Bittersweet Goodbye

June 17, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn

Sting Daily

Bryan Sheltonis not torn between two jobs any more, but on his last official day as a Georgia Tech employee the former women’s tennis coach was torn asunder.

It would not be a stretch to suggest that Friday was the second biggest day in the history of Tech’s tennis programs. At 2 p.m., the official ground-breaking for the Ken Byers Tennis Complex took place near the corner of 10th and Fowler Streets.

The new facility may catapult both programs to regular status among the best.

Yet Shelton – whose 2007 team provided the biggest tennis moment in school history when the Yellow Jackets beat UCLA 4-3 to win the only NCAA national title in Tech history – used the word, “bittersweet,” Friday.

Keep reading, and you’ll know why. Here’s a tip: today, Shelton is the men’s tennis coach at the University of Florida.

On Friday, though, he was there with VIPs (philanthropic donors), Tech officials, men’s coach Kenny Thorneand others with shovels – even as he had a flight to catch, schools to find for his kids, houses to tour in Gainesville, Fla., and a new life to begin.

It hurt him. It hurt Thorne. It hurt a lot of people, but in a life-moves-on-and-sometimes it-stinks-but-we-get-it kind of way.

All of this went way past Shelton’s four ACC tournament titles and four ACC regular-season titles.

All the pain is why he had no intention of being there.

He was Thorne’s teammate in the mid- to late-1980s, a frequent roommate on the professional tour, and benefited more than he can describe when Thorne put in a word to have him hired as the women’s coach in 2000.

You probably don’t know it, but Thorne and Shelton have helped coach each other’s squads all along. They can communicate with winks and body language. They frequently would trouble-shoot each other’s squads, and, well, I don’t want to get too far off track here because it would take so much space.

Beyond their relationship, which Thorne said after the official ceremony is, “not going to be in jeopardy at all,” there is Shelton’s love for Tech. That hasn’t died.

But, and clearly there a few of those here as Shelton moves to one of the five richest athletic departments in the nation, he’s moving to a very different dynamic and that appeals greatly.

Shelton is a competitor. That’s what Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had in mind less than two weeks ago when he called Shelton on the advice of UF women’s tennis coach Roland Thornqvist – who is fresh off his second straight national title.

“The great thing . . . is the support I’ve received from so many people at Georgia Tech who understand the opportunity,” Shelton said. “I think it’s great when the resources match up with the level of expectation. I’ve always felt that here I’ve been in a great situation where things matched up, and at Florida it’s going to be very much the same.

“It’s just a different opportunity, to coach the men, and know that I’ve got a department that’s fully behind me and wants the program to be successful at the highest level. Jeremy Foley said . . . when people talk about the three or four best men’s tennis programs in the country, he wants Florida to be mentioned. At the same time, his comment was, ‘We’ll get you whatever resources you need in order to execute that.’ “

Shelton’s going to a very different place.

On the Flats, the athletic budget is about half as big, maybe a little lower. With research, you can find numbers that vary a little for both schools, but it’s clear that the Gators spend a lot of money on their teams, their recruiting budgets, and their coaches.

Shelton’s predecessor did not do poorly. The man won a couple SEC titles and was a fairly regular visitor to the Sweet 16. In Gainesville, that’s not enough – in any sport.

The Gators’ new coach welcomes that kind of challenge.

He wouldn’t be there today if he weren’t so very good at what he does. I’ve opined in the past enough to make it obvious to any regular reader that I think Shelton and Thorne are very good at what they do.

Byers even mentioned it Friday while at the lecturn when he summoned the former college teammates to join him. “It just occurred to me that this might be the last time we see these two long-time buddies standing together at an official Georgia Tech function,” he said. “You need to savor this moment.”

Once the coaches were at Byers’ side, he mentioned that Shelton was the national coach of the year in 2007 and Thorne won the men’s honor in 2011. “That’s pretty damned cool for Georgia Tech,” Byers said.

It was. It still is, right?

And if you were Shelton, in your mid 40s and excited about the nation’s top recruiting class coming in to christen an exquisite new facility at Tech, you’d understand better how cool it would be to have all that and then get that phone call.

Thornqvist got in Foley’s ear after the UF men’s coach resigned following a Sweet 16 exit late in May. The Swede told his boss that Shelton is one of the very best college tennis coaches in the land, “men or women.”

As Thornqvist told the UF athletic web site when speaking of Shelton: “He’s the one guy, honestly, who can cut you up when a match is in progress; just a master technician when the ball is in play.

“There are a lot of good coaches who do good jobs maintaining their teams . . . and then there’s Bryan. He sees things, sees trends, and coaches his players through his adjustments. They trust him.”

Foley had no intention of considering women’s coaches for the UF men’s job until his women’s coach came forward. Shelton didn’t chase the job; it chased him.

“I totally had my head in the sand; I didn’t know the job was open,” he said. “I was excited about all of our returning players here at Georgia Tech, committing to go to summer school so we could get to work. We were locking into practices, and tournament plans for the summer, schedules for the fall, a lot of different things here.”

Some of that’s changed, although when asked if he has had a role in trying to keep together Tech’s stout recruiting class, Shelton said, “Absolutely. I’ve talked with each of the recruits, and talked to them about the support of the women’s tennis program at Georgia Tech, and how this is a very special program.

“I’ve talked to them about how special this place is outside of the tennis. And I’ve also talked to them about Dan [Radakovich] and Theresa [Wenzel]’s goal of getting the best person for this job so the transition is as seamless as possible. I think they understand.”

Indeed, at least four candidates had interviewed for the Tech women’s tennis coaching position by Friday. That fast.

None of that makes easier Shelton’s departure.

Thorne’s eyes were moist the longer I spoke with him.

“I can’t even put into words how much we’re going to miss him,” he said. “We’ve been around the Tour together, and . . . just having somebody to head into the office with and kind of say, ‘Hey, I’m dealing with this,’ and he can pick up right there. We don’t have to tell each other anything. We can look at each other, and . . . it’s tough. It’s tough.”

Shelton consulted Thorne through the process with the Gators.

Once the decision was made, near the end of week-before-last, Shelton struggled.

“When I came back after that trip to Gainesville, I kind of hit the bottom when I had to start communicating with my team, the parents, the recruits we have coming in . . . other coaches, the accounting office and on and on,” he said.

“It’s been really emotional because a lot of people have expressed how they feel about me in a positive way and that means a lot. That’s the bitter part. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here. They’ve been abundant. I knew in year one that I was in the right place. I’ve enjoyed waking up every morning and coming to work, and not everybody can say that.”

Getting back now to the beginning of all this: Shelton wasn’t going to attend the ground-breaking, even though he and Thorne pushed so hard for years to make it happen.

Byers learned of that, and left a slew of voice mails. Others chimed in as well.

And Shelton showed up, eschewing a couple showings of his soon-to-be former house. He knew it would be awkward, difficult. It was.

When I caught up with him, finally – after more than a week of phone tag – I kind of hated it, to be honest. I can’t think of three big-time coaches I appreciate more than Shelton, Thorne and Bruce Heppler. I’ll miss Bryan Shelton, his results, and his person.

I walked behind him for a bit, straight from the ground-breaking site up to Tech president Bud Peterson’s manse along 10th. There was a fairly formal gathering by the pool. Shelton spoke with a couple tennis patrons while I waited.

Eventually, I had him to myself on the sidewalk some 100 feet from the affair.

He told me what you’ve read and then some. After turning off the tape recorder. I mentioned that I thought I’d overheard him say he didn’t plan on being there.

Shelton confirmed that. He was suddenly fluttering. I’d been that way a while. Lord, help me, I hated that moment.

We finished some idle chat. He went left, I went right and down the hill toward my car.

And as we parted, Bryan Sheltonpaid me a great compliment. My eyes were more moist. I hated it and loved it. It was bittersweet, a good-bye and validation simultaneously.

Sorry for the length. Bryan Shelton’s going to put UF men’s tennis on the map; mark my words. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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