By John Feinstein
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 12:31 AM
On Dec. 10, 1979, Catholic hosted Saint Joseph's at tiny, outdated Brookland Gymnasium. The Cardinals won the game, 68-67, in double overtime. One season later, a Hawks team with the same coach and the same group of players upset top-ranked DePaul in the second round of the NCAA tournament and reached the Mideast Region final, where it lost to Indiana on the Hoosiers' home court.
That's how good a basketball coach Jack Kvancz was: He coached Catholic - soon to move down from Division I to Division III - to a victory over a future Elite Eight team.
In March 1987, Kvancz had to make his first critical hire as George Mason's athletic director when Joe Harrington left to become the basketball coach at Colorado. His choice was Rick Barnes. A year later, Barnes - at Kvancz's urging because it was too good a job to turn down - left to become the coach at Providence. The first person Kvancz tried to hire to replace Barnes was a North Carolina assistant named Roy Williams, who turned him down because Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith told him his first job should be bigger than George Mason.
That's how good an athletic director Kvancz was.
He also was a pretty good basketball player, the starting point guard on a Bob Cousy-coached Boston College team that reached the East Region final in 1967 before losing to North Carolina. When his playing career comes up, Kvancz doesn't talk about how good a player he was. He talks about playing for Cousy: "Being from New England [Bridgeport, Conn.], having Cooz come to the house on a recruiting visit was like having God come to your front door," he has often said. "The only thing bigger would have been Red [Auerbach] showing up."
That is classic Kvancz: let's not make this about me. He is one of those people who quietly does things very well, gives the credit to others and then tells jokes about himself. When he talks about his BC career, he doesn't bring up the fact that he averaged 15 points per game for very good teams as a junior and a senior. Instead, he tells the story about trying to keep UCLA point guard Lucius Allen from throwing the ball to Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the post.
"I might as well have bought a ticket and watched the two of them play," he said. "At least that would have been more fun."
Of course, long after playing for Cousy, Kvancz got to be friends with Auerbach, too. That happened during his 17-year tenure as George Washington's athletic director, a run that will end this summer when Kvancz will retire just before turning 65.
"Having Red [GW Class of 1940] come in here and talk basketball with me all the time was about the greatest job perk you could have," he said. "Sometimes I'd just sit there thinking, 'That's Red Auerbach sitting there telling me how to do my job' - which he did. But it was Red Auerbach, for crying out loud."
On Thursday, Kvancz announced his retirement. He and his wife, Janis, had talked about the possibility for several years. Offered the chance to stay on at GW as an adviser, Kvancz decided this was the time.
"Joe Harrington called me this morning," he said on Friday. "He said, 'I just have one question: How did you manage to get them to pay you to be an adviser.'
"Honestly, the job has become a job the last few years. It used to be fun all the time; now it's only fun some of the time. The biggest change is me - I'm older. I sit there on a Saturday afternoon at a basketball game and find myself thinking, 'I could be at the park with my grandchildren.' When you're thinking like that, maybe it's time."
Kvancz still has some serious work to do before he heads to the park with his grandchildren. Karl Hobbs, the coach he hired 10 years ago to revive the Colonials' men's basketball program, did exactly that: He took GW to three straight NCAA tournaments and went 27-3 in 2005-06. But the last four seasons haven't gone nearly as well. The Colonials are 13-12 overall and tied for sixth in the Atlantic 10 at 6-5 going into Saturday night's game at La Salle. The consensus is Hobbs, who has one year left on his contract, is going to need something approaching a March Miracle to keep his job.
The question then becomes: Who makes the decision on Hobbs and, if Hobbs is fired, who hires the new coach?
"Let me put it this way," Kvancz said. "There are a lot of questions none of us has answers to right now. The best thing that can happen is that we win the Atlantic 10 tournament and go to the NCAA tournament and that answers the questions. Short of that, I'm not sure what will happen."
Kvancz can't - and won't - talk about it, but the most likely scenario appears to be this: If Hobbs doesn't make a March run, an informal three-man committee - Russ Ramsey, chairman of the GW Board of Trustees; Robert Chernak, GW's senior vice president for student and academic support services and senior vice provost; and Kvancz - will decide his fate. If a coaching change is made, and unless a new AD is found very quickly (unlikely, but possible), it will probably fall to Kvancz to hire the next coach because a coach has to be in place to begin spring recruiting in April.
That's not an ideal situation for a new coach - who might be asked to take a job without knowing who his boss is going to be - or a new AD who might arrive to find someone not of his choosing holding a brand-new five-year contract.
In the end, that won't be Kvancz's problem unless he is asked by the new AD or the new coach for the advice he will be paid to dispense beginning this summer. For now, he's content to look back on what was accomplished the last 17 years rather than worry about the issues that will be faced in the next few months.
"I'm proud we graduated more than 95 percent of our athletes," he said.
"And I'll never forget sitting in the Greensboro Coliseum watching a 27-win GW team play Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Karl did a great job to get us to that point."
Naturally, Kvancz will point the finger at his coach when talking about moments of success. He's never been one to point at himself, except when he makes a mistake.
In 1998, when Mike Jarvis left GW to become the coach at St. John's, a friend recommended that Kvancz hire Mike Brey, a GW graduate who was then at Delaware. Kvancz didn't think Brey was quite ready to make the move up after only three years as a head coach.
He hired Tom Penders, an old friend from Connecticut who'd had great success at Rhode Island and Texas. By the time a number of off-court issues forced Penders to resign three years later, Brey had taken the Notre Dame job.
"I guess if I call Mike now he might not be available," Kvancz joked. "I think I missed the window."
Maybe. But Kvancz hit a lot more than he missed through the years. Just don't expect to hear about the hits from him.
On the night all those years ago that his team stunned Saint Joseph's, he said afterward: "The kids played a perfect game. They had to overcome an imperfect coach."
Kvancz may not have been perfect. But he was very damn good.
For more by the author, visit www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.