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Photo of Jim Kovach in football uniformJim Kovach: B.S., M.D., J.D. and All-SEC Linebacker

by Jeff Worley

When faced with the decision to either play professional football or work toward a medical degree, Jim Kovach made the choice that surprised nobody who knew him: he chose both.

Kovach earned a B.S. in biology (cum laude) in 1978 and an M.D. with distinction from UK in 1984 before getting a law degree at Stanford University four years later ("I just thought getting a law degree would be an interesting thing to do"). The former UK defensive linebacker could serve as a one-man wrecking crew for the perdurable stereotype of the student athlete as a dumb jock hanging out in the back row of Basket Weaving 101.

"I loved the academic life, and I loved playing football," says Kovach, who for the past few years has been vice president of NetGenics, a software company in Cleveland that works with research labs and pharmaceutical companies to manage discovery research data. "So I put a lot of effort into both."

Even before his university days, Kovach acknowledged the two loves of his life, which coalesced in what he calls a "quite unusual first trip to Lexington" when he was being recruited from high school in Valley Forge, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

"When I was in my senior year of high school, Coach [Fran] Curci came on a recruiting trip and brought along Dr. Nicholas Pisacano to meet me. Dr. Pisacano is the founder of the American Academy of Family Physicians and was a huge backer of Curci's. This blew me away." When Kovach came to Lexington the weekend of the UK-Tennessee football game in 1973, instead of touring the campus as the other recruits were doing, he spent that Saturday morning watching an operation at the medical center.

"Dr. Pisacano set this up with Dr. Ward Griffin, who took me to the med center library, then took me to watch him perform an abdominal operation," Kovach recalls. "For me, this was the perfect way to spend a few hours before the Tennessee game."

As an undergraduate at UK, Kovach says he remembers "running between classes a lot." One of these classes he ran to was a biology class taught by Pisacano. "This was a class on human biology. It was a fantastic introduction to the complexity and wonder of human life." Kovach says that at least one other class stands out in his memory, another biology course taught by Dr. Pritam Sabharwahl ("a very wise and good man").

Kovach says that his first year as a Wildcat linebacker was full of fine memories. "I got to play a lot as a freshman and we ended up with a winning record (6-5). The most memorable game for me was with Florida. They came to play us and were ranked in the top 10, and we knocked them off-we just crushed them in Commonwealth Stadium. And for me to be a part of that as a freshman was unbelievably exciting."

He adds that a major disappointment that year was the Tennessee game. Both teams were 6-4, and the winner of the game would head to the Liberty Bowl. "They ended up beating us with some weird, overbalanced line formation," Kovach recalls. "We never could adjust to it."

The team really came together, he says, in his junior and senior years. "We became a dominant team, and it was fun to go out every time expecting to win against teams like Florida and Georgia and LSU, teams you'd seen as a kid play on TV, and then just go out and matter-of-factly beat them up. That was a lot of fun."

To be successful as a student and as an athlete was always a challenging balancing act of time management, Kovach admits. The only way to do it, he says, was to realize that "something had to go," and for him that something was socializing on weekday evenings. "What I gave up was hanging around with guys on weeknights. I still had good friendships but was viewed as kind of an oddball because I was always studying."

"I remember one of Jim's professors saying that Jim was the most time-managed person he'd ever met," says Bob Bradley, director of UK's Center for Academic Tutorial (CAT) Services. "He'd be talking to other students or a professor after class for a few minutes, then say, 'I'd like to talk with you some more, but I'm scheduled in the library right now.'"

Though Bradley wouldn't go so far as to agree with Kovach's characterization of himself as an "oddball," Bradley does recall his former mentee as "not your big prototype football player. Jim would walk across campus wearing wire-rim glasses, his books tucked way up under an arm. He looked very astute, not much at all like a football player." Bradley characterizes Kovach's appearance as his "Clark Kent disguise," pointing out that Kovach was probably the hardest-hitting linebacker UK had had in years. He was voted an All-SEC linebacker in 1978.

Photo of Fitzgerald Bramwell and Jim KovachJim Kovach, on a recent visit to UK, with Fitzgerald Bramwell, vice president of Research and Graduate Studies

Kovach credits Bradley for the strong academic support he received. Through the center (the first academic center for student-athletes in the nation) athletes were provided with books and tutors. "I probably used tutors more than anyone else on the team," Kovach says.

Being drafted by the New Orleans Saints after he graduated from UK was another dream come true for Kovach. "It had been a goal of mine since I was a kid," he says, "and I'll never forget that first play as a pro. We were playing the Falcons in the Superdome in front of 82,000 people. Absolute chaos, total pandemonium. And from the first step the kicker took until the end of the play a few seconds later, everything was locked in slow motion. I know this sounds like a cliché, but that's how I experienced it."

Although he never made it to the Superbowl, Kovach did have one great season, he says. In 1983 the Saints' defense was ranked number one in the NFL in fewest yards given up, and Kovach was voted by his teammates as Most Valuable Player of that defense.

During his first six years with the Saints, Kovach also attended medical school at UK. He would typically enroll for the spring semester and work through June; then he'd report to the Saints training camp in mid to late July. "The Saints never made the playoffs in those years, unfortunately, so I was always able to head right back to UK after Christmas," Kovach says.

As his studies progressed, he says he particularly appreciated Emory Wilson in obstetrics/gynecology and Ward Griffith in surgery. "They seemed to sense the fine line I was treading between success and failure, and routinely took extra time to encourage me," says Kovach. He received his medical degree in 1984.

Adding a law degree from Stanford four years later, Kovach became a corporate and intellectual property attorney for the law firms Baker & Hostetler and Cooley Godward in Palo Alto, California. Then he moved on to the Edison BioTechnology Center, where he directed a program in which he evaluated medical technologies developed at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. In 1996, a year before joining NetGenics, Kovach became director of the Office of Technology Management at Case Western.

Asked if he plans any further career moves in the areas of genetics and technology transfer, Kovach replies, "Well, yes. I've decided to start my own company." Called Swivel Scientific Services, the company will provide software and services designed to help physicians and patients cope with the explosion of genetic data caused by the human genome project and the discovery of disease-associated genes.

"I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I'm really excited about it," Kovach says. "I've always wanted to get to this point. A tidal wave of genetic sequence information is making its way through the research labs now and starting to trickle out into the clinic in the form of new products and therapies, but it's nothing compared to what it's going to be in just a few years. The practice of medicine is set to change in dramatic and exciting ways because of our ability to discover new genes and associate them with diseases."

His confidence in the success of the new company is an offshoot, he says, from his days as a student here. "I remember the confidence I felt when I graduated that the training I received at the University of Kentucky was as good as any in the country, and I continue to feel that way. Having had the chance to work at Case Western allowed me to interface with clinicians from all over the world, and I've always been able to go toe-to-toe with any of them on subjects and issues of mutual interest."

And the name of Kovach's new company also has a UK connection. "I remember Coach Charlie Bailey saying to us in practice, 'You've got to keep your head on a swivel,'" Kovach says. "And since this company's focus will rotate from medicine to law to technology and back, this seemed like an appropriate name."