When he was 12 years old, Herb Combs spent his summers on a lawn mower, shirt slick with sweat and sticking to his back in the Pennsylvania sun.
At first, the mower was a loaner from his father, also named Herb, who allowed Combs to borrow it to neatly clip the grass of the local cemetery for a fee.
“We lived in the middle of nowhere, Northwestern Pennsylvania,” he said. “My dad had a part-time job mowing that cemetery. I got to a certain age where my dad got tired of me using his mower and beating it up.
“So he said, ‘OK. I’ll front you whatever on the back end. But you, this year, are going to mow the cemetery and you’re going to buy your own mower. In order for you to make that money, you need to go out and get other jobs.’”
Combs built up a client base and paid his dad back for that mower — all before he was old enough to drive an actual car — and went to work, motivated by the emphasis his entire family placed on having a good work ethic.
About two decades later, Combs can still remember what it felt like to be out there every summer — the stinging cuts from getting nicked by the blades of the mower when he’d clean or work on it and the smell of the oil mingling with the moist green tang of the grass.
Humble, blue-collar beginnings for Penn State’s new associate athletic director for outdoor athletic facilities — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s something I don’t take lightly,” he said of his position, adding with a small smile that his parents and grandparents, all Penn State fans and some graduates of the university, are very proud of his career.
Now, Combs — also a Penn State grad — has a large crew and 11 Division I outdoor facilities to maintain. He certainly has the credentials to do so, as one of just 206 certified sports field managers worldwide. Last football season, Combs and his crew replaced the grass field at Beaver Stadium after it took a beating during an unprecedented five straight home games in less-than-ideal weather. He is hardworking, loves to stay out of the spotlight and extremely detail-oriented. He shows up at Penn State every morning at 5 a.m., a half-hour to an hour before the rest of his crew arrives, and leaves late in the afternoon.
But before all that, Combs was trying to figure out a way to exercise his passion for sports as it became clear he wasn’t going to be an athlete in college.
“I tried to participate in any sport that I could, but I was never gonna be a D-1 athlete,” he laughed. “I’m very sport-driven. But as I got older, after I had my lawn mowing business I kind of started to put everything together. I wanted to go to Penn State, and oh, look, there happens to be a curriculum for that.”
He started on a path directed for golf course management, because that’s where people in his field make money.
“Then I realized that you don’t get into this field to make money,” he said. “It’s a long road. You get into it for the passion. For me, I liked athletic complexes because I’m so drawn to sports.
“I mean, I didn’t get into it because I wanted to grow grass,” he laughed.
Combs took advanced placement courses in high school and when it became known what he’d be pursuing, two of his teachers told him he was crazy.
Bob Hudzik, who was formerly the director of outdoor facilities at Penn State, saw potential in Combs as a student, and the impression stuck with him. A few years later Hudzik needed to hire an assistant, and Combs, then working at the University of Minnesota, was literally first on his list of candidates.
“When he was a student, there was something I saw in him that I very seldom see,” said Hudzik. “I saw a person that was very eager to learn, was willing to work, and I saw someone that was really caring about the industry and wanted to do an excellent job. … I kept in touch with him, and to give you an idea as to what I thought of him, when I finally was given the opportunity to hire an assistant, he was the first person I called.”
And now, those two teachers often see Combs when he’s on the field at Beaver Stadium for football games. They’re thrilled when they do, he said.
Athletic Director Sandy Barbour named Combs into his new role in late May, which will be integral as the Facilities Master Plan comes to fruition in the next few years. He and his team will be involved in an intensified level of long-range planning as it does, and he will have to delegate even more of the things he loves — being hands-on in the field.
Hudzik thinks learning to let go — just a little — of his microscopic attention to detail will help Combs as he continues the next part of his career.
“He wants things to be just perfect. I still keep in touch with him and I say, ‘You know, there’s only so much you can do,’” he said. “I remind him … I at one time had some problems with the football field and there was chunks coming out of the field. It was a very stressful time. … I said to (Combs) that my son set me straight. It was 5 a.m. one morning and I was getting ready for a game and he got up to go to the bathroom and I told him I was a little stressed, because there were pieces coming up out of the field.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s football, isn’t it?’ ”
Combs’ family keeps him balanced, too.
His wife, Christina, is a former Division I athlete who shares his passion for athletics. They take Trey, Combs’ oldest son, from youth sport to youth sport — the 8-year-old is involved in football, baseball and hockey. They also have a 15-month-old son, Christian, who will “follow his brother’s lead” in sports when he’s old enough, Combs said.
It’s a lot to juggle, but Combs said his family motivates him.
And, he added, getting out to Trey’s sporting events brings him back to the days even before he first hopped on that lawn mower — it helps him disconnect from the everyday flurry of his job and “feel like a kid again.”
He can’t stop himself from noticing the details of the facilities where Trey plays, however. It’s natural to him now to appraise a field or playing surface and its surroundings — both good and bad.
“I’d never criticize anyone else’s work,” he said, a small grin creeping across his face. “But (Trey) is becoming more in-tune to it, in the sense of, you know, in order to play a sport somebody has to prepare that facility. That’s been interesting, going through baseball season and him wanting to rake and stuff.”