Harry Combes died Nov. 13, 1977, more than 34 years ago.
In his day, Combes was a basketball whirlwind. And when his banner goes up at the Assembly Hall during halftime of today's Wisconsin game, we are honoring a man whose record of cage success is unmatched locally.
He was spectacular as a hard-driving player. Teaming with still-active Bob Miller at Monticello, the Sages won 52 of 56 games in their last two years. At Illinois, he sparked co-championship teams in 1935 and 1937, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1937.
In nine seasons as coach of Champaign's Maroons, Combes' pressing, fast-breaking teams went 254-46, reaching the state title game three straight years and winning in 1946, 54-48, against Centralia. Combes was the UI's popular choice at a time when he was less than 8 years older that his first star, Dike Eddleman. Three of Combes' first five teams won undisputed Big Ten titles and reached the Final Four. His record of success rolled on and on: 15-5 in 1948 following by 21-4, 14-8, 22-5, 22-4, 18-4, 17-5, 17-5 and 18-4. After a period of slippage, Combes picked off his fourth Big Ten title in 1963 before being forced into retirement in the wake of the "slush fund" scandal early in the 1966-67 season.
In his day, Combes helped change the game from hold-the-ball slowdowns to fast break, from Eddleman's kiss shot to Dave Downey's high-extension jumpers, from all-white to his 1966 lineup featuring Don Freeman, Ron Dunlap, Preston Pearson and Rich Jones.
When Combes was a sophomore guard at the UI, Doug Mills' co-champs topped 44 points once. In Combes' 57 games as an Illini player, those teams topped 50 points twice.
He adapted to a free-wheeling style immediately at Champaign High, running opponents ragged with a ball-stealing, full-court press. And decades later, in a single season (1965) at Illinois, his team topped 100 points nine times.
That season began with a shocking 110-83 rout of John Wooden's defending champion UCLA Bruins in which Skip Thoren scored 20, Bill McKeown 19 and Bogie Redmon and Don Freeman 17 apiece.
Two years earlier, with points pouring down like a waterfall, Downey racked 53 points in a 103-100 loss at Indiana. That record stood until seven days later when Jimmy Rayl bagged 56 points on 48 shots for Indiana. Such was the nature of free-wheeling offensive basketball before Indiana's Bob Knight, Purdue's Gene Keady and others made stiffer defense the order of the day.
Combes finished 316-150 with memorable triumphs too numerous to mention. His first title team in 1949 had the good fortune to prevail consecutively against Indiana 44-42 in OT, Ohio State 64-63 and Minnesota 45-44 en route to the NCAA tournament. Later on, he called for his team to launch 100 shots with the intention of scoring 100 points. Illinois first reached his 100-point goal in 1955 (104-89 over Wisconsin) and accomplished it five more times in 1956 with Paul Judson, Bill Ridley and George BonSalle setting the pace.
For the perfectionist Combes, it was a two-decade period of extraordinary success and bitter disappointment, particularly from 1953 through 1956 when the Illini had legitimate NCAA title ambitions but were nudged out of the title by Indiana twice and Iowa twice at a time when only one Big Ten team advanced to the NCAA.
Combes was in charge when the Assembly Hall, completed at a cost of $8.35 million, opened late in the 1963 season. Illinois won 79-73 against Northwestern in a game drawing 16,137 awed fans, and marred by 57 fouls and 88 free throws.
He was an intense, thoroughly consumed coach who completed every season exhausted. His Illini teams competed at the highest level for most of his career but two two-point losses in the Final Four were as close as he ever got to the championship.
Let the bad times roll
Losing on a last shot at Penn State is becoming a near-annual routine. You come to accept it after a time.
The tough part Thursday was sitting on the tarmac for an hour for de-icing, then bucking fierce head winds to reach home at 3 a.m. ahead of an 8 a.m. dental appointment. Well, that woke me up.
So, maybe Bob Knight was right. He didn't like the idea of playing a late weekday game — 9 p.m., Indiana time — at the Big Ten's eastern outpost where basketball is little more than a mid-major operation in terms of community interest and recruiting success. The Nittany Lions are 60-147 in the Big Ten since 2000.
They announced the crowd at 6,945 as though anyone would believe it. There were perhaps half that many. The prime seats in the lower section opposite the students was one-third or one-fourth full — it's hard to tell — with hundreds of ticket buyers preferring to be elsewhere. But give Pat Chambers' athletes credit. Without a quality center, they nevertheless attack the glass with fervor. And they're led by a mobile junior, Tim Frazier, who has drawn alongside Wisconsin senior Taylor Jordan as the best point guard in the Big Ten. On this night, as happened in their 20-point rout of Purdue, these erratic Penn State marksmen outshot their opponent and Frazier floated in for his fourth basket of the game to break the final tie.
If they had a rematch at the Assembly Hall, which they don't, the Illini would probably get even. But they'll never quite balance all the pain absorbed by the recent failures out there: 54-52, 57-55, 64-63, 52-51. That doesn't include the classic of our time, Penn State's 38-33 lashing here. A suggestion for the Illini: Wear a blindfold the next time.
Follow the dollars. Don't ever discount the impact of finances in building a sports program. Note how football has leapt forward at Oregon and Oklahoma State, the latter surging from low-budget mediocrity after billionaire T. Boone Pickens wired in $180 million five years ago as part of a massive athletic buildup.
We turn now to Louisville basketball. They pay the coach too much. Rick Pitino receives about $7.5 million, a cool $3 million more than hated rival John Calipari at Kentucky. How can Louisville afford it?
Easy. Gary Friedman, who arrived as Illinois State athletic director last June after a decade at Louisville, informs that Pitino's operation leads the nation in basketball revenue with $40 million. All the Big Ten schools are pikers by comparison, with Illinois and its aging Assembly Hall lagging far behind.
Among Louisville alums, the desire to be better than Kentucky (47 straight home wins) can produce miracles. Friedman informed that Louisville, with a new $240-million arena backed in part by state and city funds (replacing Freedom Hall), profits from 72 suites and the fact that nearly every seat in the building requires a donation. A percentage from the suites goes back to pay the debt service on the bonds. Another percentage must surely wind up in Pitino's pocket.
The former Kentucky coach (1989-97) has a flair about him. Even though the Cardinals lost their opening NCAA games the last two years, he is seen as running a talent-laden operation (he recruited Chicago' Wayne Blackshear last year) that is consistently in the Top 25. A season ticket costs $900 beyond the donation. And between 2008 and 2010, Louisville received more than 20 gifts of $1 million or more. During Friedman's decade as Tom Jurich's aide at Louisville, new facilities were provided for all 23 sports.
Now we see Friedman on the move in Bloomington-Normal. A $25 million stadium renovation is in the works featuring seven suites, 500 outdoor club seats and 7,500 new seats with backs on the renovated east side opposite Horton Fieldhouse (Louisville has 55,000 chair seats, something of a novelty and undoubtedly comfortable). It is amazing what you can do if you have a sugar daddy (or daddies).
Why I Feel YOUNG ...
There’s always a television series that allows me to clear my mind from all the silly games. Old favorites were “24” and “Deadwood.” Now, with “Hell on Wheels” off until the fall, I can turn back to the renewal of “Justified.” It’ll never be the same without Mags (Margo Martindale), who left with an intential sip of poison. But it has a four-star rating, and deservedly so.
Why I Feel OLD ...
I join those who praise Harry Combes with the raising of his banner today. As a teen-ager, I played golf with Harry once, and recall his temper (fractured a club). When I was injured during the basketball regional in 1948, the new Illini coach was the first to visit me in the locker room. Years later, I covered his final season as Illini coach. That was many centuries ago.
Loren Tate writes for The News- Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org