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Winterbotham Success Leads to OC Hall of Fame

Sam Winterbotham borrowed money from his butcher to come to Oklahoma Christian University.

That investment is still paying dividends.

Winterbotham, a five-time NAIA All-American who starred for OC's soccer and tennis teams in the 90s, is now a successful head coach at the University of Tennessee.

It all started with that loan from Sam's butcher, and a partial scholarship from former OC tennis coach Kris Miller.

"My tennis resume was OK, but it really was a leap of faith for Coach to do what he did," said Sam, a native of Stoke on Trent, Great Britain. "I will forever be grateful for the opportunity. It changed my life."

It didn't take long for Sam to improve his resume. He went 3-0 in his first tournament as an Eagle, including a 6-0, 6-0 victory in his first collegiate match. It was an auspicious start to a freshman year that ended with Sam's selection to the NAIA All-America second team.

By the time his career was over, Sam would be a four-time All-American in tennis, including two years on the All-America first team.

In 1998, he helped the Eagles win the Sooner Athletic Conference championship. His biggest individual highlight came in 1996, when he overcame a bout with mononucleosis to win the Intercollegiate Tennis Association regional and national singles championships.

"The regional tournament ended up being the toughest part," Sam said. "I beat the No. 1 guy in the nation in a three-and-a-half-hour marathon, then was given a 50-minute break before I played the regional final against the No. 5 guy in the nation. I managed to beat him in another three-and-a-half-hour match. I remember drinking so much arctic-blue Gatorade in those seven hours that my mouth was stained for days."

On the soccer field, Sam capped his playing career by helping lead the Eagles to the 1998 Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title. He was named SAC Player of the Year, and earned a spot on the NAIA All-Region First Team in addition to NAIA All-America honorable mention. Sam joined Eric Wiens (basketball/track and field) as the only two OC athletes to earn All-America honors in two different sports.

"My last season was really fun," Sam said. "There were so many talented young guys on the team and it was really a great experience. We had many great conversations about life and religion - anything other than sports really. It was great learning from them."

Now the student is a teacher. It only took one semester at Oklahoma Christian for Sam to set his sights on college coaching.

Before he graduated with his marketing degree in 1999, he helped Miller coach OC's junior varsity tennis team. Sam's resume and (he says) a lot of help from OC's career center helped him land a volunteer assistant's job at Baylor University.

He became a full-time assistant the next year. And in his third season, he was named the NCAA Region VI Assistant Tennis Coach of the Year as Baylor won the Big 12 regular season and conference tournaments in 2002.

Sam became the head tennis coach at the University of Colorado later that year and quickly turned the program around. In 2006, he led the Buffaloes to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988 and was named the ITA/Wilson Mountain Region Tennis Coach of the Year and the Big 12 Conference Co-Coach of the Year.

Now he's in his second season leading the men's program at Tennessee after taking the Volunteers to the national tournament last year. The principles he learned from Miller and from former OC soccer coach Jon Goad have served Sam well in his career.

"Coaching is a constant challenge. There are the obvious challenges of wins and losses. Then there are the more important challenges of helping your players develop character," Sam said. "You push them, you support them, you chastise them, you reinforce them. And you are constantly trying to find new ways to help them. That is what I enjoy most about coaching."

Sam also has quite a team at home in wife Tara (McClure), a former OC softball player, and children Zoe, Ryann and Sophia.

"Tara is the No. 1 reason for my success. She is the anchor of support for all that I do," Sam said. "We have three beautiful children, and Tara continues to help them blossom while allowing me to spend my time worrying about winning a match."

Sam also draws support from his brother Glyn, who came to Oklahoma Christian a semester after Sam and became another key member of OC's soccer team.

"Glyn was a great teammate. He is also a great brother. He continues to be a great influence on me and someone I continue to look up to. I wouldn't trade any of the time we got to spend together at OC," Sam said.

Nor would Sam trade his experience at OC, where he was honored as the university's international business student of the year in 1999. Though he's now an NCAA coach with a resume that's way beyond "OK," Sam has a deep love for his alma mater.

"Oklahoma Christian is full of great people. My professors were excellent, and the personal attention I received was invaluable. My peers were fantastic, and I made so many great friends. But ultimately, I was influenced by the goodness of the place," Sam said. "I still think it is incredible that I got supported through college because I could hit and kick a ball. It's an amazing gift."

A gift that keeps on giving.

by Wes McKinzie