Answer: An IU Bloomington senior who finished second in the Jeopardy! 2020 College Championship.
In a new spin on this year’s “March Madness,” Tyler Combs, a Greenfield, Ind., native, became the face of IU as he answered and wagered his way to the College Championship finals. To no surprise, IU Nation welcomed its new representative with open arms—tuning in religiously for every round.
Shortly after the tournament finals aired, Combs, who is pursuing a political science degree, sat down with his alumni mentor, Megan Caldwell, BS’12, via Zoom. The pair discussed his Jeopardy! journey, his favorite place to study on campus, and how he’s adjusting to virtual learning during his final semester at IU.
Description of the video:
[Onscreen text reads: Indiana University Alumni Association]
[Split screen of Megan Caldwell on the left and Tyler Combs on the right]
[Megan Caldwell speaks] Hi, my name’s Megan Caldwell. I am an IU alum and a volunteer with the San Francisco Bay Area chapter. And I’m really excited today to bring you a conversation with our own second place College Jeopardy Champion, Tyler Combs. Tyler and I had the opportunity to get introduced earlier this year, we’re both… he’s a student and I’m an alum of the Hamilton-Lugar School and we were paired as part of their mentorship program, that is ongoing, where they connect current students with alums in relevant fields. And so Tyler and I have had a chance to be chatting since the beginning of this school year, which has been really, really fun and I’ll let Tyler kind of introduce himself and we’ll dive into some questions.
[Onscreen text reads: Megan Caldwell, BS’12. Volunteer Leader, San Francisco chapter]
[Tyler Combs speaks] Thanks Megan, I really appreciate it. My name’s Tyler Combs. I’m a senior at IU. I’m a major in political science with a minor in Russian and East European Studies. And like Megan said, I placed second in the Jeopardy College Championship this year, where it’s just wrapped up airing this past Friday.
[Onscreen text reads: Tyler Combs, senior, IU Bloomington]
[Caldwell] Yeah, and exciting. We’re gonna dig into so many questions about that. But before we get started, so this is obviously your final semester at IU and it isn’t exactly turning out as you thought. We’re both in our homes…
[Combs] Not exactly.
[Caldwell] Instead of interviewing you in your Bloomington apartment, Um, how are you kinda hanging in there? How our classes going in this sort of total digital world?
[Combs] So it’s been an interesting transition, one that personally I’m not exactly a big fan of because I like structure and actually going to class. And so the transition to Zooming into class while sitting in front of my desk right by my bed is really weird. It’s… I would much rather be on campus with my friends actually going to class, and stay on top of things, and being able to enjoy my last semester in Bloomington instead of being stuck at my parents’ home in Greenfield, Indiana. But it kind of is what it is. I’m going with the flow. I can’t change anything, so I’m not worrying about it too much.
[Caldwell] No, I appreciate that. And I think everyone can, uh, everyone can feel empathy for just being in a space they’re not used to being in while doing work. For those of us who have the privilege to work from home it’s definitely an adjustment whether you’re a student or an alum. So everyone has been saying that because we don’t have March Madness, we could use you as our IU cheering during , for Jeopardy. So again, you placed second in the tournament, which is really exciting. Tell us a little bit, how did you even get on College Jeopardy? What’s the process? How did this all start?
[Combs] So the process for getting on College Jeopardy is the same as the process for getting on standard Jeopardy. I think it actually is offered at any time now digitally, but in the past it was at specific times a year, there was an online test issued for gameplay in the pool to appear or to get into the pipeline for going on Jeopardy. And for this year’s tournament, the online test was an October. I’d been a lifelong Jeopardy fan, been watching since I was in elementary or middle school and had actually tried out for the Teen Tournament in High School and then for the College Tournament in freshman year, and hadn’t gone anywhere. Then my mom sent me the link for this year’s College Tournament in October. And I was like, eh, it’s my last year, may as well. Well, third time’s a charm. We’ll see how it goes. So I took the online test. A few weeks later, I got an email saying that I’ve been invited to an in-person audition in St. Louis for November. So I went to that, took another test, this one on paper, but same format, 50 questions but like, you know, no fill in the blank or multiple choice, you just have to know it. And then we did the mock live rounds of Jeopardy with actual buzzers. so, that was nice. And then had personality interviews to see if we were TV ready. Because it’s a TV show, they have to make sure that they’ve got people who know things, but also people who can make good television. So… did that. And I guess I made the cut because in mid-January, I got a call saying that I made it onto the Jeopardy College Championship.
[Caldwell] And where were you, where were you when they called you and were like “You’re on Jeopardy!”?
[Combs] I was actually in class and so missed the call. I was walking out to the bus, checked in my phone, saw a missed call from California. I was like, huh like I only know two people in or from California, you, Megan, and one of my friends and it’s neither, it’s not either of them. And then I check my voicemail. It was the contestant coordinator who had been at my St. Louis audition calling to say, calling to say, Hey, call me back. So I’m like, oh, oh, call back and got and got the message. I was on Jeopardy.
[Caldwell] That’s so incredible. And who was the first person you told?
[Combs] Oh, I had to call my parents first because they would kill me had I not. Right after I got off the phone, I called my mom and she’s like, ah, how are you doing? I mean, I’m good, by the way, I got on Jeopardy. Dead silent for a second. And then she’s like, are you kidding me Tyler? Don’t joke about this. Please don’t joke about this I can’t handle this if you’re joking, please don’t. Wait, Mom, I’m serious. And then she made my ears bleed by screaming.
[Caldwell] Well, it sounds like you owe her since she was the one who kind of nudged you to do it again?
[Combs] Yeah. And my parents were the first ones who are the ones who got me into Jeopardy. I can’t remember how, but I think like I was a real precocious kid. Read a lot, loved facts. So I think they knew that this show was on and I would like it. So yeah, definitely owed it to her and my dad to let them know first since it wouldn’t have happened without them.
[Caldwell] And how did you, did you, like study at all in between when they told you, okay, you’re gonna be on the show. And then when they flew you out to California?
[Combs] Honestly, not a ton because it was so just, shock. I found out mid-January, the taping was literally the first Monday and Tuesday of February. So, I got like a two week turn around and I was busy with classes. So my main form of study and preparation was I watched a few episodes of Jeopardy on YouTube to practice buzzing in with a Jeopardy pen they’d given us that was similar size and shape to the buzzers, so I’d like, click down on that trying to buzz into practice on that. And then the… I tried to memorize, like, some basic things like state capitals. And, for me personally, I went through and memorized the general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in order.
[Combs] Okay, this is my wheel house. If I don’t get that, I’m going to be embarrassed, myself. So I want to make sure I know that one. But other than that I just kind of tried to maintain remain fresh on like my core subjects and keep up with current events in case anything like that came up, which is ironic considering how I ended up having a current events Final Jeopardy in my first round and did not get it.
[Caldwell] Yeah. Well, you can only keep up on so much I feel like. There’s a lot of news in the world. When you were going through this process, um, you and I have talked about this and they gave you some advice. But, what do you think was the best piece of advice, either someone from Jeopardy gave you, or someone else about participating and competing in the show?
[Combs] I think the best advice was something the contestant coordinators gave us, which is very simple when you hear about anything like this. Breathe, try to stay calm. Because that was honestly the most important thing I found. Like, my worst match by far was the first day of the Finals. And that was the one match where I’d say I kind of lost my cool. And so, like, staying calm and collected was huge.
[Caldwell] And how long are each of, like, when we see you on TV, obviously, for a cut amount of time, but how long were you in the stage for each of the rounds? Like, are you there for an hour, a true 30 minutes? What does it, what is that actually like?
[Combs] Only about half an hour because we go on there right before they start filming for like the, the cut in of introducing the contestants and then, 22 minute episode, and then we’re on there during the space that they cut to commercial. So, about half an hour, but felt, it simultaneously felt way shorter and way longer. Because it flies when you’re in the moment but at the same times it’s like, oh, oh, I’m here.
[Caldwell] Because you film it all on the same day, is that right?
[Combs] Yep. Two days. Jeopardy only films two days a week. So we filmed the whole Tournament on a Monday, Tuesday.
[Caldwell] When you think back on all of the questions that you were asked in all the rounds, what did you think was the hardest question for you?
[Combs] Ooh. I think of the ones I remember, because I don’t remember many I think the Final Jeopardy on my… the first day of Finals was probably the hardest for me. That was the one where it was like, about, this play by Shakespeare is based on, like, a 1549 coup against the Duke of Genoa or something like that and the answer was The Tempest and it’s one of those deals where, like, either, you know the Tempest. Either you know the Tempest or you don’t. I’m not familiar with the Tempest. So there were a lot of other ones I had where it’s, in retrospect, it’s like, oh, I could have made a guess based on other knowledge. Whereas that one’s, like, my only guess is one of dozens of Shakespeare plays, though I think that one was definitely the most difficult.
[Caldwell] And what is the one you’re most, like, proud of knowing the answer for?
[Combs] I’m really, there’s one about NATO that I was really proud of getting just because I’m a political science major, really active in the international Studies community. So it’s like, if I don’t get that, what am I doing?
[Caldwell] Yea, I think some of your Hamilton-Lugar colleagues would’ve been… would’ve ribbed you about that a little bit. Yeah.
[Combs] Yeah. Um, oh, my my daily double my first match, I was also really proud of. The answer was magical realism. I was just really satisfied with that one because it was a literary question. I love literature, it’s kind of obscure. So it’s like, hey, I knew with that, but that was another one that I also I only knew from class I took at IU. I knew that one from my Russian literature courses.
[Caldwell] I was about to say, if you’re in Russian literature, you have to know what magical realism is that’s a requirement. That’s awesome.
[Caldwell] So what was your favorite… When you look back on the whole experience, end to end, what was your favorite part about participating and something we might not have seen by following you on TV?
[Combs] Oh, 100 percent the people, like the other competitors in the College Tournament were amazing. They’re all super nice, super intelligent people. We became friends very quickly. Because what else are you going to do if you’re in this high pressure once in a lifetime environment, together constantly, sometimes for eight hours at a time in a green room. And we just all really hit it off and, like, really became a tight group quickly. And so that’s where you’ll see that the fact a lot Jeopardy contestants like, it’s a shared experience. So they become friends, particularly in the College Tournament. And since you’re all the same age group, same social demographic in terms of, like, your interests. And so that was really, that was really nice. and then staff, too, was amazing. The testing coordinators really did a great job of making us feel prepared to go on, but of also putting us at ease. Like every commercial break they’d be coming on the stage, to hype us up, get us some water, make sure we were okay. You give us high fives, fist bumps, just to chill us out. So that was really nice. You don’t, you see the show, you see Alex Trebek who is great in person, um, very funny and really does a good job of saying and putting the audience and contestants at ease. But you don’t see the support network behind in the show and you don’t see the relationships between the contestants. And they’re all wonderful people.
[Caldwell] That’s such a great experience. Is there like, a College Jeopardy, like alumni group, not just from this year but for other years that you’ve met?
[Combs] Umm, we have… Not that I’ve met. But I know the College, the College Championship class of 2010 was shouting us out big time. Wishing us luck since we were the 2020 group. And, um, there’s we were talking to the contestant coordinators and there’s a strong bond between contestants, many groups who have been on the College Championship are still friends years, even decades, later.
[Caldwell] That’s really, that’s really amazing. It seems like you kind of, it’s, it’s such a good sort of stressful but fun experience. Good way to bond with people pretty quickly.
[Caldwell] Well, that’s so great. Congratulations again on, like, even making it in, making it to the Finals, representing Indiana. I know, at least the people I know were texting me like, oh are you watching this? And I was like, I actually know this guy. I was joking with you earlier that you were giving me street cred and making me more relevant. Of which I’m obviously very grateful.
[Combs] You’re welcome.
[Caldwell] So, I know you. So you’ve been attending IU, you’re a Senior. This is your last year. And how did you decide to go to IU? What kind of sealed the deal to become an Indiana Hoosier and do that?
[Combs] Well, it’s not exactly a story I’m too proud of, so I am a, I’m a first generation college student. Neither of my parents went to college. Very few people in my immediate family, period, have gone to college or a four-year university. So in going through high school, while I certainly had assistance from counselors, on the whole I was kind of uncertain like, I didn’t really know how the process worked relative to many other kids who go to college And I remember actually getting to my junior year before I realized I had to take the SAT and ACT to even go to college. Like that’s the level I was operating at. So it like all kinda hit home. Like, oh, future, I need to have a future. College is important for future. Oh, so I kind of freaked, I was like, okay, I need to go to a school that is affordable but also very strong academically. So I was basically between IU and Purdue for those reasons. And, but then I knew I wanted to study political science. So I was definitely leaning toward IU because of our really strong political science department. And I took one visit to the campus, first time I’d ever been IU, first I’d ever been to Bloomington and fell in love immediately I was like, this is the place I want to spend my next four years.
[Caldwell] That’s, that’s awesome. I have a very- I went to campus and – as soon as – I’m from California and as soon as I visited, I like bought the sweatshirt that day. I was like, this is it, I’m done. I’m not going anywhere else.
[Combs] That’s the case for most people they’re uncertain until they go to campus and that’s the moment it sold.
[Caldwell] Yeah. It’s a pretty beautiful place. You can’t, you can’t blame people. What was your experience when you transitioned being a first-generation college student? What were some of the things that helped you kind of make that transition to IU since you may be coming from a different experience than some other classmates or roommates?
[Combs] So something that really helped me was I lived in an LLC I lived in the um, the Hutton Honors College LLC in Teter Quad. So shout to anyone who lives or has ever lived in Teter Quadrangle. And so that really helped because as I was in an environment that had a bit of extra support for doing stuff like programming and bringing students together relative to a lot of other places on campus. And then I knew that being in that community, I would have access to people with my, with similar interests to myself. I made some of my best friends on that floor and in fact like two of my three roommates who I live with now as a senior were people who I met on my floor freshman year, now count among my best friends. So that was definitely one of the best things for me.
[Caldwell] That’s awesome. And when you – what was your have you discovered over the years, what is your favorite spot to kind of study on campus that you enjoy?
[Combs] Definitely the Global and International Studies Building It’s a beautiful place, really, really well lit with all those windows. And not only is it like, nice physically but also it’s always got this energy that makes me feel very determined and focused, like seeing all these other people who are passionate about international affairs. And the world at large is really inspiring. As someone who is passionate about foreign languages, it’s amazing if you walk into the hallway and hear three to four different languages, I don’t even know is people who, who study the same languages just casually run into each other in the hallway like I regularly run into people who have conversations in Russian there. So just the energy about it really keeps me focused and really getting down to business because it’s like, wow, I’m passionate about this.
[Caldwell] Yeah, it’s really beautiful. And for any alums who haven’t had the chance to be back to campus in a few years – in a few years – it’s a beautiful new building. Kind of sits really close to the Wells Library. I have had the privilege to go back and visit. And it is really a stunning place. And it is so cool to have all the languages in one building. That is a really unique experience, I think. I mean, I’m always, whenever I go back to campus, I always hear students telling me they’re learning like two or three different languages. in that building, which is just, I’m super impressed.
[Combs] One of my best friends has become, I guess it would be quadri-lingual in her four years at IU, I’m like, wow, I’m still struggling with Russian after four, like, respect the hustle.
[Caldwell] Yeah. That’s I don’t know. That’s outside the range of my skillset.
[Caldwell] So tell us, what has been your favorite class or your favorite professor that you’ve really enjoyed, Either at Hamilton-Lugar School or somewhere else in the university
[Combs] So Favorite class. That’s a tough one. I’ve had some many amazing classes at IU. Some of my favorite professors are definitely Dina Spechler in the Political Science department and the grande dame of Russian foreign policy, she’s been a phenomenal mentor to me. I’ve been teaching assistant for her several times. I kind of owe everything about my current career trajectories and interests to her, like I’m very passionate about Eurasian politics and foreign affairs and would love to make a career out of studying and analyzing the culture around geopolitics of that region. So definitely owe a lot to her. I’ve taken some wonderful Russian literature courses with Jacob Emery and the Slavic Department. The best thing I’ve ever done for my Russian language learning was taking Summer Language Workshop for third-year Russian, and was taught by Svitlana Melnyk also in the Slavic Department, who is an amazing language educator. So yeah, I’ve just had so many wonderful professors in classes at IU that really shaped me as a person.
[Caldwell] That’s great and so good to hear, especially because it’s been across so many different departments which is really amazing.
[Combs] Love the interdisciplinary.
[Caldwell] Hey, that’s a good thing. It’s designed to be that way. When you think about the thing you’re going to miss after you graduate, what do you think you’re going to miss most about being an IU student?
[Combs] That’s a tough one. There’s so many things I’m going to miss, like I’m gonna miss Bloomington, it’s a wonderful small town. I’m so sad I don’t get to spend my last – my senior spring completely there. I’m gonna miss my friends obviously, as we all kinda go different places easier than ever to stay in contact. But that’s not the same as – as hitting the Bloomington bars on a Friday night. I’m going to miss being a student, honestly, like just in terms of literally going to class. Like I’ve loved my academic experience at IU, I love my professors, and I’m probably going to be in grad school sooner rather than later just because I’m going to miss being, like, just devoting all my time to learning so much.
[Caldwell] Yeah. And once, um, I know IU is working really hard to find a time for you all to celebrate graduation again, when this all kind of calmed down. When you do that, what are what’s the – where are you going to go to eat in Bloomington, and where’s like the one place on campus you’re going to take a graduation picture?
[Combs] Graduation picture has to be in front of the Sample Gates, it’s mandatory. Like if you…
[Caldwell] Good answer.
[Combs] If you don’t get a grad picture in front of the Sample Gates, did you even graduate from IU? And, place I’m going to eat… That one’s so tough. One of my sleeper favorites is actually Social Cantina, like, I think it’s pretty new, some of the best tacos I’ve ever had and it’s kind of, like, it’s right on the Square, but it like, it hasn’t yet become kind of like the Bloomington, the B-Town staples in the way Mother Bears or Nick’s has been. But I definitely think you could get there because it’s really good.
[Caldwell] Ok, and as one sort of like last question for you, I know that you and I have talked a lot about this. Being a senior in 2020 is a very different experience than it has been for every class that has graduated up until this point. What’s kind of your message to your fellow members of the class of 2020 about just what would you want to tell them about just, feeling, calmer in this moment or whatever message you have to bring to your fellow seniors.
[Combs] I think the big one is that, This is a really dramatic time and like challenging time for sure that’s really upending our lives. But we’ve kind of been preparing for this our whole lives. Like we’ve grown up in a time of disruption. Like we were little kids when 9/11 happened and we, we – weren’t even in our teens yet when the Great Recession happened, it’s been a tumultuous time our whole lives and this kind of just lays it bare. And I think we can rise to the challenge because we’ve grown up in a time of challenge where I think we have been toughened for it and can endure it and make the most of it in a way that the other generations might not be able to. Like, this is our world. Love it or hate it. And so I think we have been given a kind of preparation to take it on and make the best of it for ourselves and everyone else in a way that perhaps no one else has.
[Caldwell] Yeah, I, I have full confidence that you will be able to do this in our many talks together. I know that you’re well-prepared and as a millennial myself, I’m always in awe of Gen Z resilience. So I appreciate that. And Tyler, really again, congratulations! We’re super excited that we’ve been able to cheer you on.
[Combs] Thank you so much.
[Caldwell] And as Tyler’s mentor I’m just going to put in a little piece here if you are interested or you work in Eurasian Studies or policy or just diplomacy, you can always email Tyler. He would love to learn a little bit from you. I won’t, I will use this moment to do that. But really, Tyler, thanks for your time. It’s, it’s, just really fun to get to learn a little bit about your life in Bloomington and Jeopardy. And we really appreciate you sharing the time with us.
[Combs] I really appreciate it Megan. Thank you.
[Caldwell] Thanks. Bye all. Have a lovely day.
[Onscreen text reads: Indiana University Alumni Association]