KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When former UMKC basketball coach Rich Zvosec heard the news that UMKC was leaving the Summit League (formerly the Mid-Continent Conference) to join the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) next year, he couldn’t believe it.
“One of my former assistant coaches texted me the news,” Zvosec told FOX Sports, “and I thought ‘Does the WAC even exist anymore?’ I had to go look up the conference to see what teams were in it.
“I know that conference had some prestige at one time when UNLV was in it, and Boise State and Utah and BYU. But you look at the teams now, and it’s hard to understand what the advantage would be (for UMKC) to leave the Summit.
“It’s very confusing to me.”
Zvosec was fired in 2007 after six seasons and remains the school’s winningest basketball coach with a record of 84-91 – a figure that tells you what a struggle it has been for UMKC’s program to gain traction in Kansas City.
And that’s why Zvosec’s firing did not sit well with the media or with UMKC’s limited fan base at the time — Zvosec got the Kangaroos to the brink of the NCAA tournament three straight years starting in 2003-2004. UMKC has yet to earn an NCAA bid in its 25-year history in Division I.
Even after that unpopular firing, Zvosec remained in Kansas City and continued to be a supporter of the program, albeit from a distance. So UMKC’s recent decision to switch to the WAC was an especially curious one to him.
“It’s kind of like going in reverse,” Zvosec said. “I can remember back when UMKC got into the Mid-Continent Conference in the 1990s, the complaint was that the teams in that conference were too far away and too scattered about. You had Buffalo and Central Connecticut and Southern Utah and Troy State (Alabama). Logistically, it was a nightmare.
“And in terms of the fans, you didn’t have enough teams geographically close by to create a sense of any rivalries. But the league slowly fixed some of that. You had Oral Roberts come aboard. You had Oakland and Chicago State. You started getting schools that made geographic sense.”
But now, Zvosec points out, the Kangaroos will go back to playing teams scattered throughout the West — Cal State- Bakersfield, Grand Canyon (Ariz.), Idaho, New Mexico State, Seattle, Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley.
“Kind of hard to see how that’s going to help draw fan interest here,” Zvosec said.
And drawing fans always has been tough for UMKC, especially lately. The team had played most of its games either at Kemper Arena or at Municipal Auditorium until present athletic director Tim Hall moved the ‘Roos on campus to the Swinney Center, which seats only about 1,000 fans.
By contrast, in Zvosec’s third season as coach, UMKC had 3,500 season-ticket holders and was averaging nearly 6,000 fans a game – modest numbers by most Division I standards but compared to the paltry crowds now, the crowds were impressive.
“We were able to create somewhat of a buzz in this town,” Zvosec said. “It was fun.”
Now, however, that local interest in the ‘Roos is but a distant memory.
Hall replaced Zvosec with Matt Brown as coach, and the results have not been pretty. Brown has had no winning seasons in conference play through five seasons, and is 63-117 overall.
UMKC is 7-19 overall this season.
There is very little media coverage of UMKC any more, though that is at least partly due to the mass layoffs in recent years at The Kansas City Star, which no longer has a small-college beat.
“No question, that the coverage has pretty much vanished,” Zvosec said. “But then again, some of that also has to do with winning and losing. If you’re winning, you will get covered. And if you’re winning, fans will come to see you.
“The years we had winning records, we had fan interest.”
Zvosec said he harbors no ill will toward UMKC or the program he almost built into a NCAA tournament team.
“I just feel bad for the players throughout the years,” Zvosec said. “The Michael Watsons and Tim Blackwells and Quinton Days. Those guys are hometown guys and I know it’s embarrassing for them to see the program go the way it has. Those guys took pride in playing for UMKC. They stayed here, in their hometown, to play. Quinton transferred back (from USC) to play here.
“And now the program is obviously really struggling.”
Switching leagues isn’t likely the answer, either.