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Hernando High

Where Are They Now?

TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:37 PM

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Editor's note: This is the eighth and final story in a series highlighting Hernando High's 2012 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

Locally, Ernie Chatman is looked at as the dean of Hernando County coaches, and for good reason.

When you guide one sport (cross-country) for 27 successful years besides serve as head coach for track and field, baseball and boys basketball, athletic director and head bottle washer – a lasting legacy is engrained on the fabric of Hernando Leopard athletics.

Is it any wonder he was one of the first two Leopard mentors inducted into the school's Sports Hall of Fame, along with Tom Varn?

Hernando honored its third mentor last Friday, Bill Combs Sr., despite the fact that he was born and raised in Manatee County.

Combs was born in Bradenton as the second oldest of four children to Charley and Wilma Combs. Though his father is deceased, his mother resides in St. Augustine.

Combs graduated from Venice High in 1977. He earned a wrestling scholarship and attended Florida Tech in Orlando – which is now known as the University of Central Florida.

Three months into his freshman year in Orange County, his father bought an appliance repair store in Brooksville and asked if his son wanted to run it.

In a spur of the moment decision, Combs decided to relocate. Fortunately for Hernando County fans, Combs has never regretted that decision – nor left town.

His arrival served as the birth of Combs Service, which specializes in repairing everything from TVs to corporate coffee machines.

For the next few years, Combs satisfied his competitive urges by grappling in the open divisions of AAU wrestling tournaments.

Over the next 34 winters, Combs has served as an assistant to seven of the program's nine wrestling head coaches including: Joe Nicolai, Joe Clifford, Ken Pritz, Doug Reese, Dennis Percevecz, Matt Smith and Joe McLain.

From 1997-2007, the Smith-Combs coaching combination peaked with seven top 10 state finishes in 11 seasons. The duo shaped the Leopards' best-ever finish as Class 1A state runners-up in 2003.

In the interim, Combs has also served as head coach for four years (1991-92 and 2009-12).

From 1978 to the present, Coach Combs has helped produce 106 of the program's 107 state qualifiers and all 49 of the school's state placers.

Hernando's 13 state champions rank second locally only to Springstead's 25.

It is believed the Leopard wrestling program has produced more state champions than any sport along the school's 123-year history

When he's not on the mats, Combs and his wife of 31 years, Melanie, have raised three boys: Billy, Charley and Michael.

Combs credits Melanie for much his personal success.

"It takes a special person to be a coach's wife," he said. "For nine years during the summer, I was gone for weeks at a time. But Mel was always there to greet me and support me. There are not many wives that would put up with that.

"She's the one that always made sure our paperwork was in order," recalled Combs. "She's the one that made sure that everything was in place before the kids or I walked through the door to a tournament."

Like their father, the Combs boys have practically lived their lives on the mat.

Each sibling competed for four years for the wrestling team on the Bell Avenue campus. The trio also excelled in the USA Wrestling circuit in both freestyle and Greco-Roman.

Each was successful enough to reach the "Super Bowl of Wrestling" at Fargo, North Dakota.

Each of the Combs boys also captured over 100 victories and remarkably each qualified for states multiple times.

Both Charley and Michael distinguished themselves by reaching the Class 1A FHSAA Finals before settling for respective silver medals.

Last Thursday evening, the Combs family and friends celebrated Bill's second Hall of Fame induction with a dinner in Brooksville.

Less than 24 hours later amid the cheers from former wrestlers in the stands at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium, Combs shared the moment with his wife during the football game against Sunlake, with his buddy Coach Smith present as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator.

"Even though it's my second Hall of Fame induction, it's still a tremendous honor," explained the 53-year-old Combs. "Any time a coach is recognized it's special. I'm like a lot of the old guard; we don't do this for the money.

"When my name was called on Friday, it (the ceremony) didn't faze me until I walked across the field and a lot of my old wrestlers were yelling encouragement," he recalled.

On comparing the two Hall of Fame achievements, "The National Wrestling Hall of Fame is a lot like Cooperstown," remarked Coach Combs. "There are a lot of souvenirs and mementoes like Dan Gable's singlet and plaques for every member. It was real neat to walk through and see all the history in Stillwater (Okla.).

"I have to think I'm very fortunate to still be alive and enjoy this," pointed out Coach Combs. "I'm so fortunate to have been recognized nationally and now locally. Seeing the same people here year after year means a little more."

On why he believes he was tapped, "I think people see that I've put in the time. There's a certain amount of commitment involved," he said. "I think back on all the kids who were state qualifiers or state placers who became lawyers, doctors, good citizens and not-so-good citizens. I do this (coaching) because I have a passion for it."

On why his wrestlers have been successful, he said, "That's easy. Kids that buy into what the coaches are selling is the key."

On the Leopards' success due to the Combs/Smith pairing, "Both of us wanted the same thing," emphasized Coach Combs. "We didn't care what the clock said. We put in as much time as we thought we needed to be put in.

"Matt's strong points were my weak points and vice-a-versa. We obviously worked real well together. It hasn't been the same since he left (to coach at Sunlake)."

Coach Combs and his son Charley nearly didn't make it to New Year's Day in 2003.

Almost 10 years ago en route to the annual Seahorse Invitational in Miami during the Thanksgiving weekend, Combs' Excursion van suffered a blown Firestone tire at Yeehaw Junction.

The blown tire sent the filled van into three revolutions. When the van stopped rolling everyone in the back of the van – including Hernando grapplers Jason Bianco and Billy Woods – walked away bruised, but unhurt.

Combs and his son, however, were ejected from the van – which was a total loss.

Charley was fortunate to survive, as he nearly landed on the busy highway. Due to the impact, he still has problems with the right side of his face.

Coach Combs walked away with broken ribs and a concussion.

According to Combs, the bond between he and Smith intensified that day when Coach Smith and his son Billy drove all the way to Yeehaw Junction to pick up the Hernando equipment scattered along the road and completed the trip to the tournament.

"I listen to gospel music, but I'm not a guy who goes to church," noted Coach Combs on the spiritual significance of surviving the accident. "God saved me and everyone else that day. He still had plans for me; I'm grateful.

"I had a lawyer look into the accident. Believe it or not, he told me that we didn't get hurt enough (to litigate against the tire manufacturer)," recalled Coach Combs. "And I'm glad we didn't. But that accident hasn't stopped me from taking kids to tournaments."

Interestingly, Bianco's mother is also kin to Hernando junior Jessie Gaudin. Before leaving recently for the High School Nationals at Virginia Beach, Combs recalls promising Gaudins mom, "I'll try not to roll the van this time."

Currently, Coach Combs and his sons, Charley and Michael, serve as assistant coaches under Sal Basile at Springstead.

"I'm still coaching because I love it," admits Coach Combs. "Coach Chatman changed teams, so can I. Ernie can't stop running and I can't stop coaching – it's what I do; it's who I am."

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