Brother Bears: Brothers Derrick and Justin Combs are bringing a school together with basketball
Grainger girl’s basketball coach Justin Combs, left, talks to his older brother Derrick Combs, Grainger’s boys coach, before Wednesday’s Region 1-AA championship game at Elizabethton High School. The Combs brothers have helped each other with game preparation and strategy since Justin returned to Rutledge to be an assistant coach after coaching in California.
RUTLEDGE — If you were to walk up and down the halls of Grainger High School yelling “Hey, Coach Combs!” you would have to be more specific as to which one you were referring to.
The Grainger High School basketball teams are coached by brothers Derrick and Justin Combs. Both brothers have had a great deal of success at GHS and that success comes from the fact that they share a bond formed by both blood and basketball.
“I am coach D and he is coach J. My older brother Kip was at Rutledge and he was coach K,” Derrick Combs jokingly said in referring to how the coaches are referred to at Grainger. “It’s a lot of fun. To see the success (Justin) has had makes me proud.”
Derrick, who coaches the boys’ team, said that coordinating things with the two basketball programs can be challenging but rewarding as well.
“We work well together. I have heard of schools where the boys and girls teams don’t get along very well but we cooperate well with each other as far as working out practice times,” Derrick said. “It works well and it’s a joy to coach with him,”
Justin echoed Derrick’s sentiments about the positives of having the boys and girls teams so tightly knit.
“It’s a great experience. Boys and girls coaches at the high school level have to work closely with one another in scheduling practices and formulating the season schedule. We have to make sure that both teams are playing the out of conference schedule they want to. So it’s nice to have someone like Derrick that I am so close with to work with on a daily basis and it makes for a pretty seamless bond between the boys and girls programs,” Justin said.
Derrick, who is 10 years older than Justin, was hired first to coach the boy’s team. Justin was enjoying success at the high school level at Hamilton High School in California and when the chance to come back home presented itself, Justin jumped at the opportunity.
Justin was busy when he came back home as he assisted both his brother and the girls team. The Lady Grizzlies were coached by state representative Dennis Roach, and when Roach decided to concentrate on his position in state government, Combs was a natural fit to take over the reigns.
“We were all happy when Justin had a chance to come back home, mom and dad especially,” Derrick said. “We were glad to get him back home. My first year as head coach, Justin was my assistant and he also helped coach Roach. It was great to have him on my staff. When coach Roach decided to step down, I was glad to see Justin get the job”
Justin said that there were a number of factors that lured him back to his home in Grainger county which included both family as well as financial reasons.
“My wife and I got pregnant with our little boy and we felt moving back to East Tennessee would be a good place to raise our child. Real estate wise, we could afford more here than we ever could out there in terms of land and spreading out to have a little elbow room,” Justin said. “But obviously to come back here and help coach at the new school was inviting. I got to help Derrick and coach Roach that first year. To be able to learn as a coach from both of them was something that was hard to pass up. I wanted to take advantage of that.”
Derrick Combs has led the Grizzlies to many successful seasons. His up-tempo style of play has made Grainger a tough matchup for several seasons. He has coached several players who have gone on to play at the collegiate level which includes the most famous one in current Tennessee Volunteer Skylar McBee.
The last two seasons that Justin Combs and the Lady Grizzlies have put together have been nothing short of incredible. Combs has led Grainger to a 63-5 overall record, two trips to the TSSAA sectionals and the school’s first ever number one ranking. If the Lady Grizzlies can win at CAK on Saturday, they will make their first trip to the state tournament since Rutledge went in 1998.
Derrick said that he and Justin compliment each other well.
“I get ideas from him,” Derrick said. “Justin helped me with South Greene’s matchup zone because I saw the success he had against their girl’s team with the zone. Sometimes he will bounce ideas off of me as well. It’s a good relationship we have.”
“He has been great about helping me in any way I need to get ready for a game. I try to do the same for him,” Justin said. “We help each other out in scouting opponents or whatever needs to be done to prepare for a game. He was kind enough to lend out three of his guys to simulate some of the size we are going to see on Saturday. “
Derrick helped his brother in practice leading up to Saturday’s CAK game by loaning him some of his players. Center Thomas Moran was used as a substitute for the Lady Warriors’ Cheyenne Hooper and Logan Bates and Bailey Lamb also participated in the Lady Grizzlies practice. Legendary Tennessee Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt practiced with male players for years and Combs is hoping it helps his team as well.
With all the success the Lady Grizzlies have had, Derrick said that Justin doesn’t talk a lot about wins and losses when the two are together. He said that he has a theory as to why his younger brother is like that.
“He is very superstitious and he won’t talk a lot about their success. I understand that as a coach, as we are all a little superstitious. If you are wearing a pair of pants with a hole in it when you start winning, you just keeping wearing them to keep the streak going. But Justin doesn’t talk too much about it,” Derrick said.
When asked if he is indeed superstitious, Justin laughed and said that everything is all in good fun between him and Derrick.
“I don’t know if superstitious is the right word,” Justin said. “I try to not look ahead too far. That is something me and the girls have tried to do this year. We want to stay focused on the one in front of us and stay focused on that. I’m not one to talk about that, but they like to aggravate me and give me a hard time about how we are not going to have a hard time tonight or something like that. Of course that is not something a coach wants to hear. It’s good natured fun.”
The Lady Grizzlies stand one win away from a trip to Murfreesboro. If Grainger can get past the Lady Warriors Saturday night, Justin will have punched his ticket to next week’s state tournament. If that happens, you can bet that Derrick will be in the stands cheering for Justin.
-By Marlin Curnutt, Tribune Correspondent