Originally created 12/01/99

Williston-Elko coach loose before championship game



WILLISTON, S.C. -- You can picture Williston-Elko's football coach Charlie Combs jumping on stage at open-mike night at the local coffee shop, snapping fingers and reciting blank verse poetry while a crowd of hippies yells, "Say it, brother Charlie."

And if not there, then talk to Combs for 10 minutes and you realize that maybe his life's destiny would be better served writing material for the Chris Rock Show. His jokes, and he's got thousands of 'em, could only pass HBO's censors.

"Just need an agent to get me going," Combs says, smiling.

He's sitting in his office Tuesday afternoon, setting up the week's state finals itinerary by listening to Dr. Laura's radio show. There's lots on Combs' mind as his Blue Devils prepare for Saturday's 5 p.m., South Carolina Class A title game against Timmonsville. But he's tuned in this afternoon to see if Jenny from Alabama will break up with her beau because he got her pregnant but won't pop the question.

"Dr. Laura's worth $36 million," Combs says between segments. "We've all got our calling, don't we?"

Combs wears his black beanie hat, his black-rimmed Ray-Ban glasses with pinkish tints (he's nearsighted), his leather cowboy boots, batting gloves on both hands and soul patch of black hair underneath his bottom lip. He's a football beatnik, a Rolling Stones groupie.

What night does the Jack Kerouac discussion group meet, coach?

Well, this is Williston, a town 40 minutes east of Augusta, where the center of nightlife revolves around Blue Devils football Friday nights and the Hardees on Main Street every other day. Sorry, no Starbucks here. Haight-Asbury is thousands of miles away.

So Combs is left to spout philosophies and jokes involving Superman and Wonder Woman to anyone who'll listen.

He is single and 51, going on 15. And by keeping things loose, he's got this small town thinking again like state champs.

"I don't feel 51," Combs says. "You hang around with kids long enough, you feed off their energy. I like lifting weights with them. Gotta keep this game fun. We have a good time together."

Combs, who grew up in Hot Springs, Ark., and won a scholarship to Central Arkansas, still bench presses 300 pounds.

"He's a different bird," senior linebacker Nick Smalls says. "He wants to be a comedian. He wants to be one of the guys."

But before he hits you with the punch line, Combs strikes you with more than 25 years of football coaching experience. He landed in South Carolina after some friends at The Citadel helped line up an interview at Bonds-Wilson High in Charleston.

After five years there, including coaching future NFL back Dave Meggett, Combs moved on to James Island for six years and Manning for 10, winning the state AAA title there in 1988. He moved on to Lexington, but was fired after four seasons for not winning enough.

In '96, after a year at Greenwood as defensive coordinator, he took the head coaching and athletic director's job at 300-student Williston. Driving into town, the first thing Combs asked was, "Where do we eat at?" a question asked by many who've passed through on State Road 78.

After back-to-back 9-3 marks, Combs' corps stands 13-1, the school one win away from capturing a state crown in four consecutive decades. So retro look or not, man, Combs knows this game.

"Football's like going to church," says Combs, sarcastically called Mr. Magoo by some Williston fans. "There are many who attend but few who understand. These people take football seriously around here. And when things aren't going right, I'm the nut they scream at."

And what about growing up in Arkansas? Combs is quick to pull out a copy of his 1964 Hot Springs High School yearbook. He flips to the football page to point out himself as a skinny sophomore.

Then he turns to the seniors' mugshots, where he points out a smiling William J. Clinton. What a pair, the President and the Prankster under the same roof.

"He doesn't remember me," Combs says. "He was the big man on campus then, and I was just the little fish."

Sounds like the start of another Combs' joke.

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.