Controversy and trouble cling to Vince Combs like nettles on a long-haired dog.
Back to coaching the once-storied boys varsity basketball team at Inglewood High after a two-year taste of Division I life at the University of San Francisco and several years in near-limbo, Combs is also no stranger to bitterly shattered dreams.
He has been accused--by opposing coaches, players and parents--of running up scores, arrogance and insensitivity. Some have called him a tyrant, aloof, outspoken, too tough on his teams and too full of himself. He's been suspended by the CIF Southern Section for hitting a referee and fired from his only college coaching job.
In short, Comb's reputation--deserved or not--precedes him wherever he goes.
Says a high school coach who wishes to remain anonymous: "Those of us who have been in the business for 15 or 20 years just don't talk about him much. We avoid the subject."
So, watching Combs conduct a light practice the day before Inglewood's Ocean League opener with Hawthorne, one expects the mannerisms of something between a monster and the Peck's Bad Boy of high school basketball coaching. But there are none to be seen.
The practice is in Inglewood's small gym. The girls varsity is playing in the big gym next door. Only half of the smaller facility is available. Several dozen chairs are strewn about one end and gymnastics mats cover half the floor. The rims and backboards are painted an optically disadvantageous white. Ignoring the inconvenience, Combs goes about his task quietly, patiently.
It is quickly apparent that he is not just a coach but a teacher. He gently lectures not only about "stack" inbounds plays and extended pressure defenses but character and discipline. Well-read and well-spoken, he uses words like "improvise" and "relinquish" without talking down to his charges, subtly tempting them to head for a dictionary, if necessary, when practice is over. He instructs them to play tough but not to hurt anyone, firmly suggests they wear jackets, shirts and ties to the game and urges them to hit the books that night before they turn on their television sets.
"Academics come first," says Combs, later, as he has dinner at a Denny's up Manchester Boulevard from the school. These surroundings, too, are a far cry from the high life as an assistant coach at USF. "And discipline. It's been missing here for awhile, so at first I had my work cut out for me."
Long before that comment, however, it has become apparent that, whatever else may be bandied about concerning Combs, he cares for his players and is just as concerned about preparing them for a future off the court as about how they play basketball. And he admits that he sometimes lives life at the top of his throat.
"Oh, I yell, I get after them. There's no way they don't understand me. But that's only one side of me. I almost cry when I have to cut a kid from the squad in preseason."
Says his all-league and much recruited senior point guard, 6-2 Bobby Sears: "Coaches talk about him as though he's Bobby Knight. But the things he tells you, they're always right. The people who criticize him don't realize what he's trying to do. Some people don't like the way he goes about it, but it's the best way to make us understand what's important."
Combs proudly calls his 6-5-inch power forward Harold Miner "one of the best juniors in the country. He hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves, but that will come this year. The college coaches know about him."
Miner, just 16, has this to say about his coach: "He gets intense during a game. Maybe too intense sometimes. He yells at us, but it's for our own good. If things aren't going right, he'll scream. But after he hollers, he takes you aside and tells you why he did. We all know he loves and cares about us."
So why do some people think Combs qualifies for the Universal Studios tour alongside "King Kong" and "Jaws"?
There don't seem to be any records of his brutalizing anyone while growing up in Hampton, Va. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1970 and was an assistant coach in football and basketball for seven years at Saginaw, Mich., Arthur Hill High School.
Perhaps the reputation has its roots, says Combs, in a 1980 game against Ocean View High School in the Pacific Shores Tournament. Combs had coached the Inglewood Sentinels for three years. They'd gone 18-7 during his first season, then 24-2 the next. Little wonder. Among his players: point guard Ralph Jackson (UCLA) and Jay Humphries (Colorado and now the Phoenix Suns). By the time Inglewood faced off with Ocean View, then the No. 1 team in Orange County, the Sentinels were not only the premier squad in the L. . area but on their way to a 29-0 season, a CIF championship and No. 1 ranking in the nation.
Someone from Ocean View, Combs recalls, commented to a newspaper that Inglewood played out-of-control, blacktop basketball. "I responded strongly to that. I said the remark was stereotypical. After the game, the subject came up again, and I spoke openly, honestly, about how I felt about such criticism. I guess I got the handle for being outspoken because I had stepped out of what was supposed to be 'my place,' a black man's place."
There were also complaints from opposing coaches that Combs intentionally ran up scores.
"That just isn't true," says Ralph Jackson, now a Pasadena investment broker who attributes at least some of his success to training by Combs. "We were simply 10 men deep. And when those guys on the bench got into the game, you couldn't tell them not to score. I don't think Vince would humiliate anyone intentionally. Once we were ahead by a lot early in the third quarter, the first team would be done for the day."
Back then, Combs had dreamed of one day being a college coach. And his dream came true the following season on the strength of his record at Inglewood. Combs was hired as the vaunted University of San Francisco's defensive and recruiting coordinator. He had suddenly moved from being a history and physical education teacher who got an extra thousand dollars or so a year for coaching to the relatively heady Division I category. Considering salary, university car, speaking engagements and perks, the value of such a jump can amount to $10,000 a year.
Such was the case with Combs, at least by the time he was in his second year at USF. He combed the country for athletes and seemed to be earning his keep. The late Len Bias of Maryland visited USF after Combs spoke with him. Among players Combs recruited: highly sought John Martens of Newbury Park; Wallace Bryant, who ultimately played for the L. A. Clippers, and Ken McCallister, subsequently a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Combs seemed to be doing as well as anyone could expect, particularly his boss, Coach Pete Barry. In Combs' second year, USF was not only ranked seventh in the nation but blessed with a recruiting class considered by experts among the 10 best in the country. Combs was riding high, had received a raise and was looking forward to bigger achievements.
But then the roof caved in. USF star guard Quintin Dailey was charged with attempted rape and subsequently accused of getting paid for a no-work job by an alumnus. Eventually USF dropped its basketball program under the weight of the scandal. But by then, Combs had been asked to resign; he refused and was fired.
"Why it happened mystified me then, and it mystifies me now. I wouldn't sign the letter of resignation because I hadn't done anything wrong. I absolutely did not engage in recruiting violations, and I was in no way involved in whatever may have gone on with Quintin Dailey. The only things I could think of at the time were that I took a trip to Colorado to look into an offer of another coaching job, and perhaps I had been too adamant about establishing and enforcing a study table and a player curfew at the school. It didn't have them before I got there, and quite often, when I was away on recruiting trips, the study table might as well have been non-existent."
But Combs had also had a discussion in a restaurant about USF's defense--his province--with a Bay Area newspaper reporter. Barry had overheard it, Combs recalls now, "But he wasn't upset about anything. There wasn't any reason to be. I wasn't saying anything derogatory about him, I was talking about what I thought would improve our defense. Barry even had a glass of wine with us."
Nevertheless, after Combs had completed his recruiting responsibilities for the season, he was released--"without severance," he says, and with all his files "suddenly removed from his desk."
"Maybe I took too seriously a mandate that I shouldn't be a yes man," Combs says now. "Maybe I was too honest about some things."
Whatever the cause, Combs was back in Southern California, out of a job. Heartbroken and disillusioned, he began trying to pick up the pieces of his life. "I was in a daze," he says, "for months."
Under severe economic stress for a time, Combs landed the coaching job at Compton's Centennial High School just before the 1982-83 season. After a game in the Beverly Hills Tournament that year, Combs, never easy on a high school referee if he thought a contest was being called badly, slapped one. He said the referee had pointed a finger in his face and uttered two racial slurs. The referee denied Combs' charge. The CIF Southern Section suspended both from varsity basketball for a year.
"I regret it," says Combs. "I lost control. That, and coming back after the USF program was closed down, has been my albatross."
It might well have also been the death knell for Combs' coaching career. But after a year as a salesman for a department store, he was hired as a teacher at Inglewood. Then, following a stint at the helm of the junior varsity team, Combs was asked to become co-coach with Inglewood's incumbent and successful head man, Art Bias, this season. Combs accepted and Bias resigned.
Says Inglewood's principal, Lawrence Freeman: "I found no fault with Mr. Bias' coaching. But there was no discipline in that program. And I wanted someone to instill that discipline--on and off the court. The controversy surrounding Mr. Combs didn't bother me at all. I'm as controversial as he is. I take people as I see them. I had no hesitancy, no qualms. Mr. Combs is on top of the players' scholastic efforts and that pleases me. He's doing what I think should be done with these kids."
So Vince Combs, older and admittedly wiser, is back in his old haunts, the site of his, and Inglewood's, glory days.
If he's mellowed a bit, learned a few lessons, he still wears his heart on his sleeve, still gets fired up on occasion and still refuses to compromise on some things:
"I'm still difficult to play for because I'm demanding. . . . I want these kids to go to college. But I won't let them be bought and sold.
"I want to erase the envy and jealousy that cripple kids mentally.
"And I'm going to keep challenging them. We have 18 plays with four or five options off each. Eight different defenses. People say, 'Oh, that's too many for high school players.' But if you limit the kids' expectations, you limit their growth potential, and you consequently cripple them. In the same light, you're also preparing them to accept and understand their limitations, preparing them for real life.'
Although Inglewood started as an inexperienced team this season, the Combs approach seems to be working. They've lost a few by narrow margins in overtime that some thought they'd lose by a bundle in regulation. They've won the consolation round of the Glendale Tournament, beaten Ocean View, Lynwood and Long Beach Poly. And while their record is a modest 10-9, they have become a team to reckon with.
Says Jack Dyck, coach of Ocean League rival Beverly Hills: "They've improved tremendously over the past month. Along with Santa Monica, they're the team to beat. I give Combs the credit for that."
Former Inglewood standout Ralph Jackson is also happy with the way his old team is faring. "No matter what else has happened," he says, "no one has ever doubted Vince Combs' coaching ability."
But what about Vince Combs' dream--shared by so many high school coaches--and the one that in this case turned into a nightmare?
Knowing what he knows now, having been in the often quirky crucible of college coaching, does he still have the desire to move up again?
"My first priority is to restore Inglewood to its former tradition. And that will take some time."
But after that?
"It has always been and still is my dream to coach in college. I would give my left arm to. I feel that somewhere there's a college where I could be extremely productive."
Unrealistic, all things considered? Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill? Not according to the seemingly unquenchable Combs. "None of us," he says, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, "should ever stop dreaming."