By Chris McManes
Thirty-five years ago, the Catholic University Athletic Department embarked upon its first year in Division I, the NCAA's highest level of competition. And its most visible team was men's basketball.
Jack Kvancz, who played at Boston College under legendary Boston Celtics point guard Bob Cousy, was hired from Brown University to lead the Cardinals. His first year (1975-76) – CUA's final season in Division II – produced a 12-14 record and appeared to be a good springboard into Division I.
But with an aging playing facility, no conference affiliation and relatively low recruiting and operating budgets, the odds were against the school succeeding.
"One of the problems in Division I athletics is keeping up with the Joneses," Kvancz said in an October 2011 interview. "The university, at the time, wasn't ready for the cost of doing business on the Division I level."
Kvancz knows well how much money it takes to field a winning Division I program, where scholarships are awarded to players based on athletic ability. After leaving CUA in 1982, he was athletic director at George Mason University for 12 years. In 2011 he concluded a 17-year run as AD at George Washington University and will be inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame in February 2012. Kvancz also served for five years (1998-2003) on the NCAA Men's Basketball Selection Committee, the group that picks and slots the teams that participate in March Madness.
Back in 1976, Kvancz's main duty was to assemble a team capable of competing in Division I. Things got off to a good start when the Cardinals posted a 13-13 record. Little did anyone know that that would be the high-water mark for CUA's big-time aspirations.
It was then, according to Kvancz, that if the Cards wanted to take the next step and field a winning team, the university needed to spend more money.
"That's when we needed more, and … it became fairly evident it was not going to happen," he said. "The things that had to be done were not going to happen. Now, that being said, I still think we played very well; we represented ourselves as good people. At .500, we had done a good job with the recruit level we had."
The big-ticket item CUA needed was a new arena. Brookland Gymnasium, 57 years old in 1976, and with a capacity of about 3,000, did little to impress recruits.
"Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program," Kvancz said. "Unfortunately, the 17-year-old kid wants the new building, and we were playing in the old place. It was great, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't what people wanted. It got to the point where to [have a successful program], we had to make some big, big, big changes.
"And I looked at it and said, 'hey, where the hell is that money coming from?'"
Coupling the gym situation with a less-than-ideal recruiting budget meant that Kvancz and Dave McNamara – his only full-time assistant – couldn't afford to miss out on a coveted recruit. If they invested a lot of travel money into wooing a player to wear red and white for four years, they had to sign him because they didn't have the luxury of going after five to six blue chippers, hoping to get one.
"We didn't have a recruiting budget that would make it effective for us within the competition that we played," Kvancz said.
CUA not only had to increase its funding for men's basketball and provide more athletic scholarships than it had previously, it also had to do so for its other men's and women's sports. (Football transitioned from the club level to Division III in 1977). The most successful teams were men's track and field and baseball. Jerry McGee's track athletes earned numerous Division I All-American accolades, and Bob Talbot's baseball club advanced to the 1977 NCAA Tournament.
Following another 12-14 campaign on the hardwood, the Cardinals fell to 6-20 in 1978-79. The highlight of the season came when Kvancz's club "stole a victory" at St. Joseph's, 71-70.
"We could play for 10, 12, 15, 20 minutes [with our opponents]," he said. "Then the problem was the cream rose to the top. The kids could do what they could do for so long, and then, hey, they weren't great players. So, the good player, he wins."
CUA did enjoy some big victories in Kvancz's first two Division I seasons. It defeated Boston University (twice), Wagner (three times), former Division II nemesis Mount St. Mary's, Long Island and VCU. P.J. Carlesimo, who became an NBA head coach, directed the program at Wagner. Among the Cards' eight wins in 1979-80 was a 68-67 double overtime victory over St. Joseph's.
John Feinstein, a Washington Post columnist and prolific author, wrote in "GW Athletic Director Jack Kvancz has had a pretty good run" that the triumph showed a lot about Kvancz's coaching ability.
"On Dec. 10, 1979, Catholic hosted Saint Joseph's at tiny, outdated Brookland Gymnasium," Feinstein wrote in the Post on Feb. 27, 2011. "The Cardinals won the game, 68-67, in double overtime. One season later, a Hawks team with the same coach and the same group of players upset top-ranked DePaul in the second round of the NCAA tournament and reached the Mideast Region final, where it lost to Indiana on the Hoosiers' home court.
"That's how good a basketball coach Jack Kvancz was: He coached Catholic – soon to move down from Division I to Division III – to a victory over a future Elite Eight team."
Show Me the Money
Two of the Cardinals' most lopsided defeats came at Clemson, 82-58 in 1977-78 and 108-67 the following year. Contests like that are called "buy," "money" or "guarantee" games. The visitor gets a nice paycheck in exchange for taking a pounding. The underdog does occasionally take the money and win, but usually not.
During the first game at Clemson – a member of the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference – Tigers Coach Bill Foster employed a press defense. Kvancz was not too happy.
"We gave them a hell of a game until the last five minutes and then they killed us," he said. "And they're pressing to beat us. So I say to my assistant, 'listen, when I get up to the microphone at the [post-game press conference], I'm going to bury [Foster].'"
But not wanting to jeopardize the chance to play Clemson again and earn another tidy sum, Kvancz – in a matter of seconds – went from seeing red to seeing green.
"Just before I got up [to the podium], they tapped me on the shoulder to give me the check for – I don't know how much it was – and I say, 'Well, he's the greatest guy,'" he said amid laughter.
Other teams the Cards lost to included Maryland, Navy, South Florida, Seton Hall and George Washington. Despite often being overmatched, Kvancz was proud of how hard his team practiced and played.
"Some of the people that we were playing had so much more ammunition than we did," he said. "The kids did a hell of a job by hanging in there with them, because they had better players. Players win games. Who wins the games on the playground? …The idea, if you don't have good players, is shorten the game and hopefully you can play for five minutes.
"It was a great experience [coaching at CUA]. I had great kids. I really, really, really had great people."
A Prolific Scorer
Glenn Kolonics was Kvancz' top individual player during the Cards' first Division I season. After averaging 27.7 points and being named a Division II third-team All-American the previous year, Kolonics averaged 23.5 points. He scored a career-high 44 points in an 83-70 win at Drexel and added 42 points in a 109-77 home victory over Buffalo. He concluded his days in Brookland as the second-leading scorer in school history (2,190 points).
"He was bombing the ball from outside," Kvancz said. "He was a great, great player. He was one of those guys where you'd say, 'Glenn, what the hell kind of … all right, good shot.'"
Bob Adrion, the Cardinals' all-time leading scorer (2,289 points), was a senior during Kolonics' rookie year (1973-74).
"If they had had the 3-point shot when we were playing, Glenn would have blown my scoring record away," Adrion said. "He was a tremendous outside talent. He just let it loose from everywhere. We were a disciplined team and had never seen anyone like that."
Kolonics was also a little superstitious.
"He was in a shooting slump, so he grew a beard," Kvancz said. "We were playing in the Palestra [in Philadelphia]; it must have been against Drexel. They pressed us and we used him on the other side of halfcourt. Mike McNally, he was a good player for us, too. He'd break the press, throw the ball to Glenn. Glenn would be 35 feet [from the basket], shoot and nothing but net.
"He was a great, great shooter. And the kids loved him."
Kvancz brought in two freshmen in 1977 that scored the bulk of CUA's points the next four years. Joe Colletta (1,079 career points) and Bill Dankos (1,009) are the only 1,000-point scorers in school history to play their entire careers in Division I.
Cardinals Find a Home in Division III
The Cards concluded their Division I days with a 43-86 (.333) record. Kvancz's final season (1981-82) was CUA's first in Division III. Jack Bruen took over the following year. Athletically based scholarships are not granted at that level of competition.
Mike Lonergan, who was hired to coach basketball at George Washington by Kvancz's successor, Patrick Nero, played point guard under Bruen from 1984-88. Lonergan coached the Cardinals from 1992-2004 and guided the club to the only team national championship in school history. His successor, Steve Howes, has kept the Cards among the nation's elite. In 29 seasons at the Division III level, the Cardinals have enjoyed 23 winning seasons, 13 of 20 or more victories.
In addition to men's basketball, CUA has advanced to the NCAA Division III Tournament in baseball, football, men's and women's soccer, field hockey and women's lacrosse. Cardinal Athletic Director Mike Allen helped found the Landmark Conference, an association of academically like-minded schools.
CUA has found its niche in Division III.
"Maybe what they're doing is the right thing to do – they've had success," Kvancz said. "I mean, Lonergan had a great thing; Jack Bruen was a great coach. I'm not sure that just by attaching the Division I [label] on it makes it [better]. I think it makes it harder. If you're not going to do all the other things [you have to] do at Division I, I think you're much better off saying no."
Despite his struggles with the Cardinals' foray into the upper echelon of college basketball, Kvancz enjoyed his time at CUA:
"The people at Catholic and the players at Catholic were a joy to be around. They were nice people, good people. For a young guy, it was a great place."
Chris McManes is a former Catholic University sports information director.