UK Men's Basketball

Leaving UK radio network, Oscar Combs says it’s time ‘for different direction’

Oscar Combs, right, talked with Matt Jones on a UK men’s basketball pregame show.
Oscar Combs, right, talked with Matt Jones on a UK men’s basketball pregame show. Lexington Herald-Leader

Oscar Combs covered his first Kentucky Wildcats basketball game in 1965-66. He was a 20-something reporter for the Hazard Herald.

In 1976, Combs made coverage of Kentucky football and men’s hoops his full-time gig by founding the UK sports publication The Cats’ Pause. Even after Combs sold TCP in 1996, he continued as a presence in Kentucky sports media by appearing on pregame shows for the UK radio network.

On Thursday, via his Twitter account, Combs, 72, announced he would not be returning to the Wildcats radio network in 2016-17.

“I lived a dream,” Combs said Thursday. “I worked a dream. But it’s time for me to go in a different direction. There are different stages in life, and it’s just time for me to do something different.”

Paul Archey, the president of UK Sports and Campus Marketing for JMI Sports, said Combs’ departure “was his decision. We certainly didn’t want Oscar to leave. He has an open invitation to appear with us. ... We’re going to miss him, and I know the fans will miss him.”

In the Internet-era media world, everything is niche. So Combs was decades ahead of his time in September 1976, when he started a weekly publication exclusively dedicated to the Kentucky Wildcats.

As a young owner of small newspapers in Eastern Kentucky in the 1970s, Combs said he long had the idea of starting a paper covering only the Cats. He did not decide the concept was viable, however, until the spring of 1976. He had gone to New York City to watch Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats play in — and ultimately win — the NIT.

“I met people there from New York who were big UK fans but had never stepped foot in the state of Kentucky,” Combs said.

The New Yorkers had become followers of the Cats by listening to iconic UK radio play-by-play broadcaster Cawood Ledford calling the Kentucky games at nights on Louisville’s 50,000-watt AM radio station WHAS.

“Meeting them gave me confidence there was an audience for what I wanted to do,” Combs said.

After some lean times to start, The Cats’ Pause found its footing (and its audience) and thrived. It became the forerunner of team-based college sports publications around the country. Those foreshadowed our current milieu of college-specific websites.

Through his pro-UK publication, Combs built a connection with many Wildcats fans that endured even after he sold The Cats’ Pause and transitioned into fielding phone calls on the Wildcats radio pregame.

“I think if you were doing the ‘Mount Rushmore of UK sports media,’ Oscar would be there with (prior radio broadcasters) Cawood (Ledford), Ralph (Hacker) and Claude Sullivan and (sports marketing guru) Jim Host,” says Tom Leach, the current Kentucky football and men’s basketball radio play-by-play announcer. “We’d need five statues for UK sports (media).”

In leaving the UK radio network, Combs says the thing he will miss most “is the interaction with the fans. I have always enjoyed Kentucky fans, the great passion they have. But, I will still be around on Twitter.”

When Hall stepped down as Kentucky basketball coach in 1985 following a UK loss to St. John’s in the NCAA Tournament round of 16, Combs said he liked how Joe B. did not use the word “retired.”

“I want to use the same approach now,” Combs said. “It’s possible I could be doing some other things in some different mediums. I won’t be sitting around reading the AARP (magazine).”

For years, Combs says he’s had two book ideas. One, obviously, would be on UK sports.

The other dates back to Combs’ days as a newspaperman in Hazard in the 1960s. Combs says he’s always wanted to write about what he saw in the political realm while working in Appalachia.

He could start with the time he got to interview Robert F. Kennedy when the U.S. senator visited Eastern Kentucky during his ill-fated 1968 campaign for president of the United States.

Still, Combs says he will not put the stress of book deadlines on himself. Noting he underwent two heart bypass surgeries in the 1990s, Combs said, “After I sold The Cats’ Pause, I don’t put much pressure on myself. But I would like to think at least one of those books will get done.”

In the meantime, Combs said he is not sure how many Kentucky Wildcats games he will attend in the coming year.

He’s been so much a part of the UK sports media scene for so long, it would be weird not to see him there.

Says Leach: “It’s kind of like a family, those of us on the (Kentucky Wildcats radio) network. So it’s sort of like one of our family is retiring. We’re going to miss working with Oscar. Hopefully, he’ll still come to the games so we can see him.”