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.