Ira D. Combs, a sports columnist and co-director of the Joe B. Hall Prep Classic, a showcase for high school boys basketball teams, died Thursday. He was 61.
Combs collapsed while entering the Yum Center in Louisville, where his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats were scheduled to play in the Midwest Regionals of the NCAA basketball tournament, said Dave Baker, a sportscaster for WKYT.
Combs later died at a Louisville hospital.
"Total shock and just so sad," UK men's basketball coach John Calipari said in a Twitter post. "Prayers to him and his family."
Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, called Combs "an avid supporter of high school sports and UK."
Combs had attended Wednesday's opening of the Boys' Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament at Rupp Arena, Tackett said. "He was here yesterday and greeting everybody," Tackett said. "It's hard to believe. It shows how fragile life really is."
Former UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall told Herald-Leader sportswriter Mike Fields that Combs "was one of the greatest supporters of high school athletics in the state.
"Ira was a lovable, interesting guy. He knew everybody, and everybody knew him. It's a tragic loss," Hall said.
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement that Combs "was a fixture at UK Athletics events for decades. ... But his kindness towards the people he came into contact with and worked with will be what we remember him for the most."
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, said in a statement: "We are very saddened to hear of Mr. Combs' death, especially as he was getting ready to cover the men's tournament in Louisville today. On behalf of the NCAA and the Division I Men's Basketball Committee, I want to extend our sympathies to Ira's family, friends, colleagues and readers."
Survivors include his brothers, Oscar Combs, the founder and former owner of the UK fan publication The Cats Pause, and co-host of the UK Big Blue Radio Sports Network pre-game show; and Harold A. Combs, co-director of Tri State Sports Media Service.
Since 2002, Ira Combs hosted a radio talk show heard on WSGS-FM in Hazard and WKCB-FM in Hindman. He also hosted Mountain Sports Review, a cable TV show.
"In the days before the Internet and Twitter and all that sort of stuff, they were banging the drum, letting people know about the great things going on with Kentucky kids," Baker said of the Combs brothers.
Harold and Ira Combs wrote columns and had a blog at Combsbrotherson-kysports.com.
"No matter what the game — whether it was the national championship game or the first exhibition of the season — he was a fixture," Baker said of Ira Combs. "You would go back in the media room and there would be Ira and Harold and Oscar and some collection of other folks who were being regaled with stories from long ago."
In 1989, Ira Combs and Pat Doyle, Mr. Basketball of 1959, started the Kentucky Prep Classic, which later became the Joe B. Hall Prep Classic, as a showcase of high school boys basketball teams.
Born in Perry County on July 18, 1953, Ira Delano Combs played basketball and baseball at Dilce Combs Memorial High School in Hazard.
After graduating from high school in 1971, Combs took classes at Hazard Community College, then he attended and graduated from Cumberland College in Williamsburg in 1976. He received a graduate degree from Morehead State University in 1980.
He was a graduate assistant basketball coach at Cumberland in 1975 and '76. He later was an assistant football, baseball and basketball coach at M.C. Napier High School in Hazard between 1976 and 1978, and an assistant baseball and basketball coach at Dilce Combs High. He was athletic director at Dilce Combs in 1993 and 1994.
He also officiated for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. He officiated baseball in the late 1970s until 1981, football for 12 years into the late 1980s, and baseball for 18 years into the early 1990s.