They say if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Sam Winterbotham, former University of Tennessee men’s tennis coach, did just that.
Winterbotham, a member of Oklahoma Christian University’s 1999 graduating class and four-time NAIA All-American, has one of the most storied athletic careers in Eagles history.
A native of England, the two-sport athlete displayed dominance in both areas of play—winning the NAIA Rolex Singles National Championship in 1997 for tennis and claiming soccer’s 1999 Sooner Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
Making the transition from tennis player to coach, Winterbotham saw similar success. As an assistant for Baylor University from 1999-2002, he aided the Bears in their transition to a perennial powerhouse.
After landing his first head coaching job at the University of Colorado, his international recruiting efforts lived on, playing an instrumental part in Baylor’s 2004 NCAA title.
In his transition to Colorado, Winterbotham saw gradual improvement in a difficult Big 12 conference. By the spring of 2006, he guided the team to its first 20-win season since 1997 and its first playoff berth since 1988. Despite the drastic improvements, the program was cut due to administrative budgetary restrictions.
In an interview with the San Francisco Gate in 2006, Winterbotham commented on the university’s decision to cut the tennis program.
“In the meeting, Mike [Bohn, the athletic director] said it was purely financial,” Winterbotham said, “So I said, ‘What will it take?’ He said we needed to raise $1 million by May 10, the cost of running the program for three years.”
Like his players, Winterbotham was committed to saving the program and raised roughly $600,000, but the ax still fell.
Winterbotham, having his time cut short as a Buffalo, joined the Tennessee Volunteers in the latter half of 2006, making an instant impact. He became the first coach in program history to win back-to-back SEC regular-season titles in 2010-2011.
While at Tennessee, Winterbotham coached 16 All-American athletes, 24 All-SEC selections and four NCAA finalists. In 2013, he was named National Coach of the Year. A year later, he coached his first national champions—doubles partners Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese.
The Volunteers saw a recent skid in performance following the 2014 season. The unfortunate lack of production led to the removal of Winterbotham as head coach in 2017. He finished with a 217-104 record as Tennessee’s head coach.
WNML Sports Radio reporterJimmy Hyams stated he noticed a change in Winterbotham’s demeanor after tragedy struck Tennessee’s campus.
“Winterbotham’s focus seemed to be diverted several years ago when one of his players, Sean Karl ,died of cancer Nov. 17, 2014,” Hyams said.
In a KnowKnews article, Winterbotham addressed the situation but made no comments on his former player’s death.
“John [Currie] decided this was in the best interest of the University of Tennessee and the program,” Winterbotham said. “I disagree. John’s standards for the program are no higher than mine.”
In 2007, Winterbotham was elected into Oklahoma Christian University’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 2013, Oklahoma Christian cut their tennis program during their transition from NAIA to Division II—despite their national ranking.
Winterbotham still shows involvement in the University of Tennessee tennis program.