Jack Kvancz makes the rounds at GW basketball games with a cigar clamped between his teeth, schmoozing with the crowd while keeping his eye on the action. Don’t let the stogie fool you, though – he quit the eight-a-day habit long ago after a fainting episode and now chews cigars as he walks through the arena.
“It’s amazing how much roaming around he does during basketball games,” said Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services. “He’ll move from mid-court to the balcony and then wander down to the scorer’s table, then to the baseline.”
But Kvancz’s influence on the University goes beyond a trail of tobacco leaves and Smith Center chatter. He is now in his 10th year as GW Director of Athletics and his 30th year in that position at the college level. In the past decade both the men’s and women’s basketball programs have risen to national prominence and the University has added multi-million dollar facilities in the Health and Wellness Center and the Mount Vernon Athletic Complex.
But the ride has not been totally smooth for Kvancz. The men’s basketball program took a fall in 2001, when then-head coach Tom Penders was forced to resign after a phone card scandal and center Atilla Cosby was convicted on sexual assault charges.
But friends in the business said Kvancz has established himself as a highly respected athletic director because of his experience as an athlete and his ability to interact with coaches and student athletes, many of whom he stays in contact with long after they leave Foggy Bottom.
“There’s no envy and no jealousy with Jack,” former men’s basketball coach Mike Jarvis said. “He checks his ego at the door, which is tough to do because most coaches have huge egos, myself included.”
Fordham Athletic Director Frank McLaughlin has known Kvancz since the two played semi-pro basketball together in the 1960s.
“He has tremendous insight,” McLaughlin said. “The athletic directors that have played and coached are much better equipped for the job. When you’re an athlete and a coach, you’ve learned to overcome adversity.”
Kvancz grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., before attending Boston College, where he played guard under Eagles coach and Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy.
McLaughlin said Kvancz was hardly a pushover.
“I’m known as the guy who held Jack Kvancz to 50 points,” he said. “That’s why he’s always so nice to me.”
The Eagles frequently played at the Boston Garden, and it was there that Kvancz began a relationship with GW alumnus and legendary former Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Kvancz described Auerbach, who lives in the Washington area, as a “father figure if there is such a thing.” The two still meet every Tuesday for lunch.
“If Red thinks something is a crazy idea he’ll tell you,” Kvancz said. “One of the things we don’t do enough in America is listen to people with gray hair. I’m not saying they’re always right, but getting their opinion is the right thing to do.”
After graduating college in 1968, Kvancz served as a high school basketball coach and then as an assistant coach at Brown University. He then landed a job as men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Catholic University in 1974. He said he loved coaching but that it eventually wore him down.
After eight years at Catholic, he took a job as the athletic director at George Mason in 1982 before coming to GW in 1994.
“I have 22 kids on my team now – all the head coaches here,” he said.
His fondness for D.C. is the main reason he cited for coming to GW, in addition to the track record of Jarvis, who Kvancz knew from their respective playing days at Northeastern University and B.C.
Jarvis led the Colonials to four NCAA Tournament berths before leaving to take his current job at St. John’s University in 1998, but one single game stands out in Kvancz’s mind as the pair’s greatest moment together.
In 1996, No. 1-ranked Massachusetts came into the Smith Center undefeated. A raucous crowd that included President Bill Clinton watched the Colonials defeat the Minutemen, 86-76. Jarvis remembers Kvancz as one of the first people who sought him out after the game.
“We were the only ones who thought we could win that day,” he said. “Jack came up to me and gave me a big hug. The victory wasn’t mine, it was ours.”
Kvancz, on the other hand, said the day is a blur to him because he spent the entire game making sure President Clinton had enough security.
“(Clinton) must’ve enjoyed it, though, because he came down to the locker room and stayed for the first half of the women’s game, (which followed the men’s game),” Kvancz said.
If the Massachusetts game was his best memory, then the Tom Penders situation may have been the worst. Penders resigned in 2001 after players admitted to making more than $1,400 worth of phone calls using assistant coach Tommy Penders Jr.’s long distance access code.
Kvancz said he still thinks hiring Penders, a longtime friend, was the right thing to do. But he also said he realized Penders was at the end of the line as a coach by 2001. Chernak said Kvancz handled the situation well, encouraging a change at the right time.
“(Kvancz) understood the situation,” Chernak said. “A less seasoned person might have a little difficulty coming to that realization that a mistake had been made. To his credit, he worked through it well.”
Later, in 2001, a D.C. court convicted center Atilla Cosby of sexually assaulting a prostitute in Guthridge Hall, sentencing him to two years in prison. Kvancz said he saw no indicators of Cosby’s violence but as a father of two daughters said he is glad the justice system dealt with the situation swiftly.
The Penders vacancy allowed the University to hire head coach Karl Hobbs, who Kvancz said has the men’s basketball program on its way back to national respectability.
As for his future, the 57-year-old said he has no plans to leave his post any time soon. After a decade at GW that has included a stint on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee for men’s basketball, Kvancz said, “Now all we need is some W’s.”