The phrase “having my players’ backs” is one not foreign to those in the athletic coaching community. It’s used to demonstrate a high degree of support a coach has for his or her athletes. At Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif., the young men and women in the school’s volleyball programs have turned the tables, so to speak, on their coach.
The Holy Names men’s and women’s volleyball teams put together a petition with more than 250 signatures in support of helping coach Dwight Combs secure a higher-paying salary at the school. Combs, born and raised in the Bay Area, coaches both the men’s and women’s volleyball teams at the NAIA school, which sits on a wooded, 60-acre site in the Oakland hills.
While compensation issues are nothing new in sports and, really, any line of work for that matter, Combs’ story is uncommon because his players willingly came to his aid without his prompting.
“We have good kids here,” Combs told Volleyball. “We focus a lot on character building. My situation is really unique with what these kids have done. To be honest, it’s about as uplifting as it gets as a coach.”
Jayme Hanan, a recently graduated senior who played on the 2012 men’s team, explained that a petition was submitted to school administrators.
“My coach taught us to fight for what we believe in, even when the odds are against us and that’s exactly what we are doing,” Hanan said.
Another men’s player, 2012 all-conference player Trevor Parker, adds that school officials said a petition was required for such action to be considered.
“We immediately petitioned and got more than 250 signatures within two days,” Parker said, adding that Combs, in addition to his duties with both volleyball programs, has been the driving force behind the school’s Hawk Nation spirit group.
“This alone brought countless more fans to all athletic events and involved non-athletic students when, before, those students were never involved on campus,” he said. “Our coach has made an impression on more than just his own players. I am friends with many athletes here at Holy Names and I know several that would vouch that our coach has impacted much of the campus, let alone both volleyball programs.”
Combs, a graduate of Cal State Sacramento and the former head men’s and women’s coach at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, Calif., is in his fifth season at Holy Names and the results he has produced have been impressive. He led the women’s program to undefeated California Pacific Conference championships in 2010 and 2011. His women’s teams were 44-7 in the Cal-Pac over the last four years. Combs was named Cal-Pac Conference coach of the year in 2010 and 2011. During his tenure with the women’s program, Combs has coached 15 all-conference players, including two conference players of the year.
His 2012 men’s team enjoyed the first winning season in the program’s eight-year history (a 15-8 record). Combs’ 2012 men’s team had the largest roster in program history and graduated the largest class in program history. Combs is the longest-tenured coach in the history of the men’s program.
“When I got here, the guys’ program was a mess,” Combs said about the program, which recently completed its first year in a men’s volleyball conference. “There were six players and maybe we played 10 matches. We had no conference and we made three trips where you play four times.”
Combs is not a full-time staff member at Holy Names and is one of only three coaches, according to the school’s website, that coaches two sports at the school. Combs used to coach club volleyball in the area to supplement his income but recently gave that up in order to focus more time on the Holy Names programs. While he does have graduate assistant coaches, Combs has no paid assistant coaches.
Combs tried to downplay the severity of his financial situation, only offering that he has had to calculate vehicle mileage in order to budget for gas purchases and has received assistance at times from friends. Combs did not reveal what the college pays him or what specifically he is seeking.
“We had known that my coach was struggling and was having a hard time living on his salary,” Hanan said. “You could see it on his face. He coaches both teams and the schedules are at different times in the day because of classes. He comes in the morning and then comes back later to coach the men’s team. The stress that he had was a lot to deal with, especially the fact that when he went home, he had to worry about the finances in his life.”
Ashley Nickell, a senior on the Holy Names women’s team last season and the Cal-Pac player of the year in both 2010 and 2011, said Combs goes above and beyond for the programs.
“He genuinely cares about his players,” she said. “He wants us to succeed and reach our greatest potentials on the court. Character is a big thing to my coach. Thanks to this program, I have learned leadership, responsibility, teamwork, and integrity.
“Most of us probably won’t play volleyball for the rest of our lives, but luckily we’ve learned more than just how to play volleyball from coach and this program. We have learned how to be good people, to accomplish goals we set for ourselves and to do the right thing, not the easy thing, which is our No. 1 team rule. He has taught us to not be average, but rather champions.”
Holy Names Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Miller told Volleyball the school was working toward finding a solution.
“We keep striving to enhance coaching salaries and Coach Dwight is part of that discussion,” Miller said. “I’m optimistic we will get there with volleyball at some point in the future. The players seem to respond really well to his coaching and leadership. Dwight gets the best out of both groups.”
Miller also is impressed with what the players did for Combs.
“The key thing is the students are learning leadership and other competencies,” he said. “Whenever students are doing something that shows leadership and personal responsibility, that’s a great thing.”
Combs admitted he was shocked when he heard what his players were doing for him.
“We focus on character stuff here more than volleyball,” he said. “The thing I’m most proud of is that the kids did this on their own. They did the right thing. I had a graduate assistant call me and say the guys and girls were doing this. I immediately panicked. I thought I would get fired. The unique thing here is the kids took action by themselves and organized everything.
“One of the graduate assistants wondered if I should tell them not to do it. I said no way. They are doing what they think is right. They were inspired to take action. The reality is I love the job and I love these kids. This is the biggest complement a coach could get.”
Holy Names University recently changed Combs’ status to full time, and added a summer camp coordinator position to his duties. Holy Names has since moved into the Pacific West conference and is going through its first year of probationary membership in the NCAA.
“We are experiencing some of the normal growing pains that small schools like ours experience when moving up to DII,” Combs said. As of press time the women’s team is 5-9 and 2-3 in conference play. The men’s program currently has the biggest roster in the history of the program.
Combs said the University made the effort to better his situation and improve the stability of the athletics department. “The volleyball family at HNU has shown the resiliency, character, and pride in their program to bounce back from each setback. We are excited to continue growing and improving our level of competition towards our ultimate goal of becoming a top-tier NCAA DII program in the future,” he said. “It is the tenacity and character of our athletes that make me confident to say that we will, with perseverance, reach our goals.”
Originally published in November 2012