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Sam Adams, 1931-2010

A memorial service will be Jan. 23 for legendary UCSB track and field coach

Sam Adams, who achieved international renown during 34 years as track and field coach at UCSB, died peacefully at his home January 11, 2010, after a long and dignified struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Sue Adams, his beloved wife of 50 years, was at his side.

Sam Adams
Sam Adams

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 23 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara. A reception will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m. following the service.

Sam was born July 22, 1931, in Buffalo, N.Y. His family migrated to California, and he became an all-around athlete at Santa Ynez High School, graduating in 1949. He went to UC Berkeley as a football and basketball prospect, but his talents found their highest expression in track and field. His mentor was the famed coach Brutus Hamilton. Sam competed in the decathlon — 10 events that utilize all the skills of the sport (running, jumping and throwing) — and he was captain of Cal’s track team in 1953. Hamilton said of him: “Sam is a self-made track man. There are only a few that are great. Sam is a great one.”

Competing in the decathlon at the 1952 U.S. Olympic Trials, Sam finished sixth. While serving in the Army’s Occupational Forces in Germany, he won the All-Army European championship in the javelin throw and was runner-up in the shot put and discus. When he returned to California in 1955, he trained for the decathlon and finished fifth at the 1956 Olympic Trials, just a few points short of making the Olympic team. Two competitors who bested him went on to win gold medals — Milt Campbell in 1956 and Rafer Johnson in 1960.

Sam turned to the coaching profession, and in 1959 he became an assistant at UCSB under Nick Carter. When Carter retired in 1963, Sam took over as head coach of cross country as well as track and field. He guided the Gauchos to runner-up finishes at both the 1967 and 1968 NCAA College Division National Track and Field Championships.

Post-graduate athletes were welcomed to train at the UCSB track by Sam, who worked with them in addition to his Gaucho practice sessions. One of the first was Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic decathlon champion. In later years Jane Frederick, an Olympian in the women’s pentathlon and heptathlon, adopted Sam as her coach. He also worked with Dave Laut, an Olympic medalist in the shot put. Because of Sam, UCSB was selected to host the 1975 and 1981 National Decathlon Championships. In 1982, the United States-Soviet Union Multi-Event Meet took place at UCSB’s Pauley Track, and Sam was the meet director.

Sam went abroad several times on national coaching assignments. He was coach of U.S. decathlon teams on three competitions in the Soviet Union in the 1970s — in Tallinn (Estonia), Donetsk (Ukraine) and St. Petersburg (Russia). In the summer of 1982, he was head coach of the entire U.S. men’s track and field team in meets against the Soviet Union, East Germany, West Germany and Africa. He served as the manager of both the decathlon and the heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

During Sam’s tenure at UCSB, athletes from throughout Europe — including Germany, Great Britain, Romania, Russia and Sweden — flocked to Santa Barbara to train and receive advice from the coach.

Sam retired in 1992. He was subsequently inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame and the UCSB Gaucho Hall of Fame. In 1999, he received USA Track & Field’s John Bennett Award, bestowed to “the individual who best exemplifies the qualities of leadership, integrity and dedication to the support and promotion of the decathlon.”

For several years after his retirement — even after he was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease — Sam worked at Westmont College as a volunteer track and field assistant coach. Click here for a remembrance from Westmont track and field coach Russell Smelley.

Many of the athletes who were coached by Sam remembered him so fondly that they began holding annual reunions in Goleta every July to celebrate his birthday. Sam was able to attend this year’s reunion shortly before he turned 78.

Sam enjoyed camping and hiking, and he ventured outdoors for daily walks as long as it was physically possible.

He was preceded in death by his daughter, Wendy. He is survived by his wife, Sue; his son, John Adams (Aster); granddaughters Kaiya and Matteya; brothers Thomas Adams (Roberta) and Daniel Adams (Carol), and many nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. January 23, 2010, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1500 State St. A reception will follow from noon to 1:30 p.m.

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