BOZICH | Kentucky loses a great friend in Ira Combs - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Kentucky loses a great friend in Ira Combs

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Ira Combs (right) shakes hands with former UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall. Ira Combs (right) shakes hands with former UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The e-mails arrived nearly every week, with the tag line that described what was on Ira Combs' witty mind. Ira loved to share the column that he syndicated across Kentucky.

It was usually about something that he wanted you to enjoy as much as he enjoyed – University of Kentucky football or basketball, Kentucky high school sports or other Bluegrass topics that got Ira's passions percolating.

Ira Combs looked at sports as a unifier, not a divider. He thought football and basketball were something to celebrate and enjoy, not make people lose their minds or manners. Ira loved sports, not snark.

Here is the opening of the last column that Ira filed this week:

“Finally, everybody that is a card carrying member of Big Blue Nation, and, for that matter, everyone in the free world who cares about college basketball can pin the 40–0 talk on Cal and his boys' backs because they're more than ready to take on the pressure of winning the remaining six games—no matter who their opponent is.”

Fired up? That's what Ira always wanted.

When you saw Ira at Commonwealth Stadium or Rupp Arena, he'd ask what you thought of his latest column, eager to know if it made you think or want to debate.

If you've been around UK sports, you knew Ira. He made sure of that, greeting you with an extended hand, entertaining you with a story or asking you about what was going on in your area. Ira was always inviting friends to attend the high school basketball tournament that he organized to honor former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall.

“What's going on with Rick?” Combs would often ask, meaning Pitino.

You see, when Rick Pitino coached at Louisville, Ira Combs watched and sometimes coached Pitino's sons at UK basketball camps. He remained friends with Pitino and U of L equipment manager Vinnie Tatum after they started working at UK's primary rival.

When camp was over, Combs would put Tatum, his brother, Spencer, Jeff Morrow and other UK student managers in his car and take them to Pizza Uno. Ira's treat. That was vintage Ira. With Ira, friendship didn't matter if you leaned blue or red.

“Ira loved to say there were more Louisville fans in the mountains than we realized,” Tatum said Thursday from Seattle.

“Before the start of every season I'd send him a box of Louisville media guides and basketball posters and he'd get me a box of moonshine. He loved people and he loved sports.”

I looked for Ira in Nashville last weekend at the SEC Tournament but he didn't make many road trips any more from his home in Hazard. I hoped to see him this weekend at the KFC Yum! Center when Kentucky started NCAA Tournament play Thursday night against Hampton.

Then came the tragic news that Combs passed away early Thursday afternoon near the media gate at the KFC Yum! Center. Officials at that location said that Ira was trying to navigate the steps to Main Street, turned around, walked to the area near the door and collapsed. Combs was 61.

Ira's health had not been great. Kenny Klein, U of L's assistant athletic director for media relations, had arranged for Ira to have a parking space near the media gate and a seat on the floor.

UK coach John Calipari, athletic director Mitch Barnhart and NCAA president Mark Emmert quickly expressed their condolences. Tatum said that Pitino was “shaken” by the news. 

“Ira was really excited about this Kentucky team,” Tatum said. “He thought they were special. He was looking forward to seeing them play.”

Sad. Unspeakably sad.

Ira Combs loved the University of Kentucky as much as anybody, including his well-known brother, Oscar, the founder of The Cats' Pause. He teamed with his brother, Harold, in Tri State Sports Media Service.

He'd talk to you about Bear Bryant or Mark Stoops, Willie Cauley-Stein or Cliff Hagan, John Calipari or Rick Pitino.

I sat next to Ira for the last three seasons in the Commonwealth Stadium press box, usually joined by Bob Bradley, director of academic services UK athletics. Talk about a treat. Nobody was more eager to share stories and opinions than Ira.

What I loved about Ira is that he loved Kentucky without disliking other schools. At least twice a year, once at the start of football season and again at the start of basketball, season Ira asked me to join him on the radio show that he hosted in Eastern Kentucky.

We'd talk about Louisville. But Ira also wanted to learn about Louisville football, Louisville basketball and high school teams in Jefferson County.

Farewell, my friend.

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