How FAU’s Men’s Basketball coach made a fresh start in Boca

Rolando Rosa

Turning down Michael Jordan is hard, but that’s exactly what Mike Jarvis did 12 years ago.

Already a proven winner at Boston University and George Washington, he was fresh off taking St. Johns to the NCAA Tournament two straight seasons, once to the Elite Elite in 1999.

Things are different for Jarvis in 2012, way different, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

Dressed in a white and red FAU Adidas polo shirt and blue pants, he sits in a corner booth of Flakowitz Bagel Inn on a overcast Thursday in May. Jarvis is sprinting down memory lane. He’s thinking about all the opportunities which came from the early part of his career. He wouldn’t post a losing record for the first 15 years of his coaching career.

“There was a time when any job opened up in college or the pros, my name would be mentioned,” Jarvis says. “There was a time when I was really hot, quote unquote. I had some stock when I was younger. I was a pretty hot commodity.”

So hot that His Airness came calling.

In 2000, Michael Jordan was two years removed from winning the sixth and final championship of his 13 season career with the Chicago Bulls. He had been hired by Wizards owner, Abe Pollin, as the president of basketball operations, and one of Jordan’s first tasks was to find a head coach to replace Gar Heard.

Jarvis coached Jordan in the 1981 high school McDonald’s All-American Game, before he was an NBA superstar, before he was a global icon. And now it was Jordan offering Jarvis the opportunity to return to Washington, D.C., this time as an NBA coach with the chance to revitalize a struggling pro franchise, like he did in college with Boston University and George Washington.

A chance to climb the ladder, to the highest mountain in his profession. And early.

But Jarvis said no. In three years he was jobless, his name sullied and tarnished. Instead of coaching in the NBA’s Eastern Conference against superstar pros, Jarvis stuck around to coach a 14-15 St. John’s team in the Big East the year after.

In retrospect, he doesn’t regret the decision. His eyes do not drift or dart as he looks me in the face and bluntly gives his reasoning.

“Not too many people, I don’t think, would have said no to Michael Jordan,” Jarvis says. “But it wasn’t the right time.”

But why?

“I didn’t leave because I wanted to honor my commitment,” Jarvis says firmly. “I had to finish what I had started there. So I turned it down.”

Jordan ended up giving the job to another college coach, University of Miami’s Leonard Hamilton, who was fired after one season and a 19-63 record. Could Jarvis have done a better job? He’ll never know.

What if things didn’t go awry at St. John’s?

Jarvis never won an NCAA tournament game again after returning.

Chants of “Fire Jarvis” serenaded him in his final year at St. John’s. The school fired him in 2003 after allegations of a player getting paid, another smoking marijuana and one even being charged with sexual assault, according to the NY Daily News. It was the first time in the history of Big East basketball that a coach was fired mid-season. The swirl of controversy is what led him to want to “get out of New York and get away from all the crazy newspaper writers,” Jarvis says as he shakes his head.

Funny that he does what everyone does when they drop out from elsewhere in the country — he moved to Florida.

After a brief stint with ESPN, Jarvis accepted the job at FAU in 2008, and despite winning a regular season conference championship two seasons ago, he hasn’t even made it back to the NCAA Tournament. He doesn’t want anyone’s pity though.

“I have no regrets,” Jarvis says. “I think I’m right where the good Lord wants me to be, you know? And heaven knows we’ve got enough work to get done here.”

As he heads up to the register to pay, a waitress excitedly stops him, telling Jarvis his face is on a bus.

“You know I was sitting outside and the bus went by. I said oh my God, the coach is on the bus,” she says. “It’s a pretty neat picture.”

“Oh really?” Jarvis asks. “Haven’t seen it.”

“It passed by all the time,” a male employee says. “Big!”

“Big!” Jarvis repeats as he lets out a laugh.

“Don’t let your head get that big now,” the man says.

“No it won’t,” Jarvis playfully answers. “Trust me.”

***

Jarvis can be mistaken for a grumpy man during games. On gameday you’ll see him on the Burrow sidelines in his trademark sweater vest, barking orders to his team and badgering the refs. No smiles, no laughter. Strictly business.

Off the court, though, there’s a different side to Jarvis: jovial.

After the home opener Nov. 19 against George Mason, an overtime win, he catches a glimpse of me in my charcoal fedora on the way out of the media room.

“You gotta stop wearing those hats, babe. I used to wear those all the time when I was your age,” he says pointing to his head. “How do you think I got bald?”

Jarvis departs the Burrow, waving goodbye to the press. He’s relaxed, confident and content— not a care in the world.

***

However, there are times where Jarvis is not so calm. Times where his raging temper can get out of hand.

Three years ago against Louisiana-Monroe at the Burrow, he got four technicals, an ejection and an escorted trip to the lockers by FAU police.

Afterward, he was shocked at the whirlwind created with his tirade.

“I can’t even really describe it,” Jarvis said to the Palm Beach Post. 

It all started with 2:01 left in the first half with an out of bounds call which went against FAU. Jarvis got annoyed and started screaming at the ref for so long he got four technical fouls and gifted Louisiana-Monroe’s Afam Nweke eight free throws.

After a last word to the ref, he points to the sideline looking confused. Jarvis walked past the opposing team, where he was patted on the arm by their head coach. Jarvis’s left hand rested on his hip while his right signaled to get the attention of the ref one last time, but was ignored.

As a policeman approaches, Jarvis extends his hands in the air as he heads into the hallway. He was suspended for the next game.

***

It’s a hot Sunday morning in Boca, the day before Memorial Day, and I’m nervously waiting at Spanish River Church.

Now residing in Boca Raton, a place he calls “the sixth borough of New York” because of all the transplants, Jarvis devoutly goes to church twice a week: Fridays for Bible Study, Sundays for the 10:45 service.

Well, it’s 10:45 and coach is nowhere to be found. I’m slightly panicked (he wouldn’t stand me up, would he?) but a voice of reason soon appears to ease me.

“Are you waiting for Mike?” a deacon asks. “Don’t worry. He’s always fashionably late.”

Seven minutes later, Jarvis strolls by with his wife, Connie. He calls her simply “the boss.” Dressed in his Sunday best, a white and blue checkered dress shirt tucked into black slacks, Jarvis firmly shakes my hand as he sheepishly grins.

“You thought I was gonna stand you up huh?” he says. “Let’s go inside.”

***

Five rows from the back in the lower bowl of the two-story auditorium, Mike Jarvis puts on his black rectangular glasses and turns his Bible — entitled “The Coach’s Bible” in gold lettering on the front — to the book of Psalms. As he jots down lecture notes in blue ink, on his wrist are two bands: a black WWJD and a red and blue FAU band reading “To Believe Is To Be Strong.”

Psalms 3 tells the tale of David, former king of Israel who committed adultery. While the situations are not exact, the parallel between David and Jarvis are close enough to compare: a scandal while in a position of power.

While Jarvis was head coach at St. John’s, player Abe Keita claimed he’d received $300 monthly from a senior staff member, according to the NY Daily News. He was basketball royalty in 1999 for leading the Johnnies to the Elite Eight, the furthest they had gone in 14 seasons, but now? Now, he was being mocked and ridiculed and scorned on the way out. St. John’s had to forfeit 45 games, something players were frustrated with.

“I have no idea whether he cares about that, but it matters to the rest of us,” said one former St. John’s player on condition of anonymity to the Daily News in 2004. “We were the ones who worked for those wins. I don’t understand how they can take that away from us because he (messed) up.”

With the help of his wife and his new church family, the return to coaching came in 2008. But first he needed to get his spiritual life in order. Jarvis was on his way to his weekly Friday Bible study at Pastor David Nicholas’ house. However, there was an email sent out to members informing them it was cancelled that week. Jarvis never saw it.

He headed over to Nicholas’s house anyway. The two still talked one-on-one, and Jarvis was given a life booklet by the end of it. He took the packet home and re-read it over and over again, before making a decision he says changed his life: accepting Christ into his heart.

“That was the day that I basically made the commitment,” Jarvis says. “Now I’m trying to fulfill it. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly worth the challenge and the effort and the fight.”

He always believed in God, he says, but never truly had a relationship with him. Jarvis had called on a team priest before, but this? This was the change he needed.

“The biggest difference for me now is I think I’m more consciously connected, and I’m more aware of what I’ve done wrong as well as what I’ve done right,” Jarvis says. “I’m more ready to try and correct things and to improve.”

The message today is “When Hearts are Broken — Hope for the Modern Family.” Jarvis is quietly listening to Pastor Tommy Kiedis preach.

Jarvis, a basketball coach and former high school teacher, is now the student. He’s on his best behavior. And aside from a few whispers to his wife, he is silent. No loud hallelujahs, no amens. Doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying himself.

When Pastor Kiedis mentions that the way an up-and-coming king insulted the current king in biblical times was not by words, but by a slap across the face, Jarvis turns to his wife and his bible nearly falls out of his lap as he can’t contain his laughter.

***

Afterward, Jarvis chats with all passing by.

“We raised about $25,000 for that golf tournament,” a deacon says to him.

“Wow!” Jarvis says. “That is great.”

“Next year,” the deacon urges, “you’re playing.”

“Yes, next year I’m playing,” Jarvis says. “The reason why I didn’t go this year was because I had to speak at Highland Christian.”

The deacon turns to me and a photographer.

“You gonna be better journalists than we have now?” he asks.

Jarvis does not wait for our answer.

“Praise the Lord, I hope so,” Jarvis jokes.

As we walk back into the lobby, we bump into Pastor Kiedis.

“I love having coach around. We’re in a Friday morning group together. I appreciate him for lots of reasons,” Kiedis says. “He believes to his core in what he professes, but he’ll be the first to tell you, ‘I’m not perfect’. Jesus has made a huge difference in his life.”

Jarvis is smiling now, a sharp turnaround from the look painting his face after the Owls blew a 19 point second half lead in the home finale Feb. 25 against Troy.

“Hey man!” a fellow with a navy blazer shouts to him.

Jarvis shakes his hand and introduces me.

“This is Rich Porter, one of our fans. He comes to our games — ”

Porter cuts Jarvis off and smiles at Mrs. Jarvis.

“To see this lovely lady, that’s why,” Porter says.

“That’s why,” Jarvis says. “See, the truth always comes out.”

***

The truth for Jarvis is no matter the fame or notoriety he has, he views himself as a regular guy and wants to be treated as such. He says he and his wife tried out other churches in the area before Spanish River, but they weren’t right.

“There are some churches we’ve been to that make a big deal out of us being there.” Jarvis says. “It’s almost like you go in to church and you go in to worship, and they’re making more out of you being there then they should, making it uncomfortable. That doesn’t happen here.”

He has embraced the atmosphere at Spanish River, where the focus is not on the audience but the message.

“The people at church, they realize, you know what, no matter who’s in that church, they’re just ordinary folks. The real person is who you came to church to worship. That’s the superstar,” Jarvis says. “When we came, we were broken. Beaten down a little bit. Felt kinda bad and sorry for ourselves. But God directed us to this church. It’s meant everything.”

He says he’s a “normal guy, period” who will make his share of mistakes. When he makes them, he puts it in perspective.

“In fact, as Tommy preached today — we’re all wretches,” Jarvis says. “So I’m a normal wretch like everybody else. A sinner, and a person who needs God,” he says as he turns to his wife and laughs.

He adds: “And yet I’ll say this to you. I know because I am a child of God, that I’ve got to work even harder to try to live the sermon. And I’ve got to do a lot better job in my coaching, in terms of how I behave. I’m working at that. I will continue to. Someday, hopefully, be able to control all the things God wants me to …”

He looks at his wife and blurts out: “Including my tongue.”

“That’s right, you need to preach to yourself every day,” she says to him.

Jarvis is well aware being a public figure and a Christian simultaneously is a challenge, but he does not back down from it. The 67 year old is not afraid to say he’s only in the infant stages of his spiritual development .

“Once they find out that you are a Christian, people look at you in a microscope, but it’s OK, because we’re supposed to try and live the sermon. People hopefully one day will be able to say, hey I see a difference. That’s what God wants.”

From his wife Connie to his son Mike II and his sister Trudy, his family has always been there for him — something he claims gives him the strength to fight through any adversity that comes his way.

“When you’re in this business, family really becomes the most important thing,” Jarvis says. “That’s what makes it possible for you to go through all the times you have to go through.”

***

The years coaching at Madison Square Garden in front of the bright lights, cutting down the nets and reaching the NCAA Tournament three times were what made him and his son Mike Jarvis II, his assistant coach since 1993, “the kings of New York for awhile.”

The fallout and dismissal, while disappointing at the time, weren’t shocking, not for Jarvis.

“But, you know,” Jarvis ponders, “the problem with being a king is usually you end up being dethroned.”

Just like that, coaching was over for one of only four men to win 100 plus games with three programs at the Division I level. Just like that, the first African-American father-son coaching tandem was on the unemployment line.

“I also learned what it was like to go from the top of the mountain, to basically being thrown off the mountain, and what you have to do to get back up and survive and thrive and move on.”

He points back to the crowded wall of pictures, confidently telling me he’ll eventually make room for one more: FAU’s second-ever trip to the NCAA tournament.

“Once we do that, then FAU will be able to put the stamp of approval on it,” Jarvis says. “There’s no telling what can happen after that.”