John Collins wants final season with UT tennis a winner

Senior adjusted after leaving defunct Maryland

John Collins

John Collins

John Collins never dreamed he would finish his college tennis career anywhere other than the University of Maryland.

Not when he committed to the Terrapins out of DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., and not after his first two years at Maryland, his hometown college.

Then the rumors started in the summer of 2011. Maryland's athletic department was strapped for money, and the tennis program could be cut.

Rumors turned to reality later that fall.

When Collins returned from the National Indoors last November, he was called into an athletic department office. Sure enough, Maryland's tennis program was going to be dropped after the 2012 season.

"Three weeks later, I'm on a visit here in Knoxville," Collins said Wednesday.

That visit turned into a commitment to Tennessee, where Collins is playing his final year of college tennis.

Collins makes his debut

as a Vol starting Friday in the Baylor Invitational in Waco, Texas. It's a new start for Collins, one he never envisioned when he signed with Maryland.

"I love (UT)," Collins said. "It's great, a great town, (and) it's a lot of fun. The weather's nice. The guys are great."

Collins didn't land at UT randomly. Former Maryland coach Kyle Spencer and UT coach Sam Winterbotham are friends, and now they share something else in common — although not very pleasant.

Winterbotham went through a similar situation as Spencer while coaching at Colorado. After four seasons as head coach (2002-06), Winterbotham had built a Colorado team that was ranked No. 23 in the nation. Still, the program was dropped due to budgetary problems.

Winterbotham briefly took an assistant's job at Baylor — a job he had before becoming Colorado's head coach — before being hired by former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton as the Vols' head coach for the 2006-07 season.

"When you pour your heart and soul into a place like John had for three years, and I had at Colorado, and that team had for four years, you know what he's going through," Winterbotham said. "We had good conversations about that, and I just promised him that I would make sure his last year was as smooth as it possibly could be, transitioning to another team. I think he believed me."

Collins knew Winterbotham and UT assistant coach Chris Woodruff before he took the visit to Knoxville late last fall.

Collins practiced with the Vols during the 2011 National Indoors in New York — just a few days before learning Maryland's program would be dropped.

"Sam and Kyle are pretty similar in coaching style," Collins said. "It's nice to hear a different voice, and I really respect him and Woody, and I'm just trying to get better."

Collins brings a wealth of experience to UT's team, which returned its top six singles players from the 2011-12 team.

Collins played as high as No. 2 for the Terrapins during his sophomore season. He was ranked No. 21 nationally last spring in doubles with Maros Horny.

Now, Collins and UT sophomore Hunter Reese are ranked No. 6 in preseason rankings.

"You've still got to go out there and earn that (ranking)," Winterbotham said, "but I think that's the respect that John has as a doubles player around the country."

Collins is trying to turn a tough situation into a positive. His final season at Maryland was difficult.

Collins said the Terrapins struggled with motivation, off-the-court issues, and pressure from fans that flocked to see matches as the program was about to vanish.

All that is behind him now. Collins has high goals for his final season of college tennis.

"I've got a lot of matches under my belt," Collins said. "I would love to go far in the NCAA tournament. I've always dreamed of that. I think about it all the time. That's what motivates me, and I'm finally on the team that's good enough to do it, so it's really exciting."

Dave Link is a freelance contributor.

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