By Jake Winfrey and Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Joe Shults, a man simply known as “coach” to most and the face of Fairview basketball, may be gone in body, but his spirit is likely to live on forever in the school and community he loved so dearly.
Coach Shults, who is dually enshrined in the Cullman County and Lawrence County Sports Hall of Fames, passed away in his home on Wednesday, July 3, at the age of 88. Funeral services are scheduled for today at 2 p.m. at The First Baptist Church of Fairview.
“Literally, it was his life,” Sharon Drake, Shults’ daughter, said of her father’s passion for coaching and mentoring young student-athletes. “Now his family came first of course, but he just made his involvement with this school and the community a part of our family life. What he was able to do, not that he deliberately set out to change these boys’ lives, gave them something to hold onto.”
Prior to the start of his illustrious coaching career, Shults played basketball at Fairview, making one trip to the state tourney before graduating in 1943. From there, his athletic career was put on hold as he served in the Naval Air Force for three years during World War II.
After returning home, he resumed his education at St. Bernard College, where he dabbled in baseball, basketball and football. He was captain of his baseball team, batting over .400 in both seasons before transferring to Florence State Teacher’s College (now the University of North Alabama), where he finished off a brilliant career on the baseball diamond.
Shults received his first taste of coaching at Hatton High school in 1951, leading the school to a 111-38 overall record and its first-ever state final appearance.
From there, Shults made his way back to his alma mater, taking over the head coach position for the Fairview basketball team. He also coached track and football, in addition to carrying out assistant principal dutiesl.
Shults spent 15 seasons with the Aggies before a stroke cut his coaching career short at the age of 46. In his time with the Purple and Gold, he compiled a 289-112 record, including six Cullman County basketball titles, three area titles, two regional titles and two trips to the state tournament in 1964 and ’67. He finished his career with an even 400 victories, never once tallying a losing season.
Since 1978, the Joe Shults Award has been presented annually to the most outstanding basketball player in Cullman County. A second Joe Shults Award is annually given to Fairview’s best overall player as well. In 1983, the Fairview High gymnasium was named in his honor.
Throughout his career, Shults was well-respected by fellow coaches, even those who wore the title of “biggest rival.”
Former Holly Pond head coach and Cullman County Hall-of-Famer Felton Easterwood began battling coaching wits with Shults back in the late ’50s, where Easterwood said a lifelong friendship began to evolve.
“We remained good friends for so many years,” Easterwood said. “Other than those two hours, three-to-four days of the year when we became worst enemies on the basketball court.”
Easterwood, of course, was speaking good-naturedly, going on to state what an excellent coach Shults was throughout his time at Fairview and that, when all was said and done, their friendship remained the most important thing.
“Once the game was over, we were good buddies again,” he added. “He was well-liked and well-respected in the community. They accepted him, and he accepted them. I’m going to miss him.”
When Shults wasn’t busy trying to outsmart his fellow coaches, he was usually doing all he could to shape the lives of his players, something the Hall-of-Famer was well-known to do throughout his extraordinary life.
According to his daughter, the coach had several players come back and tell him if it wasn’t for him, they didn’t know where they would be in life. Some thought they might be in prison, while others at the very least thought they would have dropped out of school.
“For me to watch someone that I looked up to as a father and a role model have that kind of influence on others was special,” Drake said.
It goes without saying Shults was a beloved coach for anyone lucky enough to have played under him at Fairview.
One of those players happened to be Bo Bolzle, who mourned the passing of the Hall-of-Famer not only as a coach, but as a tremendous person who made a great impact on his life.
“He certainly meant a lot to me in my lifetime,” Bolzle said. “My dad passed away when I was 16 years old, and coach Shults really took me under his wing after that. His interest in my life went well beyond coaching.
“He gave me so much advice outside of sports. I could call him out of high school and talk about anything. It was almost like a father-son relationship between the two of us. I think about him in that regard, and I feel like he did the same with me as well.”
Bolzle was a star for the Purple and Gold’s basketball team during Shults’ tenure, garnering All-County and All-Area recognition his junior and senior seasons. He also helped capture two of Shults’ six Cullman County championships.
It wasn’t on the court that Bolzle most remembered his former coach, however, but rather during a meeting that took place on graduation day back in 1968.
“I remember him calling me into his office that day,” Bolzle said. “He told me I was good kid and that I was going to have to face some tough things after graduation.
“After that, he looked at me and said, ‘Bo, I want you to remember who you are, where you came from and what’s expected of you. If you do all three of those things, you’re going to be just fine.’”
Bolzle certainly took those words to heart over the years, as the former Addison principal and athletic director made a point to tell his junior and senior classes the exact same advice on two of the most important days of high school — prom and graduation.
When Shults is laid to rest today, Bolzle will be one of nine pallbearers at the service, an honor he said was very special to him.
“He asked me about five years ago to do it for him,” Bolzle said. “To have the opportunity to do that one last thing for him just means so much to me. He is going to be missed by myself and the community as a whole. I was so honored to know him.”
Another player that can attest to Shults’ impact is Ronnie Mann, who played for the coaching legend during his time at Fairview and had one particular story about Shults that stood out to him during his playing days.
According to Mann, the coach for the Aggies prior to Shults encouraged them to slow down the game, taking it one step at a time.
However, the problem with that was teams could only play zone defense back in those days, not man-to-man, which led Shults to make a big change his very first year at the helm.
“Coach came in there and told us to be successful against the zone, you’ve got to beat it down the court,” Mann recalled. “So we worked on the fast break, and that’s what we did.”
Like many other who’ve played for and coached against Shults, Mann could only marvel at just how much success his former mentor had over the years.
“First off, he was a winner,” he said. “He was determined, and he was very competitive. If he hadn’t had that medical problem of his, he would’ve touched so many more kids’ lives. He was just a great person. Everybody loved coach Shults. I can guarantee that.”
What makes Shults’ impact over the past 50 years even greater is the fact his mark on Cullman County extended well beyond that of his coaching days.
And for current Fairview senior Elijah Garrison, he couldn’t be more thankful.
Before he even knew him as “coach,” Garrison met Shults at church and couldn’t help but notice what a “good Christian man he was.”
From that point on, Garrison made a habit of going to talk to Shults, visiting the former head coach as often as two or three times a month to simply talk about basketball, a game both of them loved.
“We just talked about that,” Garrison said. “All the stuff about how the game’s changed, how it was when he coached, the players and just how successful he was. This past year, he would tell us a lot about what he liked about what we were doing.”
It was only fitting the last Cullman County Basketball Tournament in Shults’ 88 years on God’s green Earth was won by his alma mater, as Garrison helped lead the Aggies to a win over West Point.
Shults’ relationship with Garrison wasn’t lost on anybody, especially his daughter or Elijah’s father, Derrick.
“I think that had meaning both ways,” Drake said. “You could sense it from the very fact he came and visited more than once. That’s just not something kids think is really important now. For them to have that relationship and for him to feel like he’s even coaching or mentoring; it just had to be tremendous.”
Added Derrick: “Coach Shults and Elijah had a special bond. He watched me play. Obviously it’s been 20-something years ago, but he would always talk to me about Elijah. He was always taking the time to talk to Elijah, even when he was young. It does me good to know that Elijah, in turn, when he got old enough to drive, would take it upon his own will just to go visit him and talk to him about basketball and what it’s like to be a good Christian man. It does me a world of good to know the relationship they had.”
It’s no doubt Shults’ legacy precedes him, even to those who’ve known the man for many years, both as a player and as a coach.
When Greg Boatright was hired as Fairview’s head basketball coach 14 years ago, his first action wasn’t to celebrate his newfound job or even speak to his new players.
Rather, the former Aggie — and current St. Bernard coach — made the smartest move he figured he could make at the time, taking a trip to Shults’ very own doorstep.
“When I was at Fairview, he was very helpful to say the least,” Boatright said. “Anytime I went to speak with him, he really helped put things into perspective. I respected him as a coach, but even more as a man.”
Like so many others, Boatright was given plenty of advice to heed by the legendary Aggie coach, including a tidbit passed on during the two’s very first encounter.
“He told me to always do what you feel is best for the team,” Boatright said. “He stood by that and so did I. That was really good advice for me.”
Boatright first met Shults during his sophomore year. Even though Shults wasn’t able to coach Boatright, he was always present at plenty of Fairview’s prep games, whether it was basketball, baseball or any other sport going on at the time.
“He inspired me and he wasn’t even my coach,” Boatright said. “Going into and coming out of the locker room, he always stuck his hand out to us. His presence gave us all incentive to do the absolute best we could.”
Though many others are certain to have their own anecdotes about Shults, they all contain one common theme — he was truly a great person.
“I can’t say enough about the man,” Boatright said. “His door was always open to anyone who needed it. He was always humble and always helpful. I thought the best of him. We all lost a great man — not a good man, but a great man.”
Anyone who came into contact with coach Shults almost assuredly left a better person for having known him. Since his death on Wednesday, the community outpouring of kind words and sympathy has been nothing short of amazing for a coach who gave his entire life ensuring he gave his very best to his family, friends, players and even opposing coaches.
Knowing the impact her father left during his life is something Drake will hold dear to her heart for a very long time.
“For us to know his legacy carries on as a remembrance for him is even more special now that he has passed,” she said.
% Jake Winfrey and Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, exts. 136 and 138 or at jwinfrey@cullmantimes or email@example.com.