John Shulman talks to McCallie basketball players before a game in December 2016. Shulman, who coached the Blue Tornado from 2014 to 2018 before stepping down, has returned to coaching at UAH.
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Mark Wiedmer

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — "I thought I was done."

John Shulman was standing in the Varsity Room of the University of Alabama in Huntsville's Spragins Hall on Thursday afternoon, having been officially introduced as the Chargers' new men's basketball coach less than 90 minutes earlier.

"Coaching is hard," he said. "There are times you want to have more of a life with your family. You want to be like everybody else. But at the end of the day, I know I'm a coach. It doesn't make life easy. But I believe I was put on this earth to work with young people, to try to make a positive impact on their lives, and I'm so grateful to UAH for this opportunity."

Shulman had tried so hard to do something else. Oh, how he had tried.

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John Shulman shouts to a referee during a UTC men's basketball game against Appalachian State in January 2008 at McKenzie Arena. Shulman was the Mocs' head coach from 2004 to 2013 before moving on to coach at McCallie. After sitting out last season, he has returned to coaching at UAH, where his son Max is on the team.
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John Shulman rests his chin on his right hand as he watches the UTC men's basketball team take on Reinhardt in December 2010 at McKenzie Arena. Shulman was an assistant for the Mocs from 2002 to 2004 and their head coach from 2004 to 2013.

The former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and McCallie School coach had spent 32 of the past 33 winters prior to 2019 diagramming X's and O's inside gymnasiums of various sizes and amenities, always hopeful the results would grant him momentary happiness rather than monumental sadness from the uneven performances of players no older than 21 and, during his four seasons at McCallie, sometimes as young as 14 or 15.

He'd driven through the night on no sleep to save his employer a couple of Andrew Jacksons while recruiting The Next Big Thing no one else knew about.

He'd had lunches and dinners interrupted at places far swankier than his beloved Waffle House by folks who couldn't wait to smother and cover him with criticism.

So at the age of 51, having reached two NCAA tournaments over his first five seasons at UTC from a one-bid league such as the Southern Conference, having guided McCallie to one state title game and a second semifinal berth, having once been adopted by "The Tonight Show" and dubbed "The Don Juan of the SoCon" by its host, comedian Jimmy Fallon, during one memorable week of March Madness in 2009, he called it quits.

He would become a sports agent. He would remain tied to basketball without having his stomach tied in knots by it. He would finally be the husband and father he'd always wanted to be to Amy and their sons Max, Tanner and John Carter, never again having to miss an important moment in their lives due to his basketball responsibilities.

Then Lennie Acuff, his good friend at UAH, the coach he'd entrusted his oldest son Max to as a player in the program, had to go and take the Lipscomb University job on April 24.

"I wasn't even thinking about replacing Lennie," Shulman said. "Then Max called and said he and his teammates thought I should apply for it."

It didn't take long for UAH athletic director Dr. E.J. Brophy to embrace the notion of a two-time Division I NCAA tournament coach taking over his Division II program.

"Obviously, we'd gotten to know John a bit because of Max," Brophy said. "I understood what John was going through. I coached for seven years. It's a calling, like a pastor. It's in your blood. Once he applied, it was obvious he's who we needed because he's a really good coach."

The coach he replaces, Acuff, is also a really good coach, having taken the Chargers to 11 NCAA Division II tourneys over his 22 years in Huntsville, including Elite Eight appearances in 2011 and 2012.

"Lennie's a rocket scientist," Shulman said during his introductory conference. "I'm not, but I coach with my heart. I'm high energy, blue collar."

But he's also wise enough not to fix what isn't broken with the Chargers, especially their high-octane offense. He'll retain assistants Anthony Komara and Spencer Palmer — "I've been coaching longer than they've been alive," Shulman said with a laugh on Friday — and move recent senior Eli Garrison into a graduate assistant position.

"A 37-year-old Shulman might have changed things," he said, recalling his age when he took over the Mocs from his close friend Jeff Lebo after Lebo moved on to Auburn. "But a 52-year-old Shulman is hopefully smarter than that."

He added that Lebo has already made note of the change during a recent phone call.

"Jeff said, 'What's wrong with you? You seem calmer, more under control,'" Shulman recalled. "I am calmer, I'm wiser, I'm smarter."

Yet Komara also said of he and Palmer's first meetings with Shulman: "He's high energy, and that's great. He's right there with us. He's not going to ask us to do anything he won't do."

The energy makes sense. Shulman hasn't coached a college team since the close of the 2013 season. He retired from McCallie last spring.

Yet the energy came before the job. Amy noticed during trips to Huntsville this past winter to watch Max play that "John's knee would start shaking, like it always did when he was coaching. He missed being out there, missed making a difference."

Anyone who has ever watched Shulman coach knows his right knee — "I can't do anything with my left knee, just like I can't do anything with my left hand," he said with a chuckle — goes up and down like a jackhammer when the game gets tight. It's an involuntary action, like the need to coach.

So after 17 years of impacting lives and win-loss records at UTC and McCallie, as well as the Boys & Girls Club and other charities, the Shulmans are leaving our town for a new challenge, the ol' ball coach once more both set free and caged by his calling.

"We're going to be uncommon, different," he said of his new team's personality. "We're going to risk it all every day. We're going to live off hope every day. That's the only way to live life and the only way to play ball."

Fortunately, at least where those ideals are concerned, John Shulman hasn't changed a bit over the years.

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