With a combined 647 wins in 45 years at the high school and collegiate level, Mike Jarvis is one of basketball’s most accomplished and endearing figures. Jarvis is best known for his time at St. John’s University but also noted for his three Massachusetts State Championships at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School where he mentored future Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing.
Ewing is the just one of many legendary names attached to Jarvis’ legacy. Michael Jordan, Red Auerbach, Mike Krzyzewski, Rumeal Robinson, Ron Artest, and Tom “Satch” Sanders have also played significant parts in his storybook life. But it hasn’t been without its difficult moments including his unceremonious departures from St. John’s and later Florida Atlantic. Yet in those moments, Jarvis was eventually able to find solace in the fact that God had a much greater plan for his life than he could ever imagine.
In this CSJ conversation, Jarvis talks about his humble beginnings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his special connection to the likes of Ewing and Auerbach, and how losing two jobs helped bring him a deep spiritual revelation.
Chad Bonham: Tell me about Cambridge, Massachusetts, where you grew up.
Mike Jarvis: Cambridge was different. Boston was very segregated. We would look across the river and think of Boston as the place where everybody was separate. They had separate city halls. Cambridge represented what America was supposed to be about. You go into one neighborhood and feel safe. Blacks and whites lived together throughout most of the communities. I looked at the sports the same way. Even though the majority of the people that lived in my community were black, we played ball and went to school with white kids. We were totally integrated. It wasn’t forced integration. That’s just the way the communities were. It was a very mixed environment.
Bonham: How did you first get interested in sports?
Jarvis: When I was 10 years old, my older brother Richard gave me my first basketball. He also introduced me to the Boston Celtics and all of those great players that played for Red Auerbach. I was never a great athlete, but I had a mom who worked as many jobs as she had to so I could play and fun growing up as a kid and playing all the sports like football, basketball and baseball with the other kids in the neighborhood. I grew up with a lot of great athletes and I always had an eye for putting a team together. As a kid, I became a key member of most teams because I was competitive and I had drive and I had some leadership qualities. It was a lot easier for me to tell people what to do than to do it. I eventually made a living doing that.
Bonham: Tell me about the beginning of your journey as a coach.
Jarvis: My college coach Dick Dukeshire offered me a job at Northeastern University. I worked with him for four years. I worked with Jim Calhoun for a year. Then I went to work at Harvard with legendary Celtics player Tom Sanders and worked with him there for four years. So during my first nine years of teaching, I’m also coaching in the evening in college after teaching and coaching other sports at high school. I would get in my Volkswagon and go to work. At that point, I felt like I was never going to get the coaching job at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, my alma mater. So I set my sights on becoming a college coach. That same year, Satch Sanders was offered a coaching job with the Celtics. Now, I assumed that I was going to be the next head coach at Harvard. I didn’t get the job. For the first time in 10 years out of college, I had no basketball coaching job. I went back and taught another year at high school. That next year, the high school job became available because a good friend of mine did not win the state championship. They lost a couple of games. They lost in the state semifinals to the eventual state champion. But that wasn’t good enough. So the people in Cambridge took up a petition and I got the head job at a school board committee meeting at two in the morning on a 4-3 vote. 10 years later, I took over the job that I had dreamed about and prayed about and thought I was going to get. When I took over the job at the high school, they expected a state championship. That was only part of what I wanted to do there. I wanted to also have a perfect record. We went 27-0 that first year. There were a lot of tough battles along the way. We could have easily lost in the championship. I was driven to prove that I was the right person for the job. I wanted to prepare these kids for college. That was my focus. That’s what motivated me. What I didn’t realize was that there was something bigger going on. It was the relationships with the players that really mattered. It was about watching the players grow as players and as young men. It was about us overcoming a lot of obstacles along the way. It was about the players buying into the team concept over their own individual successes.
Bonham: How did you first meet Patrick Ewing and what was it like coaching him so early in his development as a basketball player?
Jarvis: I was a physical education teacher at what was then called Ridge Technical High School in Cambridge. Within the high school, there was an alternative program called Achievement School. It was junior high school kids who were acclimating to the American culture from other countries along with some other kids who were having some difficulties in school. When Patrick first came to Cambridge, he was assigned to the Achievement School because he was from Jamaica and he had a different dialect and his English was broken. My good friend Steve Jenkins was the P.E. teacher there. Steve was a football guy who didn’t know much about basketball. One day, they were having class in the gym and Steve introduced me to Patrick. He was in seventh grade but he was already about 6-3 and very thin. Steve wanted me to help him teach Patrick how to play basketball. So we started working with him. When you’re teaching a tall kid, you start with very basic stuff. We started with jumping rope and then we went to the Mikan drill or the hook shot drill. I’d be talking about the Celtics and I’d be talking about Bill Russell and what kind of player he was and how maybe someday he could be the next Bill Russell. Patrick had never seen Bill Russell play. He had no idea what I was talking about. But it was very easy to convince Patrick that he could do something. He loved playing defense. He loved blocking shots. He could do that well and he could get a lot of gratification from his teammates when he did that. He loved to compete. He was a fierce competitor. He was an incredible hard worker. His mother taught him to never give up, to never quit. As he got taller and stronger and more coordinated and less clumsy, it was like he was this piece of clay being molded into something special. Before we knew it, you could see that this kid had a chance to be great. I believe that the nine years I spent doing other jobs was in preparation to be able to handle the recruitment of Patrick Ewing. It was unique and unlike anybody else’s recruitment. He was the #1 player in the country. I would not have been able to handle that process if I was a young novice coach and had no idea what college recruiting was all about. I think I was prepared for that situation. As a result, it was done the right way and it was done unlike anyone had done it before.
Bonham: When you were the coach at Boston University, you struck up a friendship with legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach. What led to that meeting and how did it impact you as a coach?
Jarvis: When I was an assistant coach at Harvard, I worked for Satch Sanders who played on four of Red’s championship teams. We spent a lot of time talking about Celtics basketball and how the team was put together and what Red did in terms of conditioning and motivation. We talked about how he handled his players. That relationship with Satch led to an introduction to when I was in Boston. I referred to him many times as my godfather. We would just talk about things. At the end of each season, we would sit in my office and we would talk about sports and about building teams and what it took to win. Never once did we talk about X’s and O’s. He’s always told me it wasn’t about that. We talked about the psychology of coaching. Who would have known that at the age of 10, I would sitting in the Boston Garden idolizing and watching and studying the Celtics and then at the age of 40 I’d be personal friends with my childhood hero. I’d like to think I modeled my coaching after what he did. He was a master of putting the puzzle pieces together.
Bonham: You were at St. John’s when 9/11 happened. What do you remember most about that day?
Jarvis: I was in the locker room with my managers preparing a morning snack for our team. We were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on bagels. We were pouring some orange juice and getting out some cereal for the guys. One of the managers came to me and asked if I’d seen what had happened. He told me that a plane had flown into one of the towers. A few minutes later, we were watching television and saw the second plan go into the tower. Kids started coming into my office because they had cancelled school. They were crying and upset. Their parents were worried about where they were. People sometimes mistakenly thought we were in Manhattan, but we were actually on Long Island. I went into the city with my wife several days later. We saw those holes in the ground and the dead bodies. It was unfathomable. My wedding anniversary is on September 9th. A year earlier on that date, Connie and I celebrated our anniversary at Windows of the World, which was on top of the Twin Towers. I’ll never forget looking out. It was an incredible site. But I also remember saying to my wife, “Can you imagine being up here if a fire broke out?” Almost a year to the day that same building was going down. Our country came together like never before. We focused our attention on one enemy. In some ways, it’s like how you feel when you’re coaching a team and you’re going into a place like Cameron and it’s us against the world. The odds are against you. But you come together and you pull miracles out of the hat. That’s what tragedy does.
Bonham: Unfortunately your departure from St. John’s wasn’t on good terms. What caused everything to fall apart?
Jarvis: In 2003, I was on a professional high. I had gone from being a high school coach to success at Boston University and George Washington University and on to St. John’s. We were one basket away from the Final Four. I was making a lot of money. My name was being mentioned for other big coaching jobs. I had written a book. I played a part in a movie. We had just won the NIT in Madison Square Garden. Things were just rolling. And then boom. It was over. I was in the middle of contract negotiations for a multi-million, multi-year deal with St. John’s. I had all kinds of potential endorsements in the works. I’ve got so much visibility and notoriety in New York that it’s kind of scary. I started to believe the hype. I had one coach on my staff that always told me how great I was. I started to believe that I could accomplish anything. Then all of the sudden, in a matter of days and weeks, that all comes crashing down. My agent had an adverse relationship with the athletic director. He went to negotiate the new contract and the negotiations went so bad. I think the egos of the president and the AD led to an agreement to separate. When that happened, it didn’t even concern me. I thought I would have another job within a matter of months. But that didn’t happen. All of the sudden, not only was I out of work, but the marquis no longer had my name on it. I went from being in the spotlight to having no light shining on me. My persona, my accomplishments and most importantly my character were under attack. People were wondering who I was. I was starting to question myself. Why is this happening to me? Why was my world crashing down around me? Pride goes before the fall. I certainly believe I was guilty of having too much pride and having too much satisfaction in what I was accomplishing. But it wasn’t about me. I was given that platform. God gave me that opportunity. It was also taken away.
Bonham: After the spiritual awakening that you experienced when you moved to Florida, you were unexpectedly hired to take the job at Florida Atlanta University. But under much different circumstances, you ended up mutually agreeing to part ways after six years as the head coach. How was that different than what you had in mind and how did that situation pave the way to what you’re doing now?
Jarvis: I made up a plan. My son Mike Jr. and I were going to build the program. We were going to take the program from nowhere and turn it into something and I was eventually going to turn that program over to him and he was going to be the head coach and maybe I would become his assistant. Wouldn’t that have been a great way to end it? That was my plan. God had other plans. With a change in administration, age creeping up on me—so I was told—I was out. Once again, I never imagined that I’d be asked to leave. But God knew what He’s doing. He doesn’t make mistakes. Shortly after I left FAU, I stumbled across a Bible verse that caught my attention. It was Jeremiah 29:11. It was a reminder that everything was going to work out okay. I thought I knew God’s plan for my life, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Instead, He had something else for me to do. That’s when I began thinking about sharing my story with athletes and coaches and anyone else who cared to listen. Over time, I’ve discovered that God’s plans are so much better than my plans. Ironically, if it wasn’t for me being out of work in April of 2014, I wouldn’t have been ready to make the transition into the next phase of my life and that started with my second book and trying to use my life experiences to help other people. My plans? God laughed and said, “No, no son. I’ve got something different in mind and I’m going to give you the time and the opportunity to really make a difference.” I feel blessed that my plans have been trumped by God’s plans.
Read more from Mike Jarvis in his book Everybody Needs A Head Coach.
(Photos: Courtesy of Mike Jarvis)