over in the fall of 2004.

Then again, should a coach in his seventh season still be experiencing such highs and lows? Shouldn't seven years be enough time to establish stability, especially since mid-majors rarely suffer from the uncertain rosters that occasionally ruin BCS conference programs torn asunder by one-and-done desertions to the NBA.

After all, it's not like Shulman is losing five first-round draft picks in one season, the way his buddy John Calipari did at Kentucky last summer.

Instead, it's most often been bad grades, bad behavior and the bad luck of injuries - Troy Cage, Kevin Goffney and Alphonso Pugh quickly come to mind - that have sidetracked Shulman's championship dreams.

This isn't to say the coach shouldn't be responsible for academic woes and character flaws. He recruits these kids. He must be held accountable for their actions. But even the best coaches guess wrong on occasion. Just look at North Carolina's Roy Williams, who has lost four players in the past year to transfer or discipline.

Does this mean Shulman doesn't need a better season next year than this one? Absolutely he does.

The North Division title and 12-6 league mark that went with it deserve to be saluted, especially since UTC went 6-12 in the same division a season ago. Beyond that, this season began with three certain losses - road trips to Tennessee, Louisville and Georgia Tech - as well as probable defeats against Marshall, Austin Peay, Murray State and Florida International.

But Shulman's guys shocked both Marshall and Kennesaw State a week after the north Atlanta school stunned Georgia Tech. The Mocs also won their first seven league games, including a 91-88 thriller over the College of Charleston, which had humbled Tennessee in Knoxville not three weeks earlier.

That doesn't completely erase the seven losses by 20 or more points and the four by 30-plus. But as long as athletic director Rick Hart asks Shulman to play as many "money" games as possible to help prop up the entire athletic department, a certain number of on-court embarrassments are inevitable and 20-win regular seasons become problematic.

Point is, any discussion of Shulman's coaching has to be a half-full/half-empty argument at worst. And in an interview with this newspaper Monday, Hart made it clear that he believes the program is on the way up, which makes perfect public-relations sense, given the three remaining seasons on his basketball coach's contract.

Almost every coach can improve his program, Shulman included. For starters, he needs to think about the impact his mantra that nothing matters but three days in March can have on regular-season ticket sales. He also needs to realize that if he insists on embracing that theme, he can't then turn around and strongly trumpet the seasonlong accomplishment of a North Division title if he fails to win the SoCon tourney crown.

Both are important, but you can't fall back on one as a defense mechanism for failing to accomplish the other.

That said, a year from now, if all goes as planned, Shulman could easily oversee a 20-win season, an NCAA berth or both. And if not, the coach's eight years of work will surely provide enough data for Hart to intelligently chart the Mocs' future with their current coach at the helm - or without him.

Until then, a brief history lesson might be in order. Mack McCarthy - the only coach to guide UTC to the Sweet 16 - reached one NCAA tourney in his first seven seasons. Not twice. Once. He then went to three in a row in his eighth, ninth and 10th seasons. Sometimes it's the moves you don't make that turn out best.

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