Pat Benson: Interview With Former UTC Coach John Shulman

March Madness is right around the corner and it’s an exciting time for fans. But it’s more than that to someone else we all know. The kid from Johnson City that worked his way up the coaching ranks and earned two invites to the Big Dance. Coach John Shulman knows about the grind of the season, the ups and downs of conference play, cutting down the nets, and anxiously awaiting Selection Sunday.

Thursday evening Coach Shulman was driving with family in the car (while eating Valentine’s Day cupcakes) to watch his oldest son play at UAH. He took a half-hour to answer all my questions, and share personal stories from his career which involved everyone from Joakim Noah to Jimmy Fallon. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did:

(Pat) So you were only 37 when you got your first head coaching job at UTC. In your first season y’all beat the Vols 69-68 in Knoxville. Where does that rank on your personal list of favorite games?

(John) That was a pretty good win. To be a kid from Johnson City and have coached all over Tennessee before being at Chattanooga you just kind of have that feeling of not being good enough to be at Knoxville. Everyone around Tennessee is the little step-brother and feels unworthy. To win that game it did a couple things, it was a dream come true first. Then it validated me a coach and my young team. To beat Buzz Peterson, Chris Lofton CJ Watson, Dane Bradshaw, and they had pros on that team. We had come close at Virginia Tech earlier that season, but that game validated the team and me as a coach.

(Pat) That same season y’all win the SOCON Tournament and run into Chris Paul and Wake Forest in the Big Dance. What was that experience like?

(John) Well I remember it was an absolute dream come true. You don’t expect to reach that dream in your first year. I had watched the tournament since I was little kid, we would leave vacation early to get home and see the Final Four. To be a part of it was surreal, it was crazy. Being up at halftime was a surprise. We did the process, and threatened team to not get embarrassed. I remember walking in, we had twenty minutes at half (we usually only get fifteen minutes at half), and I had the down-twenty speech ready but not the up-three speech. I told them it still wasn’t good enough. Mindaugas Katelynas looked at me and said, “Coach we’re playing pretty good”.

So we had to make it to the 10 minute mark, because Wake Forest had been ranked #1 in the country earlier that season. But around the 15-minute mark Lebron James and his posse sat right behind our bench and totally screwed up our mindset. After a timeout I looked at my assistants and said “We lost complete focus!” and they informed me that the team was distracted by the Lebron sitting right there (laughs).

(Pat) The next season y’all played the National Champion Florida Gators. They had Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford, etc. Was that the most talented team you ever went up against?

(John) I would say that team or when we played at Kentucky against Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, and one of the Teauge’s. That Kentucky team won the National Championship that year. The problem with Florida was they had won a National Championship, so all those guys were thought to be gone. I don’t know what happened but one stupid night they must have decided to come back for another year. We had scheduled it thinking all those guys were gone, then I see the press conference where they announce they’re returning.

And we tried some really different and creative things defensively. Noah came in the next day when we were practicing in their facility and left a message for me saying that he had never been double teamed or had faced such physical defense like that before. Which I was really impressed by what a nice gesture that was of him. But that Florida team, they were grown men. Tough, big, strong. They were men and everybody else were children. Kind of like this current Vols team.

(Pat) So one of my favorite highlights from your time at UTC was your overnight stardom with Jimmy Fallon when he adopted the Mocs as his favorite team. Did you see that one coming?

(John) That’s a crazy story. Jimmy Fallon was a character on SNL at that time. Jay Blackman came in said Fallon has a new TV show and wants to adopt us as his favorite 16-seed team. And I said as long as he isn’t making fun of us, then its fine. Blackman said it wasn’t for sure, but he would let me know. Well I never heard back from him.

Then that night there was this big feature on Fallon’s show. The whole thing just grew and grew and grew. They had a song for me which was a little crazy. But people couldn’t wait for the new segment each night, and all people could focus on was the Jimmy Fallon Show. But it was a great experience, great exposure, and I remember sitting there on the couch of the Jimmy Fallon set with Zach Ferrell right beside me, and I told him “CBS Thursday and NBC Friday. You know how to go out in style”.

What you learn in coaching is it isn’t about the moment, it’s actually about the journey. So lots of great memories from that experience, and people still talk about it! You want to make memories, and I remember that 2004 Tennessee game when were in the huddle up by one point with a few seconds left and I told them if you want people to talk about you forever you have to win. And here you and I are still talking about it to this day. The journey.

Also, this is a good story about Fallon, as we took our seats and got greeted by the band and Fallon. Jimmy said to me that we have dinner set up for everyone (all in compliance with the NCAA & UTC), let’s after the show go out and get food and a drink. I said “Jimmy, I’m tired and still not over yesterday, I’m going to watch ‘The Office’ with my sister” (an actor in New York). So I turned down hanging out with Jimmy Fallon to watch reruns of ‘The Office’ and eat bad Chinese food with my sister. I’m an idiot.

(Pat) I know there had to have been some bigger schools that tried to poach you from Chattanooga. Did you ever come close to leaving for a bigger program?

(John) Well it’s interesting, my downfall was that I fell in love with Chattanooga. Can’t do that in coaching. Have to hit and move. This a time of instant gratification. Two tournament appearances in five years. I had a phone call from a very important human, I won’t say who, right before the UCONN game. I can’t tell you who the important person was, but he said “As soon as this game is over you have to call me and we have to get you out of there”. I told him we loved Chattanooga and couldn’t leave, and he told me it was a bad idea to stay.

So after five years, you’re either going to win or not win. If you’re winning you have to move, because you may not keep winning. Start losing and they might get you. We could have and should have left, but didn’t. But looking back on it now, life turns out exactly as it should.

(Pat) Since you left UTC in 2013, the team has already had three head coaches. What’s your current assessment of the UTC basketball program?

(John) Well, I know Will and Matt and Lamont. All good coaches. Sometimes, you have to make a decision. Do you want to keep your coach for ten years or get guys who will win and get out there? That’s not my decision that is the administrator’s decision. They have a really good man in Lamont. Just give him a chance to build the program he wants to build.

You want to build it and grow enthusiasm and pack the arena with students and fans. That’s what Chattanooga basketball is all about. But it’s a very difficult job because what Mac McCarthy and Murray Arnold did was ridiculous. When Mac went to the Sweet 16 that raised the bar. And look at the program’s history, when they went D1 in 1978, they had won more tournaments than anyone in the south by far, not even close. But instead of enjoying success, you keep wanting more and more. Program needs to be celebrated not condemned. With the amazing success Chattanooga has experienced, sometimes you have to take a step back and appreciate it.

Give Lamont a chance to do great. I was at Ole Miss recently, and it reminded me of scrimmaging Auburn. Chattanooga has had way more success than them. Not even close. I remember when Lebo told me I had way more pressure than he did at Auburn. That shouldn’t be the case. Expectations are great, but there is a lot of pressure thanks to success of Mac and Murray.

(Pat) Building off that last question, what is your assessment of college basketball as a whole? The fallout from the corruption scandal is still hanging over the sport.

(John) I think they need some closure there. All the people in it know what’s going on. Let’s either clean it up or just open it up and making everything the wild wild west and let everybody do whatever.

But don’t threaten people with the FBI. If you have tapes then listen to the tapes and clean up the mess or don’t pretend you want it cleaned up. This has been going on forever. When money gets way up there, you will only have more corruption it turns into a risk/reward analysis and some people might be willing to risk three million, if they have six million in the bank.

I think college basketball is the greatest thing going out there, but college football is creeping up there (especially if you ask people down south). What college football has done with playoff is turn it into the Final Four, so college basketball better clean up their act. March Madness is the best, but football is catching up. Few opportunities to clean it up like right now.

(Pat) Who is worse for the sport; these sneaker company bagmen or Lavar Ball?

(John) I’m not a big Lavar Ball fan, I tell you why. Back in the day, there would be a loud mouth dad who would get his son playing time on the YMCA team. Or he would coach himself. Then it went to middle school. Then it went to high school. I thought it could never happen in college, then it started happening in college. Well never the NBA, but now Lavar Ball has completed another level. He’s telling NBA coaches how to coach his son. Thank god Lebron went to Lakers, to shut him up.

He is horrible for the game. The shoe guys, they’re just competitive. I remember what Dr J. did with Converse, then Jordan with Nike, then adidas. I remember a long time ago, early in my career, all the different camps sponsored by these different shoe companies. I don’t think they’re evil, they’re just trying to get the next Zion. Locate them when they are fifteen years old, get their claws in them, then hopefully sign them when they are twenty years old.

(Pat) Ok back to your career, what made you decide to coach again at McCallie?

(John) Here’s the problem. When you’re a coach, it’s not a job rather it’s a calling. And most people retire, (I’m nowhere close to that) they are happy and want to go to the beach and never work again. Coaching is a calling, not work. And a calling is what you are supposed to do. When you go from coaching all the time, and then that ends, it’s tough. Once a coach always a coach. When people call me Mr. Shulman, I think “no that’s my dad, I’m Coach Shulman”.

So at McCallie it all worked out, and I got to be coach again. Especially with my oldest and middle child playing, and the youngest on the bench. I enjoy being a father more than anything else in life, so being with my kids all day long with games and practice was a gift to be with them and the guys all the time. It was lot of fun and we had a tremendous amount of success and wins.

(Pat) Since you left McCallie, you have started 720 Sports Group. What services does your company offer?

(John) We are a sports company to help people. We do a wide variety of things. I teamed with an NBA agent and added another young man who is an agent. So helping college players pursue their professional career, helping college and high school coaches who want to move up and onward. Answer any questions they might have along the way. We are representing coaches and players.

We had a coach’s academy in the middle of October in Rossville, Georgia. We had some of the highest basketball minds in this gym. Seth Greenberg, Fran Fraschilla, Kevin Eastman (Celtics assistant coach), Rick Bird (Hall of Famer), Kermit Davis, Bob Richey and a lot of really neat people speaking. Trying to help young coaches and their career. It was really enjoyable because I love helping players and coaches.

We are close to adding a former lottery pick to our team soon. And it is amazing how many leagues are out there where you can make a lot of money and be successful all over world. Twenty percent of the NBA is from Europe so the landscape is changing. Bottom line, if I didn’t have people helping me when I was younger there would be no way I would have lived my dreams.

When I became a Head Coach at UTC, I changed practice time on Halloween so I could go trick or treating with my kids. I called my old coach I worked for and apologized for being an idiot when I was a younger. So I tell everyone I’m not smarter than you, I might be a little wiser since I’m older. So it’s just a lot of fun to help young coaches because if I didn’t have help I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.

(Pat) So I’m a fan of your 720 in 720 Podcast not only because it has interviews with stars like Jay Bilas but because it is so informative and so honest. What are you hoping to accomplish with the podcast?

(John) Well it was kind of an idea of someone else. They thought I was good at asking the right questions, and I wanted an informative helpful podcast. On one episode I interviewed Jay Bilas and was excited to try and ask the right questions and get some useful information from his time with Coach K. Off that episode, you learned that Coach K is big on eye contact, and makes all of his players look at him in the eye when speaking. I’m sitting there thinking “Wow how cool is that”

Today I interviewed Jeff Allen, Nick Saban’s trainer. So I asked him questions on how we can prevent ankle sprains. I want to know that because my own kids. All of a sudden, Saban’s trainer is telling us how to prevent back issues, knee injuries, when to tape and when to use braces. Next week I interview a Final Four referee. I want to teach young coaches how to move around the box and how to communicate without making the refs mad. We also have plans to interview Ernie Johnson and Ryan Leaf. I like to ask questions, and do my best to shut up and listen.

(Pat) Is there anything I’m missing or forgot to ask?

(John) Not at all. I have my family, and they’re healthy and happy. We’re in the car heading down to watch my oldest son play at UAH. I’m happy. Who knows what the future holds, my goal is just to keep helping people in the meantime. The funny thing is, I’m more connected now than ever and get to call up guys like Jay Bilas or Steve Smith. I get to start the Dr. Pepper Classic up at McCallie where teams like Oak Hill and IMG come to play. I’m happy man.


Addendum: I’m so thankful to Coach Shulman for taking precious time away from his family to speak so honestly with me. My tape recorder stopped working at the very beginning of the interview and I did my best to type and keep up, so if there are any errors or misquotes then all blame goes to me.

Coach Shulman has a lot of things going for him. A successful coaching career, a new business, and an expanding footprint in the basketball world. But it became clear to me early in the conversation that all those things fall far behind his love of family, and the feeling of indebtedness he believes he owes to all those who helped him along the way. I can’t wait to see the finished product of what he is building.


Pat Benson is a fixture at local high school sporting events. He has been a sideline reporter, P.A. announcer, and radio personality. Tweet him @Pat_Benson_Jr. 

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