Greater Atlanta Christian will part ways with Cliff Shelton, its head baseball coach for the past 32 years and the all-time leader in victories among Gwinnett coaches, at the end of this season.
The news came as a shock to the Gwinnett baseball community over the past few days. Shelton also was taken aback by the decision when he received the news last Friday.
The 57-year-old broke the difficult news to his players Monday.
“I could tell you I stepped down on my own, but I’d be lying,” said Shelton, who plans to stay at GAC, where his wife Kristy also is a longtime teacher and coach, as a teacher. “I stepped down because of what they told me that the school wanted to move in another direction. To be honest, I think it’s all part of God’s plan. I’m at peace with it.
“Friday and Saturday of last week were two of the toughest days I’ve had to deal with in a long time. But by the time Sunday rolled around, I kind of made my peace with it.”
That didn’t make Monday any easier, though. He had to tell his players, his seniors in particular, that this season would be his last.
His 32-year tenure is easily Gwinnett’s longest for a coach.
“Earlier in my career, I never imagined coaching this long,” Shelton said. “I guess I figured I’d coach until I retired from teaching. But this was unexpected obviously. I didn’t have any intentions of stepping down any time soon.”
Shelton passed legendary Parkview coach Hugh Buchanan, a Georgia Athletic Coaches Association and National Baseball Coaches Association hall of famer, for most Gwinnett coaching victories last season. He has 567 career victories with 13 region championships, four state runner-up finishes and three other Final Four appearances.
The victories have been tougher in recent seasons — a tough region with Wesleyan, Lovett and Westminster hasn’t helped — but the Spartans still have been a tough out in the state playoffs.
“Coach Shelton has my admiration and respect, along with the admiration and respect of countless of his fellow baseball coaches in the metro Atlanta area,” GAC athletic director Tim Vick said in a statement released by the school. “He has proven himself to be a man of integrity, caring more for the physical and spiritual well being of the players than any baseball record. He is a coach who emphasized to the hundreds of players privileged enough to play for him that there are life lessons that can be learned from baseball, but that baseball should not be the most important thing in one’s life.”
Shelton is highly thought of in the baseball community, by both longtime coaches and newcomers. He is a role model to many of those coaches, including Providence Christian head coach Adam Cantrell.
Cantrell, who won a state championship in 2012, played for Providence when his teams faced GAC before the two became colleagues.
“Shocked is a mild word I’d use (when I got Shelton’s phone call),” Cantrell said. “I’m amazed with the way he’s dealing with it. He’s a great, great man and a great coach. He’s humble. When he’s winning, he gives credit to the players. When he’s struggling, he’s always looking at himself and what he can do better. He’s just an ideal coach. He’s who I’ve always modeled the way I do things after.”
Shelton also has played an instrumental role in the Gwinnett Dugout Club, even more so over the past decade.
“What (Shelton’s) done for the Gwinnett Dugout Club is indescribable,” Cantrell said. “He has been our leadership for the last 13 years. It was good before with some positive things about it, but not the way it is now. And it’s almost all because of him.”
Shelton came extremely close to a state championship during his GAC tenure, but never quite got the ultimate prize. He said Wednesday that he had no regrets about leaving without a state title, preferring to focus on the other joys he got from his long career at the Norcross private school.
“It never has been about winning, losing and championships, that’s never been as big of a deal for me,” Shelton said. “Maybe when I was younger and didn’t know any better. The reality is I’ve been blessed beyond belief by the young men who I’ve had the privilege of coaching. The coaches I’ve worked with, the friends I’ve made, that’s what means the most to me.”