April 18, 2012
BY MATT MAGILL
The regular season might be in the books, but to tennis head coach Sam Winterbotham, the year has just begun.
The playoffs have arrived.
The Vols start the first leg of that journey when they travel to Starkville, Miss., to compete in the SEC Championships beginning Thursday against Alabama.
Before boarding the bus, Winterbotham took time out for the weekly Q&A, talking the team's development over the last few months, Christopher Williams' contributions to the program as the volunteer assistant coach and associate head coach Chris Woodruff's joking interest in cheering against his hometown football club.
Q: From Memphis at the start of the spring until now, how pleased have you been with the growth of the team and how much growth has there been?
A: I think it's a tremendous amount of improvement that the guys have made. But all of that will be for nothing if they don't finish well. That's part of their maturity. Teams get judged on the end of their season as much as the start of their season. We obviously didn't start the way we wanted to against Memphis, but we had four freshmen playing in their first dual match. That's a tough ask. As we've gone through the year, we've had some very strong performances and we've had some up and down performances. Right now, as we go into the postseason, we've got to be ready to produce some strong performances. Otherwise, we'll be coming home Thursday.
Q: You lost five starters from last season and you've had to play young guys early this year. What's the difference between coaching an experienced team like last season and an inexperienced team like this one?
A: A team like this is trying to understand what championships are all about. They're coming in and trying to figure out what it means and what you have to do to win three matches in a row or six matches in a row in order to win a championship. These guys have to go through the fire a little bit to find that out. They don't need to be looking further than Alabama. Tournaments are all about winning that next round and regrouping and preparing for the following match. You don't save anything for a tournament. You go out there and play every match like it is your last because if you lose it, there's no sequel. Tournaments are great because you stop at four points. If we can get the team off quickly, then we get them off quickly. We don't want them hanging around. I remember last year's team in the first round of the SEC Tournament we had a chance to put the team away early and we didn't. We played an extra hour and a half of tennis and we paid for that the following way.
Q: Kris Miller, your tennis coach at Oklahoma Christian, was inducted into Oklahoma Christian's hall of fame. What lessons did you learn from him and how much has he shaped your coaching style?
A: He shaped me as a person. Kris is very much a father figure to me. He's just a wonderful human being. He's incredibly competitive; he's passionate. You've got to see that at all times. He's also a giver, not a taker. I learned that. He's a great human being and someone I'm very proud of. I'm proud I got to play for him and become great friends with him.
Q: Having played collegiate tennis yourself, how much does that help you get into the mindset of a player?
A: You've got two levels of playing. I played at a good collegiate level. I was a good college tennis player. The other coach on the staff was a world-class tennis player. We come from different perspectives. I'll let Chris talk about what it takes to be a pro and I'll tell these guys what it takes to be a great teammate and best player they can be.
Q: Jarryd Chaplin talked about you changing your emphasis from result-oriented to effort-oriented. Why would you choose to do that?
A: It's really more of just pointing out to the players what my emphasis has always been. I think what that told me is that I wasn't doing a good enough job explaining what is most important. We met as a team and discussed it. Effort's always been No. 1 in those conversations that the coaches are having. When I was discussing the matches with the players, they may have felt that it was results-oriented, but we cleared that up.
Q: With this team you have a lot of different emotional styles. Do you change your coaching style based on which player you're coaching?
A: You change how you communicate with them. We do personality profiles on each of our players. As we get to know them and they get to know us, you hopefully are able to figure out what the right buttons are to push, when to use a certain style of motivation to get the most out of them. The expectation for everybody is the same, but the way you communicate that message is different based on their personality.
Q: Last season's team now has three guys in the pro circuit. I know that you wanted some of those guys back, but does it give you a sense of pride to be able to look at those guys and see them doing well?
A: Yeah, once you're a Vol, you're a Vol. We love those guys. They always come back. They love this program. There's a mutual respect regardless of whether we felt the decision was the right decision. We're supportive of them. Once the decision was made, we're not bitter. We're supportive because those are our guys. We want those guys to make it and have wonderful, successful careers.
Q: With the SEC Tournament coming up, what are your expectations for the weekend?
A: I'm excited. I'm really excited. This is the next opportunity. Alabama's in our way in the first round. We've got to take care of Alabama and be prepared and focus on Alabama. As a coach, I understand that you can't win the final if you don't win the first round. Sometimes the players don't realize that and they look ahead and think, `Ooh, that's going to be an interesting one.' No, you've got Alabama. That's your tournament and then we'll move forward from there.
Q: Christopher Williams has been a part of this program for a while and now his time is winding down here. What's been his impact both as a player and a coach on this program?
A: Christopher's impact is something I can't really put into words. His importance to our team and to our program over the past three and a half has helped shaped the program to be where it is. He's been 100 percent committed. He's an extremely bright guy with a great personality. He brings passion. The guy is awesome. He's going to go on to be a great head coach someday and I know that's what he wants to do. Our goal right now is to help him get to the next stage whether that's a head coach at a small college--because he's good enough to do that right now. He's good enough to be a head coach right now--or he needs to be an assistant at a program where he can continue to develop and learn and position himself to be a head coach down the road. His loyalty is never in question. His commitment is never in question. He learns every day. The first year and a half of his time here, he was learning. The last two years, he's continued to learn, but he's also taught us. He's been teaching the coaches as much as we've been teaching him. He's added to the program with his ideas and his different perspectives. The guy is the real deal. He's phenomenal. He's always going to be a Vol in my mind. As much as he's given to us in the capacity that he's been here, we're going to try to give that back. Hopefully we can repay that down the road.
Q: Not only did you have a great tennis career, but you also had a great soccer career. We've had trouble finding information on it, so would you care to share the details on that? A: Let's put everything in perspective. I was a good tennis player and I was a good soccer player. I was a competitive guy. My teammates knew that I was going to give 100 percent effort and commitment to them whether on the soccer field or tennis court. I don't want this story to make it sound like I was some special athlete. I was not. I was a good athlete. I was a competitive guy who loved being around the team. Being able to come to college in America and be part of two teams was pretty special. I have great memories and friendships from all of those teams. We see each other every year. We do a trip together every year, both teams. I was an honorable mention All-American soccer player. Our team was good enough to win the conference. I think I got Conference Player of the Year or something like that one time. It's all relative. That was in the NAIA. That wasn't on the ATP Tour or the English Premier League. Let's put it all in perspective. I did love both sports and I love the opportunity to play both.
Q: Your English Premier League is Stoke City. You pull for them on the bus and then Woody says he always goes against you. Does that get under your skin?
A: He's driving me nuts. We're driving on the bus and Stoke was playing Wolves and it was on TV so I'm getting to watch it on the Fox Soccer Channel. Wolves went ahead and all I hear on the back of the bus is cheering. He doesn't know Wolves from Warsaw. He has no clue. Whoever we're playing against, he goes for them. He knows how to raise my blood pressure. We have a great time. It's a great coaching staff. We love what we do and we love being around each other. Each of us has strengths that helps the other. We're proud of what we're doing and we're really proud of what these guys are doing. I just need them to finish here. The best teams play their best at the end of the year. We need to play our best at the end of the year and I'll be proud of that.