Eight years ago, Mike Jarvis’ trademark crouched stance, calm demeanor and winning ways were unfamiliar to Foggy Bottom – as was a winning basketball program.
But today the coach of the GW men’s basketball team has carved a spot as a respected member of the GW community. And with good reason. Jarvis-led basketball teams at GW never have finished a season below .500. They have appeared in three NCAA tournaments, including one Sweet 16 appearance in 1994.
Mike Jarvis grew up near Boston. In high school, he competed both on the field and in the classroom.
“I was very fortunate to have a mom who worked two to three jobs so her kids could go to school and play sports,” he says.
In those days baseball was Jarvis’ favorite sport. “You always like what you are the best at better,” he reasons. But when he enrolled at nearby Northeastern University, Jarvis switched sports.
During college, Jarvis earned three letters for basketball and one for baseball. “At that time there were not as many opportunities for baseball players,” he explains.
Jarvis’ Northeastern life was a busy one. In addition to playing two sports, he worked as a fry cook at his brother’s fish and chips restaurant.
“No one can fry clams better than I do,” Jarvis boasts. But his future held more than cuisine.
During his college years, Jarvis developed an affinity for teaching – something that sticks with him today. After much consideration, he decided to teach on the basketball court.
Determined to become a coach, Jarvis threw himself into learning the ropes. After each practice and game, he transcribed new plays and drills into a notebook.
After graduating, Jarvis returned to home to teach high school physical education. Jarvis taught 17 years worth of P.E. classes while also working as an assitant coach for multiple programs.
His first college position was as assistant coach at his alma mater, Northeastern. A few years later, he moved to Harvard. He left a trail of success stories, and he quickly became one of Massachusetts’ most respected coaches.
After nine years of assistant coaching, Jarvis jumped in the ranks to take the head spot at Rindge and Latin. “I went from college to high school,” he says.
Jarvis proved himself at Rindge and Latin, posting an admirable 143-21 record. In 1981 Jarvis’ team soared to the second spot in the national rankings behind center and soon-to-be NBA star Patrick Ewing.
“I don’t believe things happen by accident,” Jarvis says. “God sent (Ewing) to me.” This team dodged losses, and at the end of a triumphant season, Massachusetts honored Jarvis with his third-consecutive high school coach of the year award. Jarvis would earn this honor once more before leaving the high school court.
Jarvis then returned to the college ranks, accepting the head coach position at Boston University.
Success followed Jarvis to BU, where he tallied a 101-51 record. He became the University’s all-time winningest coach and only 100-game winner, surpassing current Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino.
In 1988, Jarvis recruited his only son to play guard for the Terriers.
“I tried not to be tougher on him than the others, but sometimes a son can take things you say the wrong way,” Jarvis says. But time with his son was cut short when Jarvis accepted the head spot at GW. Mike Jarvis II is now an assistant coach for GW.
Bob Chernak, vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, says GW looked for a coach able to build a winning program. Jarvis’ winning records and academic reputation fit GW’s profile.
“We wanted to be a perennial top-40 program and periodically be better then top 40,” Chernak says. “Mike Jarvis was the kind of coach who could build a program with integrity.”
The Colonial basketball team Jarvis inherited in 1990 lacked history and a future. Two years before Jarvis rescued the program, the Colonials defeated only one of their 28 opponents, the University of Massachusetts.
Defeating UMass is a common theme for the Jarvis-led Colonials. Jarvis’ teams knocked-off a No.1-ranked UMass and a No.5-ranked UMass while President Clinton watched from Smith Center bleachers. Jarvis recounts these wins among his favorite memories. But he insists that “just beating UMass in general” is great, with or without presidential cheers.
Quoting a long list of gigantic GW wins, Jarvis highlights his first victory at as the most memorable, especially after losing his regular season debut to Loyola, Md. in 1990.
“In the minds of those who hired me, (winning) hopefully becomes a reality, but the pressure to win does not bother me,” Jarvis told reporters in 1990. “The only thing that people have to understand is, yes, miracles do happen. But normally when things happen, they take time. This program realistically will not evolve overnight.”
But ever since Jarvis grabbed the Colonial helm his teams have floated above .500 and developed an impressive history for GW to call its own.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jarvis recalls losing to Iowa in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament as the most devastating defeat of his GW career. His team started the game slow and fell behind by 17, but under the leadership of seniors Kwame Evans and Vaughn Jones, GW reversed fortunes and took a 17-point lead. But higher-seeded Iowa upset the game.
“I wanted the seniors to go out winners, and they did,” Jarvis said. But GW did not. The team finished their most successful season in 41 years with a heartbreaking 79-81 score. The Colonials have yet to return to the NCAA Tournament.
“I mentioned at the end that the game is one of fundamentals,” Jarvis said in an interview following the loss.
Jarvis says talking with his players after losing games is one of the harder parts of his job. “I usually don’t say the right things,” Jarvis says. “I should have said how proud I was.
“In coaching you can’t dwell on the bad things,” he adds. “You must forget them and move on.”
Junior Forward Yegor Mescherichov from Belarus calls Jarvis a very calm coach who points out what went wrong and why, but said that when he first came to the United States he did not know enough English to understand Jarvis’ advice.
“When I first came over I did not understand what he was saying all the time,” Mescherichov confesses.
Today the Colonials are 20-6, parading off to their best start in 44 years. Currently listed in all the national polls, the team is considered a lock to return to the NCAA Tournament.
The team’s national attention has made Jarvis a hot commodity. It seems every time a job opens, Jarvis’ name is mentioned. Although his future remains to be seen, Jarvis says he wants to stay in Foggy Bottom – at least for a few more years. His contract runs to the millennium.
“I have every intention and hope of being here for a long time, but things change,” Jarvis says. “It is a very tenuous job without tenure. Very rarely do coaches stay a long time.”
For now, Jarvis claims he is not moving toward the NBA. He would go, though, “if offered Rick Pitino kind of money.”
Meanwhile, GW smiles on the coach who led the program to success. “The proof is in the pudding,” Chernak says “The banners in the Smith Center are tangible evidence.”
Jarvis also has put down roots through D.C. community service. He leads a summer camp called Shoot Straight, and works with Coaches vs. Cancer. “When you are given much, you’ve got to give more,” Jarvis points out.
Still a teacher at heart, Jarvis enjoys shaping the careers of his assistant coaches and players. “Try to do it the right way, be honest with yourself and the team,” runs his familiar advice to coaching hopefuls. “You must give them as much as you are expecting in return.”
As GW rolls through a fabulous season, Jarvis says the future only promises improvement.
“No matter how good you are,” he says, “you can always be better.”