The coach had a glass of champagne in one hand, a cigar in the other. All round him, players were drinking champagne and trading hand shakes and hugs. He was surrounded by reporters jockeying for position, not so much to hear him as to shake his hand.
"I'm very proud of these kids," the coach was saying, sounding like any coach who has just won a big game. "There were so many times this season when they could have quit, thrown in the towel. I know there were lots of times this season when I wanted to quit. But they kept trying, kept working, kept pushing."
The scene, the speech, the champagne -- all are standard features of sports victors. But this coach, Jack Kvancz of Catholic University, was making his speech and sipping his champagne after finishing a season with a 4-20 record. His locker room was filled with reporters minutes after the last of those 20 losses, a 98-66 steamrollering by George Mason University. Kvancz raised his glass to take a final sip. "It's over," he said, his tone buoyant. Then again, softly, almost in disbelief. "It's over." He tossed the plastic glass against a locker.
Kvancz felt relieved, glad, sad. Most of all, he felt stunned.He vividly remembered arriving at Catholic in 1975, age 29, assigned to take CU basketball into the big time. His head in those days had been filled with ideas that could make the team competitive with Georgetown, George Washington, American and, maybe, at least for one night, Maryland. To Kvancz it was no dream. He believed. Five years later, on Feb. 24, 1980, sitting on a bus in New Jersey, Kvancz learned that the dream had been declared terminal. The promised new gymnasium had never happened; now Catholic's board of trustees had voted to drop to Division 3 -- the low minor leagues of intercollegiate athletics -- after the 1980-81 season. Kvancz was left to sit by a death bed, to hold the dream's hand until it finally, mercifully, expired that February night at George Mason.
As he walked out of the locker room for the last time, Kvancz stopped at the door, turned and looked back. In a barely audible whisper he said, "This sure isn't the way it was supposed to end."
Viewed coldly, what happened to Catholic University basketball is demonstration that the credo of collegiate sport in the 1980s has changed. Winning, losing and how you play the game are irrelevant. Whether you make money is the only result that matters.
What Catholic sought is what St. Joseph's College of Philadelphia achieved this season. St. Joe's, a school no bigger than Catholic, stunned the No. 1 team in the country, De Paul, on national television in the NCAA basketball tournament. It went on to qualify as one of the eight teams competing for the national championship. St. Joe's struggled for years to reach this pinnacle, but the struggle paid off in big money (the school earned $234,000 from the Ncaa Tournament, more than Catholic's entire athletic budget) and tremendous name recognition, the kind that boosts admissions applications and alumni contributions.
The potential gains for a school that succeeds in top-level basketball are huge. The four schools that reached the national semifinals this season each received $380,000. That figure will go up next year. Just making the 48-team tournament is worth $125,000. Making the 32 team National Invitational Tournament field is worth $50,000, with semifinalists taking home about $150,000 each. In 1980 one of every three schools playing Division 1 basketball made at least the NIT's $50,000 first-round fee.
That's postseason money. There are also handsome benefits during the regular season. Appearances on regional television are worth about $20,000 to a school. Radio rights can make more. Georgetown, which has gone from basement to penthouse in the last eight seasons, supports the rest of its sports programs with the money it makes from basketball.
The Catholic University of America boasts an imposing and deceiving name. The school, which sits on a compact, picturesque campus in Northeast Washington, is indeed America's Catholic University, supported by the nation's Catholic bishops, but that support is more spiritual than financial. Fiscally, CU is a small private institution, struggling in these inflationary days to survive.
It was seven years ago that CU's then-president, Dr. Clarence Walton, and the board of trustees took note of the rise of college basketball and decided to launch their team into the big time. Surely, they reasoned, with a competitive team they could raise the money to build a new gymnasium that would benefit both the basketball program and the entire student body. The old gym, Brookland, was built in 1919; its tiny, antiquated facilities seat only 1,500 and offer few recreational amenities. Money is perennially tight at CU. It has 7,700 students, but only 2,700 of them are undergraduate; at Catholic, as at most universities, alumni of the undergraduate school are the main source of alumni gifts. CU has an endowment of $11 million, peanuts in today's higher education world. (Georgetown, with only 20 percent more students, enjoys a $62 million endowment.)
"There were a number of reasons to make the move to Division 1 and raise the money for a new athletic center," said Bob Comstock, who until last spring was chairman of Catholic's national alumni organization. "We had been paying for scholarships as a Division 2 team since 1958 anyway. Our travel budget was not going to increase that much by playing a Division 1 schedule, and the potential benefits were unlimited. Look at St. Joseph's. There's a team we beat two years in a row under Jack. The line in a thin one. With the proper kind of help, Jack could have crossed that line."
When Jack Kvancz first heard of the opening at Catholic University, he was in his fourth year as an assistant coach at Brown. Born in Bridgeport, Conn. -- "the best player ever from Bridgeport," he concedes -- he had played for Bob Cousy at Boston College, worked as a junior high school teacher, then gone to Brown in 1971. While there he helped recruit the players that transformed Brown from the Ivy League's perennial doormat to a contender.
"A friend of mine in Washington called and told me Catholic was going Division 1 in a year and they were going to change coaches," Kvancz remembered in an interview not long ago. "I didn't think much about it until he sent me this huge Washington Post story in which Catholic people talked about their plans -- why they were going to make the switch and the new gym. Then I got very interested."
Kvancz was hired in July 1975. He did not come to Washington looking to build a national champion. But he was convinced that with a new gymnasium in the making he could recruit enough players to be competitive. He hired Ed McNamara, a former Georgetown player and assistant coach, as his assistant and the two of them went to work.
"The first three years, even four, Eddie and I were good recruiters because we believed completely in what we were selling," Kvancz said. "We told kids and their parents just what the administration had told us: that a new gym was a priority for Catholic, that we were trying to build something and that basketball would be important, but not all-important, if they came to CU. We told them they had a chance to be part of something special, to help build something. We really believed."
So did the players. Because of Catholic's strict academic standards, which are not bent for athletes, the number of players the school can recruit is extremely limited. But Kvancz did well. No one was knocking down doors, but each year a couple of solid players came into the program.
In Kvancz's third season, the Cardinals finished 13-13, a remarkable record for a team in its second year in Division 1. The record was especially impressive in light of the 16 road games the team played. But the gym problem nagged.
"By now, I've been in the job three years and still there's no ground-breaking on the gym," Kvancz said. "The administration said it was still committed, that it was still committed, that it was still a priority. That's what I was telling kids. Always, I told them what I was being told because I believed what they were saying.
"But the kids we had recruited were asking questions. They wanted more information. So did I. And as long as we were playing in Brookland, no one would play me at home. Only my friends, they would play me. It's tough to schedule W's [wins] when you're always playing on the road."
According to Comstock, the man charged with digging up contributions for the new gym, lack of organization was always a problem on the project.
"We never really had a game plan," he said. "The development office was in charge and there was a lot of turnover there. By the time we got things settled down there, the administration changed. Then things got worse. We went backwards."
In the summer of 1978, Walton left Catholic to return to teaching. The new president was Edmund I. Pellegrino, a man whose determination and drive are evident the moment he shakes your hand and practically crushes it.
Pellegrino had one mandate when he became president: balance the budget. The school was struggling financially. It had been forced to sell land the previous year. The board wanted no more of that.
"It wasn't the type of situation where they said, 'Come close,"' Pellegrino said. "I was told to do it and do it right away. We cut back in a number of departments -- astronomy, speech and hearing, aeronautical engineering. And we put on a hiring freeze."
Pellegrino also met with Kvancz, who by now was also athletic director. The two men discussed the future of athletics -- and basketball -- at Catholic.
"Clearly, things were different with the new administration," Kvancz said. "Suddenly, the new gym was no longer a priority. Pellegrino was straight about it. But it was discouraging."
Comstock: "It was obvious from the start that the new administration had a completely different set of priorities from the old one. I think a lot of their decisions were based on inaccurate information. I don't think they fully understood the fact that being in Division 1 wasn't costing that much more than Division 2. But in the meantime, the gym project was stalled."
In fact, the gym project had stopped dead. In 1976, the CU board had authorized the hiring of an architect and the drawing of plans for the athletic center. That had been done.Outside the president's office hung an impressive rendering of the handsome new facility. It still hangs there today.The trustees did not want to stage a groundbreaking or make a major announcement until they could get a substantial gift.
These days most colleges either have full-time athletic fund-raiser or depend heavily on the president and athletic director to be fund-raisers. Pressed by the university's general fiscal malaise, Pellegrino did not have time until the last few months to search for a gymnasium angel. Kvancz, on the other hand, had the time but says he was not allowed to solicit contributions. The school did not feel he should be involved.
Soon after Pellegrino's arrival Kvancz and McNamara stopped telling recruits they would be playing in a new gym before they graduated. They stopped because they had stopped believing.
"I looked at the kids in the program that I had recruited," Kvancz said. "I saw them becoming juniors and seniors and still no shovel in the ground. I felt lousy. And I didn't want it happening to anyone else. When kids asked me, I told them there were plans but I didn't know when or if."
Surprisingly, recruiting was not hurt noticeably. Most of that was because of Kvancz. He is witty, charming and bright. Also disarmingly honest. Kids wanted to play for him.
"I think anyone on this team will tell you Coach is the reason they came here," said Joe Colletta, the only important recruit still playing when the finale took place. "All of us give him everything because we know he'd do anything for us. He's your coach and your friend. Sure, I would have liked to have played in a new gym, I would have liked more wins. But I'm glad I played for him."
In the fall of 1979, Kvancz and Pellegrino had a lengthy meeting. Pellegrino, one year into his presidency, had decided the school could save $250,000 a year by dropping to Division 3. Kvancz tried to talk him out of the move. He pointed out that the school desperately needed a new gym regardless of what happened to basketball. And, he pointed out the potential benefits of a successful program.
The ECAC, the conference Catholic was competing in, was folding at the end of the 1980-81 season. Kvancz had already talked to several northeastern schools who were planning to form a new conference, the Knickerbocker Six. Kvancz believed he could compete in such a league, could infact win it on occasion and by doing so earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
"How much will it cost us," Pelligrino asked.
Kvancz made a guesstimate: $50,000.
Pellegrino remembers that his first instinct was to tell Kvancz "no way" -- he already thought athletics was costing the school too much. But, at the urging of Kvancz, he instead met with Comstock and several influential alumni to ask if the money could be raised. It can be done, Pellegrino was told. "We gave him our word," Comstock says now.
That meeting was in January 1980. During the next four weeks, Pellegrino continued to examine figures and continued to listen to advisers who argued that a small private school could not afford the kind of commitment to athletics that was being asked.
"And we knew the $50,000 was only a one-year figure," Pellegrino said. "It was bound to go up each year after that."
Somehow during that period of new figure, $80,000, appeared. Pellegrino insists it came from Kvancz. Kvancz says the first he heard of $80,000 was from Pellegrino. "Where it came from," he says, "I haven't got any idea."
Comstock theorizes: "They [the administration] came back to us and said they needed $80,000," he said. "We told them if they needed that much, the alumni would come up with it, even though we didn't know where the figure came from.But we wanted something in return. We wanted them to commit to getting the gym project off the ground and have it really planned out within two years. And we wanted a five-year commitment to keep the program in Division 1. They wouldn't do it. They kept coming up with reasons why the $80,000 wouldn't be enough, kept coming up with new problems."
Angry, Comstock resigned. "The money was there," he says. "They just didn't want it."
Pellegrino says pledges, not cash, were offered. "Pledges weren't good enough," he said. "We had to have the money. We didn't, and the budget was closing."
On the last weekend in February, Kvancz took him team to New Jersey to play St. Peter's. That Friday, Pellegrino met with the financial committee of the board of trustees. A recommendation was made: go to Division 3 for the 1981-82 school year. The recommendation was, in essence, an order.Catholic's 30-member board, which is half bishops and half lay-persons, approved the recommendation without debate.
"What choice did we have with the cold facts that were presented to us?" said Benjamin T. Rome, a longtime board member. "We were told the money was not there. We couldn't ask Dr. Pellegrino to pull it out of thin air. It's really a damn shame, but we were basically told there was no alternative. iThe decision was Dr. Pellegrino's and we went along with it. There was no debate. We just approved what he asked."
Kvancz and Comstock believe if they had presented their side to the board, there might have been some debate. But they never had that chance.
"Jack was kept abreast of every move we made," Pellegrino said.
Not so, says Kvancz.
"I was sitting on a bus in Jersey the day after we played St. Peter's when my sports information director, Rick Vaughn, came up and told me the decision had been made," Kvancz said."I was shocked. I mean, I knew the possibility existed, but I was under the impression that if the money was there -- which I had been told it was -- we were okay. By the time I got home and talked to Pellegrino, it was over, it didn't matter."
Pellegrino and Kvancz differ on Pelegrino's motives in making the move. "I think what happened was simple," Kvancz said. "Dr. Pellegrino believes in the Division 3 philosophy of sports and he wanted Catholic in Division 3. The decision didn't have that much to do with money as with his philosophy. It could have been done. He decided he didn't want to do it."
I did want to do it," Pellegrino said. "I believe in the philosophy of Division 1. Philisophically, I want Catholic in Division 1; practically, though, it must be in Division 3. The move was practical, not philosophical."
Kvancz doesn't believe that now. He did not believe it then. The rest of the 1980 season was a rout. The Cardinals lost their last seven games, finishing 8-19. Kvancz talked to each of his players about their future. His two leading scorers, both sophomores, wanted to play in Division 1. Kvancz called his friends. Bill Dooley is now at Richmond.Mike Neville is at George Washington.
Kvancz also called two high school players who had been planning to come to Catholic and told them to go elsewhere. Finally, he talked to his three juniors, Colletta, Danny Murray and Bill Dankos.
"It was pretty depressing," Dankos says. "We had been thinking that our senior year would really be something because we would have five of our first six guys back, plus we were having a good recruiting year. Then, Dooley and Neville were gone, no recruits, nothing. Just the end."
Kvancz's first instinct was to leave Catholic, find an assistant coach job somewhere. But he didn't want to leave his remaining players totally in the lurch and his family -- wife and three children -- was happy in its Fairfax home. He didn't want to move simply because he was frustrated.
He decided to endure the final year.
"Maybe that was a mistake. I learned a lot from the experience, but it was painful."
The team played well at the season's start, winning three of their first seven games, including an upset of Harvard, a team that finished third in the Ivy League. Then came January, and things began to fall apart. Seven losses in a row, and then Murray, the starting center, broke his ankle in a game with Navy that the Cardinals lost by 46 points. Kvancz found himself sitting in a snowed-in hotel room in Hamilton, N.Y., supposedly getting ready to play Colgate. In fact, he was staring at the walls, wondering what the hell he was doing.
"I thought, 'If I'm ready to quit, how do the kids feel?' Losing is painful; getting killed is worse. We were getting killed. We were 3-12 and playing awful. We weren't playing hard. I called a team meeting and told the kids how I felt. I told them it was my fault and I knew it was easy to give up and no one was going to blame them if they did because no one gave a damn anyway. The only ones who cared was us.I told them if they didn't care, then we might as well go home. I didn't want to go out there and watch us get killed. I told them if any of them wanted to go home, I wouldn't hold it against them. I would drive them to the airport myself -- as soon as the snow cleared."
That night the small, slow Cardinals went out and beat Colgate -- in triple overtime. They won by holding the ball for 15 minutes without taking a shot in the second half while the fans booed at them.They ignored the obscenities, held together, did everythjing their coach told them to, and won, 38-37. Then they stayed up all night and well into Sunday partying because there was no place to go in the snow. It was the kind of night coaches try to build a future around, but at Catholic University basketball had no future.
A week after the win, Dankos went down with a knee injury. Three days later he was followed by the other starting forward, Jay Haigler. Broken foot. By the last three weeks of the season, Kvancz was down to two scholarship players, Colletta and Johnny Rogers, who had been the ninth man the year before. Colletta, 6-2 point guard, was playing power forward. The results were predictable. The end could not come soon enough.
When it finally came that night at George Mason, Kvancz and his kids were still trying. They stayed even during the second half after Kvancz, pleaded with them at halftime.
"Every night," he said, "we've come prepared and given 100 percent. This is our last time together. This is the end for us. We're all going to remember this night the rest of our lives. Don't make the memory a bad one."
And so, for those last 20 minutes, Kvancz's players acted as if the national title were at stake. They hustled, they fought for rebounds, the hit the floor again and again while the George Mason players, bewildered, looked at them as if they were crazy. But as it had been for six years, trying was not enough. The game was lost.The dream was dead.
Ironically, last fall the gymnasium gift the school had been waiting for came through, a $1 million pledge from local insurance man Raymond Duford. This time Kvancz was in New York when the school made a major announcement.
"I think once they had made a clear decision on the direction they were going in they got serious about fund-raising," Kvancz said. "Until then, they really hadn't tried that hard."
"Knowing the school was capable of raising money but just didn't do it makes what happened even harder to take," Comstock said.
Eventually, Pellegrino says, there will be a new athletic center where Catholichs Division 3 will play.
"We still want an athletic program we can be proud of," he said. "Athletics are an important part of life here."
Kvanc says he understands Pellegrino's decision, but wishes he could make him understand why he is wrong, why patience might have been empty rewarded. When Kvancz thinks about the final season, the one which, in the grand scheme of things was to have been the year, he winces.
"People look, they see 4-20, they say, 'No way they were going to get it done.' But they don't know how close we were. They don't know what kind of team we could have had with the transfers still here, with the recruits. This was the year we were going to build on. This was the year that would have sold the program for the future. I wanted it to work for selfish reasons, for the reasons every coach wants to win. But that wasn't all. I wanted to prove that you can be an academic school without all the money in the world and still suceed.
"I think our success would have meant a lot to the whole school. And it could have meant a lot to other schools like ours. They would have seen that it doesn't have to be big dollars and recruiting scams for it to mean something.It hurt me because it could have done a lot of things for a lot of people if it had worked. This year should have been the beginning, not the end."