White FHU Logo
White FHU Logo

Henderson, Tennessee — (Nov. 28, 2023) — If the number of smiles and conversations are any indication, the reunion of five Freed-Hardeman University tennis team alumni and their coach could be called a huge win. The alumni — Tom Dixon, class of 1980, of Spring Hill, Tennessee; Phil Oldham, class of 1980, of Cookeville, Tennessee; Owen Mitchell, class of 1979, of Eustis, Florida; Ernie Ulmer, class of 1982, of Statesville, North Carolina; and Bruce Thompson, class of 1981, of Memphis, Tennessee — traveled to Henderson, and more specifically to Freed-Hardeman University, to spend time with Coach Clyde “Doc” Woods. They credit Woods not only for making them better tennis players but also for teaching them how to be successful in life and follow Christ.

Last week after being greeted by several current Lion and Lady Lion tennis players, along with their Coach Beth Anne Clayton, Chancellor Milton Sewell, Senior Vice President Dave Clouse and Alumni Director Chris Ramey, the men shared coffee and stories in the Hope Barber Shull Academic Resource Center, discussing their bonds and the value of coming together regularly. The men laughed loudly, smiled broadly and for a moment seemed to travel back to a time when they were college students. They also discussed the present day; some are still working in diverse careers, and some have now retired. They talked about lasting friendships, loss and the fact that they can always count on the bonds they created together at Freed-Hardeman College. Moreover, they make sure that no one will forget that the team maintained a winning record all seven years that Woods coached and that they tied for the conference championship each year.

The alumni took photos as a group and with the current players in front of the library — between Dixon Hall and the Draughon Center for the Musical Arts — because that was the place where they once played their home matches. They told the current players about how the student body often cheered them as they were walking to class or came out just to watch them because they were literally playing in the middle of campus.

Woods spoke of his coach, Robert Witt, whom new courts were named after in the 1980s. Witt retired from coaching and told his former player, Woods, a Hebrew professor, that he needed to begin coaching. “I had plenty on my plate at the time,” Woods said, “but I could not tell him no.” He went on to add how grateful he was for his time with these men, and he shared his gratitude for their returning to spend time with him and with one another.

“This is a special visit,” said Mitchell, who spent some time seeded No. 1 for the Lions and is one of only two male tennis players in the university’s Sports Hall of Fame. “Doc was a good example for all of us,” Mitchell said. “Jesus is our focus, and that’s kept our relationship going for 44 plus years.” An avid pickleball player, Mitchell is the 2023 National Senior Games Pickleball Champion and has won the Florida state championship for his age group in four of the past five years. He and his wife, Lauren, also operate Reconnect Weekend marriage seminars in churches across the country.

Mitchell is not alone in taking the courts for pickleball now. Dixon and Oldham have recently taken on the sport, and they are working on convincing Ulmer to join them.

Oldham, who is president of Tennessee Tech, said his time with the team helped to solidify how to integrate faith into everyday life. “This was a unique group of guys,” said Oldham, reflecting on how the team came together. “I don’t know how it happened because none of us came up with a tennis pedigree. We were competitive, but we complemented each other very well. Some of us were self taught. I spent a lot of time reading tennis magazines, and our road trips were some of the best times.”

The impact of these relationships over the past four decades was evident. “Doc Woods, FHU and these teammates have been a huge influence in my life,” said Ulmer, who is CFO at Hexpol Compounding. “Even though it has been 43 years, there has not been a week that has gone by that I haven’t thought of them. Doc and my teammates demonstrated how Christian young men can have fun, purpose and a drive to represent something bigger than ourselves.”

Dixon, who spent 30 years working in education, has deep roots at the university and is the grandson of former FHU president H.A. Dixon. He cherishes the friendships that he formed during his time at the college. “We are friends through Christ, we help each other and we’ve had a lot of fun,” said Dixon, who was roommates with Oldham. They were even members of each other’s wedding parties.

Woods watched their lively conversations, grateful for the time they had together. They looped him into some of the teasing, reminding him of his phrase “no mercy,” which he used in the classroom and on the court.
Thompson said that while Woods’ lessons on never quitting have impacted him throughout his entrepreneurial career, he values these lifelong friendships most. “While competing and winning were great, the relationships we developed are what really matter,” he said. “I left Freed-Hardeman closer to the Lord than when I got there, and I met Christian men who made me better. Those relationships influenced me in college and provide an invaluable support system in dealing with life.” Thompson’s dad and Woods were FHC teammates who played tennis for Witt; Witt even baptized his grandmother. The life ties continued when Thompson was coached by Woods.
This likely won’t be the last time the men gather together this academic year. Ulmer reminded the group, “We’re all going to come back in the spring and watch the women’s and men’s tennis tournaments.”

The mission of Freed-Hardeman University is to help students develop their God-given talents for His glory by empowering them with an education that integrates Christian faith, scholarship and service. With locations in Henderson and Memphis, FHU offers associate, bachelor’s, master’s, specialist and doctoral degrees.