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The Kovach decision may not rank with the Bakke decision, but it is a particularly compelling case in point, the point being that excellence on the gridiron is not antithetical to excellence in the classroom. Jim Kovach, a Phi Beta Kappa, is a first-year student in medical school. He spends as many as 20 hours a day plumbing the mysteries of gross anatomy, histology, biochemistry and conjoint sciences. Ordinarily, med school alone is almost more than a person can handle, so almost everyone at the University of Kentucky was astounded when Kovach decided that he also intended to finish his varsity football career. "Doc," as his teammates call him, is one of the nation's premier linebackers, a 6'2" 226-pounder who was picked as a preseason All-America.
The Kovach decision might not be all that unusual at some less athletically oriented college where "student-athlete" is more than a public-relations phrase. But Kovach is tackling his academic load at a school where football is anything but a casual diversion. In the Southeastern Conference, coaches have been known to be fired fast if they didn't win, and Kentucky alumni want to win; the Wildcats draw a full house of almost 58,000 every time they play in Lexington. Last season Kentucky was 10-1 and ranked sixth in the AP poll, and the only reason it did not play in a bowl was because it was on NCAA probation for improper recruiting and for giving students extra financial aid and benefits. That is big time. Yet Kovach, with the acquiescence of his coaches, has missed more practices than he has made this fall. While his teammates are out there sweating and grunting and pondering Xs and Os, their defensive captain is more likely to be found in Kentucky's Medical Center Lab tackling Gray's Anatomy.
A quiet, thoughtful young man, Kovach is well aware of just how special his situation is. He considered it recently during a rare break for dinner at a Lexington restaurant. Usually Kovach stays at the Medical Center and eats a brown-bag supper that his wife Debbie—oh, yes, he also is a husband and the father of a 3-year-old son—packs for him every morning. That saves a little time, and time is precious to Kovach.
"I respect the coaches for suppressing their instincts as coaches and helping me," said Kovach. "Their instincts are for me to practice. After all, their jobs are on the line. Can you imagine me at another major college, saying to another coach that I was going to have to miss most of the practices, and that even when I go I can't work too hard because I have to study? Or that on road trips they will have to send a police car to pick me up from class and hold the team plane 10 minutes or so until I get there?"
Kentucky Coach Fran Curci shrugs off the inconvenience. Part of the reason might be the Wildcats' 3-4-1 season, which would prompt any coach to accommodate an esteemed player.
"We've had the understanding right from the outset that medical school comes first," Curci says. "Anything he needs to do, he does it. He's an exceptional kid. There's not a kid on our team who has the slightest resentment that he misses practice. They respect him for what he's doing because nobody else could do it."
The arrangement obviously works hardships not only on Kovach but also on the team, which must practice without a key player. By missing so much time, Kovach isn't the player he could be, as Debbie pointed out to him after the Maryland game early in the season.
"She told me to quit going after a runner's feet and start looking for his body," Kovach says. "That's something I had never done before. It's pretty bad when your wife starts to tell you what you did wrong. When she's right, it's even worse. But when you're practicing so little, the hardest thing is keeping your technique up. You slip into bad habits if you don't do it over and over and over again."
Kovach's most avid supporter, other than Debbie, is Curci. The coach realizes that Kovach, even when he is at less than his best, still is better than most linebackers in the nation. Nevertheless, player and coach had a misunderstanding early in the season, and medical school was at the bottom of it.
During the home opener against Baylor, which the Wildcats won 25-21, Kovach twice called timeouts to check the signals he was getting from the coaches on the sidelines. As a result, Kentucky had no time-outs left late in the game when it desperately needed them to stave off a Baylor comeback. Afterward, Curci said his defensive captain had missed so much practice because of med school that he had not properly assimilated all the signals and formations. Kovach disagrees.