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Jarvis returns to roots

FAU coach recalls time at Harvard

FAU coach Mike Jarvis was an assistant at Harvard in the 70s under coach Satch Sanders. FAU coach Mike Jarvis was an assistant at Harvard in the 70s under coach Satch Sanders. (Chris Riedel/Associated Press)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 22, 2011
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There was a reason Satch Sanders hired Mike Jarvis to be one of his assistants at Harvard many years ago, when the Crimson basketball team played on the fifth floor of the Indoor Athletic Building, and it’s simple.

“I could yell,’’ Jarvis said.

Sanders isn’t a yeller. Never was. Every time he tried, he lost his voice. But more than that, he figured if he needed to talk to a player he’d just pull that player to the side.

“He was the type of coach that players loved to play for because he couldn’t yell at them,’’ said Jarvis. “Could you imagine a coach that couldn’t yell? You would love that. So he had me.’’

Mike Jarvis: Designated yeller.

“Mike has the coach’s voice loud and strong, there’s no question about that,’’ Sanders said. “Mike had the resounding voice.’’

That voice was quieted for a few years after St. John’s fired Jarvis in December 2003. Jarvis was burned out and, he said, bitter to the point that he considered not coaching again. He moved with his wife, Connie, to Boca Raton, Fla., and after nearly five years away from the game, decided to get back to what he loved.

He’s now head coach of a Florida Atlantic team that will take on the Crimson at Harvard tonight. The Owls program is a fixer-upper - not much success, not much history - but this is Jarvis’s fourth season, and he’s dedicated to it.

“This is a project, don’t make any mistake about it,’’ said Jarvis. “This is a bigger project than any project I’ve ever undertaken.’’

Jarvis has always found a way to be successful. At Boston University, he went to the NCAA Tournament twice. He reached the Sweet 16 in 1993 with George Washington. He took St. John’s to the Elite Eight in 1999.

The Owls went 6-26 in his first season. Last season, they went 21-11 and won the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title. They’re 4-7 this season, navigating a nonconference schedule loaded with Washington, George Mason, Kansas, Miami, and Harvard.

Next year, the Owls are going to play Duke and North Carolina.

“We’re playing people,’’ Jarvis said. “And I think the best way to show people you’re serious is by who you play.’’

The pockets at Florida Atlantic aren’t as deep as Jarvis is used to.

“This is probably the least-funded program I’ve ever coached at,’’ he said. “So it’s going to take a little bit longer than say a place like St. John’s , where they can just call the Vatican if they want more money, or GW, where they never, ever worried about spending money, they knew they had to spend money to make money. And BU, money was never a problem. Money’s a problem here. So it means we’ve got to be a little more resourceful and take a little more time.’’

Jarvis has never had a problem buildng from scratch.

The funny thing about this matchup with Harvard is that Jarvis twice had chances to be the Crimson head coach, he said. Once was just a few years ago, when Tommy Amaker was hired. The other was back when he was Sanders’s assistant.

Jarvis worked under Sanders for four seasons (1973-77) before Sanders left to eventually take the Celtics’ head coaching job. When the Harvard job opened up, Jarvis thought he’d be the logical successor.

He was born and raised in Cambridge. He played high school ball at Rindge Tech before it merged with Cambridge Latin. He coached at his alma mater, Northeastern, for five years before coming to Harvard. And he coached the freshman team under Sanders.

“It was no question about his ability to coach,’’ Sanders said.

It made sense, it just didn’t pan out. Frank McLaughlin had references from high places. People such as Mike Krzyzewski called Harvard to put in a good word.

“He had enough juice behind him to overpower Mike getting the job,’’ Sanders said.

“I should have been the head coach at Harvard back in 1977,’’ Jarvis said. “But the good Lord had something better in mind.’’

Jarvis worked his way up rung by rung.

He coached at Rindge and Latin, where he had one of the best teams in the country and one of the best players in Patrick Ewing. He moved on to BU, then George Washington. He saw his greatest success at St. John’s, but he learned lasting coaching lessons along the way. For instance, at George Washington, he had one of the school’s most famous alums in his ear all the time: Red Auerbach.

Auerbach used to come to Harvard’s practices from time to time, but he and Jarvis got close at George Washington.

“He used to come to our practices, he used to come to our games, and at the end of every season Red and I would sit in my office and we would talk about coaching, managing people, life, and a little basketball,’’ Jarvis recalled.

They became friends. Jarvis called Auerbach his godfather. They would go for Chinese food every week. Auerbach was never short on nuggets of wisdom.

He once told Jarvis, “Mike, make sure you recruit character, not characters.’’

Then Auerbach ran off the list of Hall of Famers he had coached, from Bill Russell to Bob Cousy to Bill Sharman.

“I learned how to put a team together by studying Red Auerbach,’’ Jarvis said. “It doesn’t take rocket science, but that was probably the greatest advice he gave to me.

He’s managed to put it to good use in his 23 seasons as a coach. At 66, Jarvis looks at his latest coaching challenge as possibly his most invigorating, and being able to come home with a new team makes it more special.

“It’s great to get back and go to the old neighborhoods and see some of my old friends and just reflect on some of the good old times,’’ he said. “I’m really looking forward to coming back.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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