John Shulman followed in mentor Alan LeForce’s footsteps with many similar feats, and they helped him walk away from Chattanooga with his head held high.
Shulman stepped down as Chattanooga’s head basketball coach last month when the school refused to extend a contract that had one year remaining.
He left four years after taking a UTC team to the NCAA Tournament for the second time. LeForce left ETSU in 1996, four years after he took ETSU to an NCAA Tournament for the second time.
Shulman also took UTC to the NCAA Tournament in his first season after succeeding buddy/boss Jeff Lebo. LeForce took his first ETSU team to the NCAA Tournament after succeeding buddy/boss Les Robinson.
Shulman’s Mocs beat Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena. LeForce’s Bucs beat Tennessee there, too.
And LeForce also resigned this year when he left his Coastal Carolina women’s position, 21 years after leading the Bucs to a fourth straight Southern Conference title, an NCAA Tournament upset of Arizona and a second-round matchup with Michigan’s Fab Five.
“I remember seeing a picture of Coach LeForce on top of a ladder holding up a net,” Shulman said in a phone interview Friday. “And I went, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Just (talking) about it right now gives me chills. I was going, 'Man, if one day I can have that moment …’
“Well, a lot of people don't get that moment. I was fortunate enough to be in that moment a couple of times as a head coach.”
Indeed, UTC led second-seeded Wake Forest by three at halftime in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, and the Demon Deacons had Chris Paul. The Mocs’ witty, self-deprecating first-year coach found himself at a loss for words during his halftime speech.
“I had a down-20 speech ready, I just didn't quite have that up-three speech ready,” Shulman said. “At the NCAA Tournament you get extra time at halftime, so I was kind of messed up a little bit. I had too much time on my hands and I'm trying to figure out something to say. So I went in and said, ‘That’s not good enough fellas,’ and my big Lithuanian (Mindaugas Katelynas) said, ‘Coach, come on now, we're up three on Chris Paul.’”
The late Skip Prosser’s Demon Deacons rallied to win, 70-54, thanks to 20 points from Paul. The game was in Cleveland and LeBron James was seated near UTC’s bench, not that Shulman knew it at the time.
“I said that I felt like our guys lost our focus in the second half,” Shulman said, “and one of my assistants said, 'Coach, LeBron was sitting right behind our bench. I don't think anybody listened to you, including the coaches, in timeouts.”
It was a star-studded end to a magical first season that included the win at Tennessee. After upsetting Buzz Peterson’s Vols, Shulman pumped his fist to a gathering of fans, many of whom had traveled from Johnson City. He talked after the game about how he’d watched the Vols in Knoxville as a child with his father when they had players such as Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld and Johnny Darden.
“To beat a Tennessee at Tennessee — being a Tennessee boy — was a great night,” Shulman said.
One of his most satisfying victories came later that season when UTC beat the Buccaneers in the Minidome to clinch the SoCon’s North Division. ETSU featured the league’s leading scorer in cat-quick point guard Tim Smith, who’d helped ETSU to the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons.
“One of my most special moments was winning at East Tennessee State to win the regular season title my first year,” Shulman said. “I guess I'd just kind of proven to myself that I was worthy. I'm a Johnson City boy that came back home and won a regular season title. That was an important night for me, personally.
“Tim Smith had whipped us two straight years in the conference championship game and we had to come back up to ETSU to clinch a North Division title. We won and I had a lot of friends and family show up for the game. We ended up playing East Tennessee in the quarterfinals and we beat them in Chattanooga on our way to an NCAA Tournament.”
Shulman’s second NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009 was forgettable. UTC lost to top-seeded Connecticut, 103-47.
But he’ll always have the hype of the leadup, which included talk show host Jimmy Fallon adopting Chattanooga as his Cinderella hopeful. Shulman even appeared on the show via Skype and Fallon’s band performed “The Don Juan of the SoCon” as an ode to him.
“We had great moments, we had fun moments and we had tough moments at Chattanooga,” Shulman said. “That’s life. … I wouldn't trade anything for it.”
Science Hill players Omar Wattad and Josh Odem played for Shulman at Chattanooga, and Shulman said Science Hill senior point guard Will Adams could’ve been the third Hilltopper. Instead, Adams plans to sign with Presbyterian on Wednesday.
“We wanted him down here,” Shulman said. “Will Adams is a winner, and it's hard to keep winners off that court. … He's going with a great friend of mine (Gregg Nibert). I couldn't be happier for Will, and I couldn't be happier for Presbyterian. He'll take advantage of his opportunity.”
Shulman played at University High for Marty Street when Joe McPherson was the lead assistant. The Junior Bucs went to the state tournament his junior and senior seasons (1983, ’84). Greg Davis (Mercer), Brad Moorehouse (Milligan) and John Phillips were on the best team in ‘83.
“My junior year we were really good and we went down and got beat by Goodpasture, I think, by six,” Shulman said. “My senior year we were terrible; we were awful. But it was such a great taste going to the state tournament that we all figured out a way to get back there. We went down and played Lookout Valley in the substate and we made it to the state tournament two years in a row.”
Shulman best resembles LeForce in the fact that he’s remained close with former players. Old faces helped him finish the homestretch in Chattanooga with closure.
“Our last regular season game this year was up at Appalachian,” Shulman said. “After the game, I spent about an hour with (former Bucs) Marty Story, Calvin Talford and Loren Riddick back in the locker room hanging out and telling stories. Coaching's about relationships, and if you can keep those relationships through the years, that means you've done something okay. …
“We all think that every W and L defines us, and it really doesn't. It's the relationships — seeing Major Geer at an AAU tournament in Knoxville and telling old stories, and Calvin and Marty coming down and working our camp at Chattanooga. I walk into a bank the other day and see one of our former players working as one of the higher-ups here in Chattanooga. I talked to (Jerry) Pelphrey the other day, and he's doing great. You make an impact on kids' lives, and that's all I've ever wanted to do.”
His impact these days is with his his three kids. Shulman is married to the former Amy Engle, the 1996 Southern Conference Player of the Year at ETSU, and they have three sons – Max (13), Tanner (12) and 7-year-old John Carter.
“I'm a Johnson City boy,” Shulman said. “We call our youngest one J.C.”
Max is already 6-foot-2, 175-pounds and wears size 13 shoes. He plays AAU basketball with Johnson City’s Blake Grindstaff.
“Max can shoot that ball and he can hit a baseball,” Shulman said. “He's got the heart of his daddy and the skills of his mama.”
Amy played at ETSU for Karen Kemp, who also lost her job this season.
“It is an insane business, and you've got to know that,” Shulman said. “You can't take it personal, and it's hard not to do that.”
Shulman, 46, has a year’s pay coming from Chattanooga, and money shouldn’t be an issue even if he doesn’t return to coaching. But as LeForce proved, it’s a tough bug to whip.
“What comes first is your family,” Shulman said. “They're all very entrenched in their schools, in their teams and they love it in Chattanooga. So it would have to be something really, really special at this second to get us out of here. But we'll figure it out. …
“It was a great run. I was able to live my dreams. I've got no bitterness. … When you put everything in it with your heart, you really don't have a whole lot of regrets.”