X's and O's with Coach Z

The University of Missouri-Kansas City hadn’t beaten Kansas State University in 14 tries, and the Wildcats figured they could probably waltz into Municipal Auditorium and win again in 2003.

They were mistaken.

Coach Rich Zvosec’s Roos put on an offensive clinic and pestered K-State into playing one of its single-worst games in school history. UMKC’s lead swelled to more than 10. Then 20. Then 25. The Cats looked helpless and bereft of any answers as then-coach Jim Wooldridge grimaced on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the man known as “Coach Z” kept exhorting his troops.

“With about seven minutes to go in the game, I’m looking at the score and the time,” Zvosec says.  “And in my head I’m calculating how many more possessions there are left in the game. If they make a charge, can we hold on? And my assistant [Ken Dempsey] says, ‘Rich, are you going to put the subs in?’ And I’m like, ‘Kenny, it’s seven minutes to go and we’re only up 18.’ He said, ‘Rich, you’re a bad math student. We’re up 28.’ It was one of those nights.”

Forty minutes of a remorseless stampede showed on the scoreboard: UMKC 93, K-State 52. Zvosec labels it as a remarkable and weird game; K-State hasn’t lost by a margin that widespread since. For the team and the university, it instilled belief that the Roos could beat teams from power conferences. For Zvosec, who’s a TV analyst for Big 12 and Missouri Valley Conference games, it was perhaps his best win at any of the schools where he’s coached.


Of Coaching and Kangaroos

Zvosec’s dad was a high school coach 30 miles west of Cleveland in Lorain, Ohio. Seeing the relationships he cultivated with players, Zvosec always wanted to be in the coaching profession, and he was a whippersnapper when St. Francis College in New York hired him as a head coach.

He’s in good company in the youthfulness department. Jim Valvano was 22 for his first head-coaching job. Mike Krzyzewski was 28. And Zvosec was 27 when St. Francis hired him to succeed Valvano’s brother, Bob.

“Growing up in Ohio, I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time in New York City, so that was a big change,” Zvosec says. “When you’re young like that, you think you can change the world. In that case, I was trying to change the culture and get some wins and see where it leads.”

Woebegone St. Francis didn’t rendezvous much with winning basketball prior to his arrival, but the Terriers notched a 15-14 record in 1991. That year, Zvosec accepted the opportunity to build his own college basketball program from scratch at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

As he would discover, basic things that many coaches take for granted weren’t there for his first year.

“When you start a program, basically you’re working with a clean slate, so you’ve got 12 new guys who have never played for you or with each other,” he says. “That first year, we didn’t have our own arena. It was still being built, so finding places to practice, whether it’s a high school gym with no air conditioning, which in Florida is not a good thing, or a junior college gym or wherever, those are just some of the things that are challenges.”

Zvosec won 54 games in five seasons with the fledgling Ospreys, who were affixed to Division II status longer than he or anybody had anticipated. Not until 2004 did North Florida make the Division I transition.

UMKC had only been in Division I for 13 years when Zvosec joined Dean Demopoulos’ staff as an assistant, and when Demopoulos bolted hastily for the NBA after one season, Zvosec was promoted to head coach in 2001.

“People always like to say the toughest 6 inches in basketball is the 6 inches you move from being in the assistant’s chair into the head-coaching chair,” Zvosec says. “Now all of a sudden your suggestions are no longer suggestions. They’re decisions. It’s much easier to suggest than it is to decide.”

But those decisions produced more wins at the Division I level than any coach in UMKC history with 84, and his .675 winning percentage in conference play from a 52-38 record has also been unequaled.

And the coach proved camera-ready when he became a popular spokesman for UMKC basketball with several TV promos for Roos season tickets.

Terry Mohajir, then the assistant athletic director, spoke to Zvosec about making commercials with Kasey Kangaroo, which is catnip to a guy who took an interest in acting while he was an assistant at American University.

The commercial where he puts the kangaroo through an on-court workout, but the viewer doesn’t realize it until much later when Kasey slides into the picture, was all Zvosec’s idea. There was also the ad where Zvosec secretly dresses in hospital scrubs and sells UMKC hoops to a maternity ward of babies to get an edge on recruiting. There were hints of a script, but Zvosec mostly ad-libbed them.

“It’s funny how much traction those commercials have gotten,” he says. “Last summer, I’m on a plane coming back from a speaking engagement. I’m sitting in the middle seat and the guy keeps looking at me, and I’m thinking he’s going to remember me as being the coach at UMKC or maybe he’s a Big 12 fan and he’s seen a game. He looks at me and says, ‘Are you the guy that used to do those kangaroo commercials for UMKC?’ I said, ‘Yes I am.’ Then I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I was also the coach.’ And he says, ‘Really? You were the coach as well?’”


Of Adversity and Advantage

A great byproduct of coaching is that Zvosec talks often to some of his former players. Michael Watson is UMKC’s all-time leading scorer and values the man-to-man conversations he’s had with Zvosec during and after his playing days. One of those was on a road trip for a game with Southern Utah University his junior year, with the mountains as their backdrop, as teacher and pupil took off for a couple miles on a walk-and-talk, mostly about family.

“I met Coach Zvosec when I was an 18-year-old kid fresh out of high school, thinking I knew everything. When I left, I was a 23-year-old man and a new father,” Watson says. “We would just talk about the importance of being responsible, the importance of taking advantage of my God-given ability and talent, and using it to take care of myself and my family. We talked about what that looked like academically, what that looked like on the court being a leader for the team and off the court in our community.”

When the Roos slumped to a 20-loss season in 2007, Zvosec was fired.

On his birthday.

It was the first time he’d been booted in 25 years of coaching, and this was certainly a special kind of firing. It’s the subject of one of his presentations as a speaker and his book entitled “Happy Birthday, You’re Fired: A Game Plan to Reignite the Passion,” which could be published in the spring.

Zvosec draws a few gifts from that day, not the least of which is having a great story. But it’s helped him practice what he’s preached to his players about learning from every experience and, as he says, turning adversity into advantage.

“And that’s basically what I’ve done since then, try to stay open and do whatever I can do to impact people positively around me,” Zvosec says.

Other than his public speaking appearances, Zvosec does consulting work for Kansas City-based Nothing by Chance Coaching, where he coaches people and businesses in areas of accountability. But press row is also his niche, explaining the game of basketball to both Missouri Valley and Big 12 viewers. Broadcasting alongside Big 12 play-by-play man Dave Armstrong this season, he’s worked such games as Kansas at Texas Tech (an unattractive 60-46 KU win) and Oklahoma at Kansas State (a slightly more attractive 69-60 K-State win).

Zvosec’s multifaceted post-coaching career has meant fewer U-Hauls, which is what the Overland Park resident wanted for his wife, Sandy, and his family. His oldest son, Colin, went to seven different schools in 12 years while his dad coached. And Zvosec wasn’t about to let that happen again with his other two kids, Devin and Kailey. The two boys graduated from Bishop Miege, while daughter Kailey graduated from Shawnee Mission South.

Why else has it been a great setup for him? Zvosec paraphrases something that ESPN’s Dick Vitale is known to quip: “I haven’t lost a game in six years.”

Follow Rich Zvosec on Twitter @CoachZZ. And you can search YouTube for his UMKC commercials.