Legendary Kentucky men's basketball coach Joe B. Hall is known as a master story-teller. One of his best tales revolves around his longtime athletic trainer, Walt McCombs.
Hall's UK club had just narrowly pulled off a win at Vanderbilt in the late 1970s. Hall was giving the team a spirited postgame talking-to in the locker room when he saw a water cooler and gave it a swift kick. The cooler flipped up in the air and came pouring down on McCombs, who was standing quietly in the corner of the locker room.
"I was so respectful of Walt and in my anger I accidently took it out on him," Hall remembers. "So I picked up that bucket and dumped the rest of the water on my own head, just to show him that I was so sorry."
Now in his 39th year with the UK athletics department, McCombs, 64, is memorable for much more than playing a leading role in Hall's signature story. He has had an undeniably positive impact on countless student-athletes, coaches and staff members.
"If you could sum up Walt in one word, I would say 'selfless,' " former UK men's soccer All-American Barry Rice said.
"He is one of my favorite people in sports," Hall said.
THE EARLY YEARS
A South Carolina native, McCombs attended The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, where he earned his undergraduate degree in physical education and worked as a manager for the football team.
When the trainer needed help, the hard-working McCombs volunteered to help, quickly finding a calling.
"I could never see myself wearing a coat and tie and sitting behind a desk 40 hours a week," McCombs said. "Plus I always liked athletics, working with people and student-athletes."
In August of 1971, McCombs ventured to Lexington to work with the UK football program and coach John Ray as a graduate assistant trainer. After spending two years splitting time between football and the powerhouse men's basketball team under hall of famer Adolph Rupp, McCombs accepted a position as the full-time football trainer at Clemson. That position was short-lived, however, as McCombs was quickly hired full-time by new UK football staff in 1973 under coach Fran Curci.
McCombs would work with football until the mid-October start date for basketball, where he began to form a long-standing relationship with Hall and an appreciation for the whirlwind that is Kentucky basketball.
"Walt McCombs was the greatest thing that ever happened to me as a coach. He fell in my lap and I never had anyone that meshed with the program the way Walt did. Walt was the best that I was ever around in my total coaching career."
- Joe B. Hall
"I didn't realize then, what magnitude everything was at Kentucky," McCombs said. "Being from South Carolina, there wasn't too much news about Kentucky basketball. I didn't learn anything about the history of the program until I got involved with it. Then I realized how blessed I was to have a position like that. It is big-time pressure when you are the men's basketball coach at Kentucky."
CARRYING ON A LEGACY
In the modern era of catering to college coaches, it has become commonplace for the athletic trainers to come and go as coaches do. Head coaches want their own, trusted trainers with them as they build a program.
After spending just one year working with Rupp, McCombs and Hall quickly developed a close personal and professional bond in the years following Rupp's retirement.
"Walt McCombs was the greatest thing that ever happened to me as a coach," Hall said. "He fell in my lap and I never had anyone that meshed with the program the way Walt did. Walt was the best that I was ever around in my total coaching career. Walt is an example for all trainers."
While Hall directed a winner on the floor, McCombs found a perfect balance between confidant to the student-athletes and as an extension of the coaching staff.
"Walt loved the players," Hall said. "He was loyal and respectful to the coaches. He bridged that gap very well as a trainer between the players and the coaches. He fought for the players when he needed to and he represented the coaches and their ideas, always."
UK continued to build on the championship tradition that was founded under Rupp, with the Wildcats finishing as the NCAA Runner-Up in 1974-75, before breaking through for the 1977-78 national championship.
Spurred by Jack "Goose" Givens, who averaged 18 points per game, Rick Robey and Kyle Macy, the Wildcats rolled to a 30-2 record and a win over Duke in the NCAA Title Game.
"The national championship was special," McCombs said. "Any time you win your division, your conference, your conference tournament or go to the NCAA, it is great to see the excitement in the athletes. That is what it is all about. The coaches also get real excited too because they are all competitors and that is what coaches do: They get their boys to compete."
When asked to remember some of his fondest student-athletes, McCombs quickly references some of the top players in program history.
"Sometimes it may be a starter on the team. Sometimes it may be someone riding the bench," McCombs said about some of his favorites. "Rex (Chapman), Sam (Bowie), Melvin Turpin, they were all great kids."
Bowie, a 7-foot-1, 230-pound superstar for the Wildcats, was one of the transcendent players of the Hall era.
"I got there in 1979 and Walt was probably one of the first people that I got really close to," Bowie said. "I never really looked at him as a trainer. He was always in a very enjoyable mood and he was very good at his profession but I thought he was more, he was more than an employee for the University. He was someone that really took a personal interest in us and he was one of those guys that acted like every day was a holiday. He is just a very good man."
After bursting on the scene as an All-SEC standout in 1979-80, Bowie battled injuries and sat out the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons. That created a lot of time spent with McCombs in and out of hospitals, training and X-ray rooms.
"Walt was the one that took me down to Memphis, where I had my first couple of surgeries," Bowie said. "Coach Hall had him literally take me down there and stay with me for the few days after surgery. I just remember that as an employee, he was obviously there to take care of me as a patient, but he was there 24/7 as a friend. Walt will always be special to me."
Bowie returned to the hardwood in 1983-84, earning All-America honors and becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers.
"When I think of Walt McCombs, the last thing I think of is somebody wrapping an ankle," Bowie said. "He was very good at his profession, but I just knew Walt as a personal friend."
"The stuff that Sam had to go through, after he left here, surgeries, coming back and having to do the same thing over again," McCombs said. "Sam is just a real human being. That is about the biggest compliment I can give someone, is that they are a real human being."
McCombs continued to direct the training needs of the men's basketball program through the Eddie Sutton era and two years into the Rick Pitino era.
BUILDING A SOCCER PROGRAM
In 1992, Pitino brought in his own trainer to work with basketball and McCombs found a home helping build the men's soccer program from its infancy.
While working with the first coach in program history, Sam Wooten (1992-93) and then-coach Ian Collins (1994-2011), McCombs saw a program rise from the ground up. UK went from a club sport, to a NCAA sponsored team, to a powerhouse in the Mid-American Conference.
"We used to play where the tennis courts are now," McCombs said as he detailed the facilities UK used in the early 1990s. "It used to be an intramural field. It had a cage around it, looked like an octagon almost. There wasn't much space between the sidelines and the fence."
McCombs worked with the fiery Collins for his tenure, with the Wildcats dominating the MAC in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He worked with some of the top players of the era, including Riley O'Neill Ilkka Jantti, Andy Gruenebaum and Jamal Shteiwi, with Rice, Dan Williams and Jason Griffiths emerging as stars in the 2000s.
"Walt was the guy that no matter what you needed or what you needed to get done, he would do it for you, no questions asked," Rice said. "He made sure that he did everything possible to keep you healthy and made sure you could do everything you needed to on the field. He pretty much drops whatever he is doing to make sure his athletes are taken care of."
As UK transitioned to the more competitive Conference USA, McCombs got to see the development of the program from a front-row seat. With the transition came a new era in the UK athletics department, as Mitch Barnhart was hired as the athletics director and quickly began to emphasize a broad-based athletics program.
"It is just amazing what Mitch and the athletics department have done and are doing for the Olympic sports," McCombs said about the impact of Barnhart. "Mitch has been dedicated to raising the level. That gives the athletes a lot more pride then maybe the pride they had way back when, when they were riding in vans. It is the way the program should be."
With Griffiths, Rice and Williams leading the way, UK posted strong seasons in 2006 and 2008, with the Wildcats feeling snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee in both years.
Despite the occasional heartbreak of UK's student-athletes, McCombs always found a way to keep the mood light.
"Walt is always the guy that brightens up the room," Rice said. "We may have been having a bad stretch of games where we were struggling and everyone was kind of down and you would go into the training room and Walt would have everyone laughing by lightening the mood or cracking a couple of jokes. He is always good to be around. He is fun."
In December of 2011, Barnhart turned the keys of the program over to Johan Cedergren, a former star at Cincinnati and decorated associate head coach at powerhouse Dartmouth. An energetic, organized young coach with an infectious personality, Cedergren changed the culture around the UK program. In his first year, Cedergren paced the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament since 2003, earning a hosting berth in the first round.
"Walt is a guy that has been around the block once or twice," Cedergren said. "There is really nothing that he hasn't seen. He bleeds blue. There is nothing that he would not do for the University, the athletics department or the team that he is working with."
On one of the first road trips of Cedergren's debut season, McCombs noticed his new head coach was having a hard time with a back injury from his playing days. Without missing a beat, McCombs found a battery operated pillow that was designed to give some relief to the back, bringing it to Cedergren for the following road trip.
"There is nothing he will not do for the team or the staff," Cedergren said. "One of Walt's great strengths is that he may not be super involved in the training aspect of practice but he is always there. He is always watching. There is nothing that Walt will miss. If there is a guy trying to cover an injury or a guy not working hard enough, whatever it is, Walt will see it. That was very reassuring for a young head coach."
Cedergren benefited from his relationship with McCombs and his role during that historic season a year ago, as the Wildcats had several players battle injuries en route to the big dance.
"It might be the first time that a player has had that injury but Walt has seen it multiple times and that really helps a staff," Cedergren said. "He knows the different variations of the injury, the timeline and the best way to go about treatment. The guys feel reassured too when Walt is treating them because they know and they can just tell he knows what he is talking about."
Throughout the 2012 season, it became apparent how much McCombs was enjoying the thrill of a winning season, the energy of the new coaching staff and the excitement of his student-athletes.
"Johan has been a breath of fresh air," McCombs said. "He encourages the soccer boys a lot. He seems to make an effort to be positive, or he is just blessed with encouraging people to do their very best and when they do mess up he doesn't just go ballistic, he tries to make it a positive, it's a learning experience."
While serving as the volunteer assistant on Cedergren's coaching staff, Rice was able to see McCombs' enjoyment of the season and his never-yielding passion for the well-being of his players.
"For a guy that had been around one coach for almost 20 years and then switch and adjust to another coach, who to put it lightly, does everything the exact opposite of Ian, he did better than anyone could," Rice said. "That just speaks to the kind of person he is. He showed Johan the utmost respect. He is just an all-around good guy. He deserves a lot more credit than what people realize. But he is just very quiet, calm and collected and just works in the background."
LOVING WHAT HE DOES
With the joys of retirement in the horizon, one couldn't blame McCombs for planning the next chapter of his life without taping ankles, fixing strained hamstrings or icing down leg cramps. McCombs, however, can't really imagine life without his life's work.
"As long as I enjoy doing it, I can physically do it and as long as they will keep me around, I want to keep going," McCombs said. "My father didn't have the opportunity to finish college, his father passed away when he was in his teens and he had to go to work. He put five of us through college and he worked 40 years at the same plant so that is sort of my upbringing.
A father of two girls and one son, who is finishing up school at UK, and the grandfather of four boys, McCombs' positive impact on others is seen throughout a loving family, and his family of former and current UK athletes.
"I would definitely say team player and loyalty are the things that come to mind," McCombs' boss, longtime UK football trainer Jim Madeleno said about his soccer trainer. "One of the best things someone could say about a trainer a lot of times is that Walt is just someone you don't even know is there. And his job is getting done and done well."
As the Kentucky soccer season rolls on in its second year under Cedergren, McCombs continues to guide his roster of young competitors through the rigors of collegiate athletics and the challenges of being a student-athlete.
"Very rarely to you see one person stay in a position for their lifetime," McCombs said. "I am just taking it day by day. I am very blessed."
His calming presence and caring personality has not changed in 40 years, something that has created an undying loyalty in his friends and co-workers.
"I'll do anything for that man," Madaleno concluded. "Walt McCombs is all UK."