Back at it: Jarvis returns to coaching
Tuesday, Jul 29, 2008
By Joshua Cooley
BOCA RATON, Fla. (BP)--Mike and Connie Jarvis needed a breather … a big breather.
It was December 2003 and Mike, once considered one of the best coaches in college basketball for turning no-names into consistent winners, was fired six games into his sixth season at St. John’s (N.Y.) University. Thinking that another coaching job was imminent, he and his wife moved to Boca Raton, Fla., for some much-needed emotional cleansing.
“My wife needed to get away from the madness that surrounds a coach in New York,” Jarvis said. “We needed to get rid of the bad food that had been eaten and digested and get it totally out of our system.”
There, in a coastal paradise near Florida’s southern tip, Jarvis has returned to coaching, albeit a bit later than planned. On May 27, Florida Atlantic University, a small Division I program, hired the 63-year-old to be its new coach and, the school hopes, the architect of another one of his patented turnaround projects.
Before his career rebirth, though, came a spiritual awakening. Jarvis grew up Catholic in Cambridge, Mass., and went to church sporadically after marrying Connie, a Christian since age 13. Upon their arrival in Boca Raton, the couple landed three minutes away from home at Spanish River Church.
On their first Sunday there, senior pastor David Nicholas immediately recognized Jarvis and invited him to a men’s Bible study. Nicholas asked tough questions, and Jarvis soaked it all in. On April 29, 2005, while looking out over the third hole of the country club where he lives, Jarvis placed his faith in Jesus Christ. Nicholas spoke to Jarvis a few days later.
Recalled Nicholas: “He said, ‘I have two thoughts: Why did it take me so long? And: Now I know why I moved to Boca Raton.’ That was very telling.”
Now, Jarvis will attempt to resurrect an impressive career that hit a nasty pothole after 18-plus years. From 1985 until his dismissal at St. John’s in 2003, he compiled a 326-202 record with nine NCAA appearances, two Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight at Boston University, George Washington and St. John’s. Few of his peers rivaled his ability to turn nobodies into somebodies.
Jarvis’ tenure at St. John’s started well enough. His first season, 1998-99, resulted in a 28-9 record and the school’s first appearance in an NCAA regional final. But trouble was on the way. Shortly before the 2002-03 season, one of Jarvis’ players was arrested on charges that he attacked a female student in a dormitory. In November 2003, another player was arrested for marijuana possession. After the 2003-04 team started 2-4, St. John’s fired Jarvis and his son, Mike Jr., an assistant coach.
If that weren’t enough, in April 2004, the school’s director of basketball operations resigned amidst a scandal in which he eventually confessed to making illicit tuition payments to a St. John’s player from West Africa, forcing the school to initiate self-imposed sanctions. Jarvis denied any involvement and was acquitted by the NCAA infractions committee, but the case dragged on for more than two years.
When asked if the messy divorce from St. John’s still irks him, Jarvis replied, “It does, and yet I’m grateful for it because if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I might’ve made millions of dollars and become more famous, or infamous, but I wouldn’t be where I am spiritually.”
During his nearly 4½-year hiatus from the sidelines, Jarvis remained close to the game. He worked as an ESPN college analyst and also produced basketball content for Yahoo. In 2006 and 2007, he coached an Athletes in Action team in the annual William Jones Cup, a FIBA tournament in Taiwan. And he also participated in some clinics with AIA and Nike.
Eventually, the urge to return to college coaching became too great.
“Matthew 5:14 had a lot to do with it, and really, just realizing that I am supposed to do the things I’ve been gifted to do,” Jarvis said.
After interviewing for openings at Harvard, Stanford and James Madison, he reconnected with Florida Atlantic, which he had spoken to several years ago while the NCAA investigation was still underway at St. John’s. In 2005, Jarvis and Florida Atlantic athletic director Craig Angelos had spent three hours chatting at Spanish River Church, but according to Angelos, “the timing wasn’t right” because the results of the St. John’s case were still pending.
This time around, however, Angelos felt much more comfortable with Jarvis, who has been spreading roots in the Boca Raton community for three years. The school, which is 10 minutes from Jarvis’ home, gave him a four-year contract and reunited him on the bench with his son.
“I think I was able to get a comfort level there,” said Angelos, a former NCAA legislative assistant and University of Miami athletics compliance official. “I don’t think he’s a risk to us in that regard. I have confidence in him.”
Of all Jarvis’ major building projects, Florida Atlantic might be the biggest challenge of his career. The school’s basketball program, a Division I member since 1993, enters this season with an all-time record of 213-354, including only seven winning seasons and one NCAA appearance (2002) since its inception in 1988. The Owls play in the relatively obscure Sun Belt Conference, and they recently finished a much-needed $10 million renovation to smallish FAU Arena (5,000 seats).
“He brings a tremendous amount of credibility to our program because he has been a very success coach at the highest level,” Angelos said. “From an X’s and O’s standpoint, I think he will be great with recruiting and graduation rates. But the other thing helpful for us is his credibility in the community and his name recognition from an external standpoint – selling tickets and attracting donors.”
Jarvis lives for this stuff. Embracing the underdog role is his modus operandi.
“I love it,” he said. “There’s nothing better than going into the coliseum as a gladiator and trying to come out alive.”
Most importantly, he is now alive in Christ. He is entering a new phase of life: Coaching Division I basketball as a Christian. It’s not something he takes lightly. He knows the temptations that await: to use foul language at poor officiating, sacrifice good character for talent when recruiting and succumb to pride. That’s why he is working so hard on strengthening his faith.
“He just gives the glory to God and looks to God,” Nicholas said. “I’m seeing him do what God’s people are supposed to do, and that’s trusting God. It’s good stuff.”
Jarvis still attends his pastor’s Bible study, and he and Connie have started hosting a Tuesday night gathering for couples. He is committed to daily devotions and is finalizing an evangelistic tract entitled “Meet My Head Coach.” In the near future, he hopes to launch a pet project called the Master Mentor Program, a comprehensive resource to help adults teach spiritual and life skills to young people.
“I want to let my light shine and share the passion I have for Christ,” he said.
Will Florida Atlantic become a winning program? Judging by Jarvis’ previous track record, that’s a good bet. But this much is certain:
“The one thing I know He has in store for me is a place with Him forever,” Jarvis said. “That’s the most important thing. He has already assured me of the ultimate victory. Anything that happens between now and then is a blessing.”
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