James Wilburn

There was no reason to believe Jim Wilburn (BS '74) would become a Tulsa media mogul. He had no pedigree, no connections and no money. What he did possess in abundance, however, was a preternatural drive to succeed that more than made up for any deficits in his background.

Today, that extraordinary drive has taken him to the top of the sports broadcasting industry, making Winnercomm, the company he co-founded more than a quarter century ago, one of the largest independent television sports production companies in the nation.

Born the eldest of four children to blind parents, Wilburn and his siblings knew intimately the sting of poverty. His father worked in a broom factory, his low wages barely enough to pay the bills for their tiny West Tulsa home. From an early age, Wilburn was thrust into the role of family caretaker, protector and eventual breadwinner.

"I had to grow up fast," he recalls. "I took on a lot of responsibility at a very young age. From the time I was five or six, I had one parent on each arm."

Wilburn detested welfare and the sense of inadequacy it engendered in him. When well-meaning people would drop by to deliver free groceries, he would run and hide, too embarrassed to answer the door. His upbringing gave him a "burning desire to succeed," he says. "I told'em I'd show'em all."

From that point on, Wilburn became a young man in a hurry. He washed dishes to help pay his way through Bishop Kelley High School before gaining admission to The University of Tulsa in 1971. When Wilburn arrived on campus, he had no clue what he would study. But one thing was certain: He would work hard, holding down jobs as a bus driver for Bishop Kelley, a shoe salesman at Kinney's and an office aide in TU's Work Study program.

Eventually deciding on a major in communication, Wilburn was indefatigable during his term at TU, and in 1973 he earned the coveted "ugliest man on campus" prize for various fundraising stunts on behalf of the Alpha Phi Omega national service fraternity. It was a valuable lesson in philanthropy for the hard-charging young man.

"It was the first taste I had of helping others and giving something back," Wilburn says. "I loved it."

Another encounter at TU also helped shape Wilburn's stellar future. His off-campus landlord, Bill Pitcock (BA '70), happened to be a local television news anchor. Always straight to the point, Wilburn asked him, "How do I make a lot of money in this business?" Pitcock's answer was unequivocal: sales.

"That was it. That's when I decided to be a salesman," Wilburn says. That summer, he secured an internship with KTUL Channel 8 and wasted no time fast tracking toward graduation in just three years.

"I was on the three-year plan," he jokes. "I was so busy with work and studying that I didn't have time to get into any trouble. I just was sick and tired of being poor."

Wilburn dived into his television advertising sales career with gusto, quickly becoming the top salesman at the station. By age 23, he already was earning six figures in salary and commission. After years of hustling TV ads, he was poor no more. But that was not enough.

Teaming up with then-Channel 8 sports anchor, Chris Lincoln, Wilburn decided to turn his passion for horse racing and his knowledge of broadcasting into a going concern of his own. The pair founded Winner Communications, which produced thoroughbred racing events for television. After surviving a financial near-death experience in the mid-1980s, Wilburn's venture re-emerged a stronger company, landing key contracts with an up-and-coming cable broadcasting company known as ESPN. The relationship between Winnercomm (a moniker adopted in 2002) and ESPN flourishes to this day, with the Tulsa-based company producing 1,000 broadcast hours annually of everything from soccer, bowling, softball, rodeo, golf and fishing to hunting, lacrosse and, of course, horse racing. Today, Winnercomm employs 200 people full time and has 2,000 subcontractors.

For his part, Wilburn, 53, is both surprised and honored to be selected as a TU Distinguished Alumnus.

"I was shocked," he says. "The first thing I thought was there are people more deserving. I thought I needed to be about 15 years older. But I love TU and to be picked is very humbling, I can tell you."

A member of the University's Board of Trustees and the TU Circle Society, Wilburn has supported TU for years, particularly its athletic programs and facilities. Winnercomm has also provided television production services touting the University and its programs.

"I'm proud of this school," he says. "It helped give me the opportunity to be who I am today."

Not to mention perhaps the most vital, though intangible qualification of all: drive. And for Wilburn, that has made all the difference.