Matt Combs: Making a Basketball Dynasty

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What if the three-time reigning coach of the year in the Tri-Valley Conference never got his shot? That almost happened. Vinton County’s Matt Combs, who has won more than 300 games, was not the first choice for the job.

“They [Vinton County] offered the job to someone else,” Combs said. “He turned it down, I think, and that’s how I ended up here.”

His office is full of 19 years’ worth of mementos from a legendary career. Photos of past teams, balls, nets and various newspaper articles highlighting the teams’ and his personal success.

Combs, like most coaches, had a playing career before he started coaching. At Unioto High School in Chillicothe, he amassed a career for the ages. He became the Scioto Valley Conference’s all-time leading scorer with 1,726 points, he was named the player of the year in 1991 and led the school to its only state championship game appearance that same season. After his playing career ended, it was time for Combs to find a different way to have an impact on the hardwood.

“I started coaching when I was 19 almost 20, right away as a freshman coach, under the man I played for,” Combs said.

Coaching seemed to be the natural career choice for the man who poured his heart and soul onto the hardwood nearly every day of his teenage years. After stops in Chillicothe, Albany and Portsmouth, Combs career took him to the court in a new city: McArthur, Ohio, 27 miles west of Athens. He quickly went about turning the Vinton County Vikings into a winning program.

Since taking the job back in the 1999-2000 season, Combs has faced the same challenge every year. Vinton County High School is the only school located in the entire county. Of Ohio’s 88 counties, only two others (Morgan and Hocking) share the same distinction. Long travel times and lack of resources mean that finding every single top athlete in the area is never easy. Factor in that the U.S. Census Bureau factors the under 18 population in the county to be just under 2,900 and you see how low involvement could become an issue.

“The challenge has always been getting kids involved at a young age,” Combs said. “There are some kids, depending on where they live, that could be 30-40 minutes long. This county is pretty spread out.”

Yet the Vikings keep filling out an impressive roster from youth up to varsity. They keep winning league titles. They keep putting the entire region on notice.

Since Combs took over the Vikings, the longest conference title drought they’ve had is three years, 2012-14. Vinton County has won 11 league titles in 18 years. Before Combs first title in 2004, Vinton County had won the league only twice: 1967 and 1974. Combs has taken the program to the next level. He has guided Vinton County to all three district titles the school has won, in 2008, then back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.

Many factors go into turning the Vikings into the winning machine that they have become. Most coaches have to deal with their assistants accepting head coaching jobs elsewhere. Combs has rarely had to deal with that. Most of his coaches have been around for his entire tenure. Even down at the middle school level.

“They know what we all expect, and we are all on the same page,” he said. “They get the kids ready.”

The Vikings utilize a youth program that works as a feeder system to varsity. The same man has been at the helm of the youth program for 19 years. He teaches players at the youth level to focus less on playing the same style of basketball as the high schoolers and more on what it means to wear the jersey and how to carry themselves.

“We are more about teaching kids our standards in terms of what we expect in terms of respect and hustle,” Combs said. “We are trying to teach them how to be a Viking. I can teach how to run our offense. I can’t break bad habits taught at a young level.”

Combs practices hard. Practice is done at game speed. If something is done wrong, it is re-done to the point of perfection. He researches every nuance and factor of the opponent and calculates every potential situation. An underrated part of their success, however, may be Combs’s willingness to listen to his players and take their advice.

“He listened to us and wasn’t afraid to take an idea we had an implement it,” Jake Speakman, an all-conference guard under Combs, said. “It felt like we all learned together and that’s why we all grew as players so quickly.”

Combs was inducted into the Vinton County Athletics Hall of Fame this past fall. He qualified thanks to his laundry list of accomplishments. Vinton County has quickly come to be known as the premier basketball power in the conference and region. Combs also helps make his own schedule, as he serves as the school’s athletic director, and he has also coached the baseball team.

While Combs has faced some daunting opponents on the court, his toughest opponent came off the court.

In the summer of 2016, Combs went in for a routine checkup, expecting nothing more than a hernia or a pulled muscle. Instead, he was greeted with the shock that he had lymphoma, a cancer that affects the lymph nodes. Lymphoma has affected celebrities such as Gene Wilder and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At the age of just 41, it was a diagnosis Combs never saw coming.

“It makes you thankful for what you have, thankfully so far so good,” Combs said in 2017.

Being the center of basketball for an entire county, the original diagnosis was tough on his players.

“On the inside, it absolutely crushed us, but he’s Combs, and none of us ever had a doubt that he wouldn’t get through this,” Naylan Yates, an all-conference guard under Combs, said.

Combs cancer eventually went into remission. He was gracious in victory, which is par for the course.

“People talk about beating cancer or fighting cancer and you do have to have some willpower, but it is really the grace of God,” Combs said. “There are a lot of people that fight but never get through, it is such a nasty disease.”

During the first season post-diagnosis, the Vikings had their most successful season to date.

The 2016-17 Vikings would go on to post a record of 27-3, advance to the regional finals for the first time in school history, and be ranked as high as No. 6 in the state AP poll. Combs himself was named the co-Division II coach of the year.

Even after graduating a large percentage of the regional finalist team, Combs took his team almost as far the next season, once again winning the league title. Regardless of how much talent leaves, Combs always seems to find a way to win.

The way he inspires his teams is evident. Every former player seems to be glowing about the way Combs has impacted them not just as players but as people.

“He taught me so much about life, how to be a leader, and just how to be a better person,” Speakman said. “There were so many times he would pull me aside and just help me and give me life advice.”

Just like many seasons before, Combs is retooling his team yet again. Seven of last year’s eight main rotation players graduated or transferred.

“We play a tough schedule in the summer, and schedule tough scrimmages,” he said.

This year’s installment of the Vikings have had to learn quickly how to handle high pressure situations.

“It has really been baptism by fire for these guys,” he said.

While reporters and fans alike are still trying to figure out what to make of this team, Combs is confident in his team and his former players are confident in any team he coaches.

“He is pretty much the Michael Jordan of high school coaches around here,” Speakman said. “Calling him the G.O.A.T. [greatest of all-time] of coaches wouldn’t be too far-fetched,”