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Z's the Man

UMKC basketball coach Rich Zvosec suits up.

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The University of Missouri-Kansas City's third head basketball coach in three seasons is despondent after a 62-50 loss to nationally ranked and undefeated Oklahoma State on December 19. Rich Zvosec's shoulders slump as he makes his way to the bowels of Municipal Auditorium to meet the largest contingent of local media he's confronted so far this season.

He trudges along hand-in-hand with his seven-year-old daughter, Kailey, who sports a pink scrunchie in her long blond ponytail. Zvosek stops and bends down to ask her if she'd like to go upstairs with Mommy. "I'd rather be with you," she says without hesitation. "Where are we going?"

Kailey has no idea how appropriate her question is. In May of 2000, UMKC Athletic Director Bob Thomas infuriated the media and local high-school basketball coaches when he attempted to "raise the bar" for 'Roos basketball by firing the popular but unsuccessful Bob Sundvold and hiring Temple University assistant Dean Demopoulos. After a 14-16 season, Demopoulos resigned, and Zvosec, a Demop assistant, inherited one of the least attractive jobs in Division I basketball. Just where the UMKC men's basketball program is going has been the question ever since.

Coach Z is taller than he looks in the popular TV commercial running on Metro Sports, where he's lying down on the court urging the Kangaroo mascot to work harder. He's six-foot-four and very thin. Coach thin. The kind of thin you get when you take a job that requires that you work through lunch and most dinners just to be competitive. Over the past fourteen years, UMKC has had only four winning seasons. The team has no Mid-Continent Conference titles, and only one postseason win since becoming a Division I basketball school in 1986.

How did a high school track coach's son from Lorain, Ohio, end up here? "In the seventh grade I wanted to be a sportswriter," Zvosec recalls. "I loved Notre Dame football. I would read the game story in the Lorain Journal, and then I would write my own. I always thought mine was better."

By the eighth grade, he says, he knew he would be a basketball coach. And when Coach Marv Hohenberger recruited him to play basketball at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, Zvosec says, "the only question I asked him was if he could help me get a job as a coach after I graduated. I had seen kids who ran track for my dad come back years after they graduated just to say hello and to say thanks. That made an impression on me."

Now Zvosec is making his own impressions. He has the 'Roos off to their best start ever. As of last Friday, UMKC's only two losses have been to KU and Oklahoma State -- two of the best teams in the nation. And his Joe Lunchpail personality has reversed the image of UMKC basketball among Kansas City's media and the all-important feeder high-school programs.

"Rich is doing a great job," says Mark Nusbaum, head basketball coach at Rockhurst High School. "I see him at a lot of Kansas City high-school basketball games. I think he has improved the relationship between high-school coaches and UMKC this year because now he gets to make more decisions."

And getting the local scribes to accept his program as legit is a huge step in his ability to market the 'Roos and accomplish his long-range recruiting goals. After Thomas canned Sundvold, Jason Whitlock made UMKC a target. Between his WHB 810 morning radio show and his Kansas City Star column, Whitlock ridiculed, embarrassed and demeaned the university and its men's basketball program almost daily. But after the Oklahoma State game two weeks ago, Whitlock stayed long after other reporters had finished their postgame interviews with Zvosec. The two chuckled and talked like old friends. This might be a more impressive accomplishment for Zvosec than his season-opening seven straight wins.

"The Kansas City media are fair," Zvosec says. "And I mean fair as in just. Let's be honest, I was here last year, so I'm surely not going to say they're soft."

At the same time, Zvosec's own weekly radio show on 810, which is hosted by Danny Clinkscale, is anything but coach-speak. You're more likely to hear about one of Zvosec's three kids or his love for the TV series Frasier than about the Xs and Os of a 'Roos game. "A good friend of mine is Bob Valvano, the brother of the late Jim Valvano," Zvosec says. "We used to joke about coaches' shows that were on TV or the radio, especially the football coaches' shows. They sit there and say stuff like, 'We're running a 36-veer right here, and there Billy missed the block, and we got tackled for a one-yard gain.' It's like fingernails on a chalkboard! I always thought if I ever got a chance to do a show, I would be kinda nutty."

And Zvosec's goofy commercial hasn't hurt his popularity. "I'm amazed at the response that TV commercial has gotten," he says. "People drive by my house and yell, 'Hey coach, loved the commercial!'" The shoot took almost three and a half hours inside Municipal Auditorium back in August. "We didn't want to pay to rent Municipal, so they said, 'The floor is down, and you can use it, but we're not turning on the air conditioner,'" Zvosec remembers. "I felt bad for the cameraman because he's in there running up and down the steps in long pants. And the kangaroo came in for maybe the last fifteen minutes. She had to practice the dive and the hug, and then she was out of there. Meanwhile, I'm sweatin' my ass off."

Actually, Zvosec probably started sweating in June, the day he accepted the UMKC job. "One thing I will promise you is that I will do everything in my power to make this program at UMKC something special, something this city deserves," Zvosec said at his inaugural press conference. He promised "to try to make this program so big and so good that it captures the heart and soul of this city."

The cameras, lights and reporters are gone now, and Zvosec scoops up Kailey in his left arm and plants a kiss on his daughter's right cheek. She giggles and hugs his neck. The feelings left by the loss to Oklahoma State are starting to wane, replaced by the reality that losing by only twelve points to a top-five team coached by Eddie Sutton is not all that bad.

The next day in his campus office, Zvosec is downright jovial. "Everybody kept asking me why I kept wearing the same suit to our first seven games," he says. "They wanted to know if I wasn't making enough money. I just told them I was wearing this suit till we lose. I've got a few superstitions when it comes to games, and that's one of them. I already sent the suit I wore for the Oklahoma State game to the cleaners. It will have to go to the end of the line before it can come back for a game. Not that the line is very long. I think if we lose one more game, I'll be wearing it again."

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