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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Once a Sagehen .../ NBA Coach Greg Popovich

Sagehen Wisdom

By Bill Plaschke

To the rest of the world, he’s “Pop.”

To the guys at Pomona-Pitzer, he’s “Poppo.”

“Guy gets in the NBA and goes monosyllabic on us,” said Tim Dignan (Pitzer ’86).

To the rest of the world, Gregg Popovich is the white-haired Red, the fox in the Zenhouse, the guy who has quietly become the NBA’s best coach, of its best team. To the guys at Pomona-Pitzer, he was a coach who lived in a dorm and worked out of a converted storage closet and drove the school van and directed … intramurals?

“You watch him on TV today and you can’t believe it,” said Dignan, a former player. “This is Poppo, the guy who was once in charge of inner-tube water polo.”

It is strange, surprising, perhaps the most unlikely story of these NBA Finals, this coach of the San Antonio Spurs having spent eight seasons on the rickety bench of the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens.

“I don’t think it’s something many people realize,” said Charlie Katsiaficas, former Popovich assistant and current Sagehen head coach. “But it’s something we’ll never forget.”

Blended into the tree-lined campuses of the five colleges in Claremont, the Pomona-Pitzer program is the combined athletic teams of Pomona College and Pitzer College. The combined enrollment (2,400) is low. The combined SAT scores are high. The athletic scholarships are zilch.

Poppo showed up in 1979 to take over a program that had not won a conference championship in more than a decade. Poppo, with still-dark hair, with one patched-sleeved, plaid sport coat, with loud ties that never reached his belt, with no idea.

“He was not ready for what was about to happen to him,” said former player Kurt Herbst ’82.

The gym was ancient and tiny, with scoreboards on the walls and wooden backboards on the sides. The locker room was open, with a partition that didn’t reach the ceiling, so anyone could just climb right over.

Poppo’s duties included chairing the Student Life committee, so he and his family of four lived for two years in Harwood dorm. His office wasn’t close enough to the basketball floor, so he cleaned out a closet and worked there.

And, oh yeah, the team stank. In his first season, they went 2–22, even allowing Caltech to get its first conference win after 99 consecutive losses.

Those wild pep talks to wide-eyed Tim Duncan on TV? This is where it all started. “Against Caltech he shouted at us, ‘Look at that guy! He got a 1600 on his SAT and he has a handkerchief in his pocket to clean his glasses and he’s still kicking your butt!’” recalled Herbst.

That reliance on defense and smarts, this is where it all started. “I remember him giving us a defensive lecture, saying, ‘Do not move your head up and down like a sine wave,’” said Dignan, referring to a math term. “I looked around and realized, it’s amazing, we all understand what he’s saying.”

His treating the Spurs mostly like interchangeable parts—that comes from a time when he didn’t have a choice. “It’s no coincidence that the Spurs look more like a college team than anyone else in the NBA,” said Curt Tong, former athletic director at Pomona. “When he was here, he never judged guys by the points they score, but the roles they play.”

Eight seasons and one year-long sabbatical after arriving, Poppo left the Sagehens to become a Spur assistant coach, but his legacy has remained. He broke the championship drought in 1986. He built a program that has won seven titles in the last dozen seasons. He taught a bunch of unwitting young men that success comes from sacrifice, that titles are about team.

It is something he is still teaching today. “It’s strange, but we watch the Spurs’ games on TV, it’s like we’re watching Poppo coach Pomona-Pitzer,” said Kirk Jones, longtime trainer. “He does the same things.”

You think he gets mad when the Spurs aren’t playing smart against the Pistons? Ask the Pomona-Pitzer guys about the time they weren’t playing smart against Menlo ... or was it Vanguard ... maybe Occidental?

He once punched his hand through a chalkboard. Another time he threw chalk at his star. Yet another time, he stood in the middle of the locker room and challenged someone, anyone on his team to punch him.

“Lots of people think kids at Division III are something less,” said Katsiaficas. “Poppo never did. He had a vision for this program. He wanted this to be the most important program in the country.”

You think Popovich worries about going on the road to Detroit? In his final season at Pomona-Pitzer, he didn’t even have a home gym. Renovations forced his team to practice down the street at Claremont McKenna College, at 5:30 a.m., where they would always find Poppo waiting for them.

“The heat would be turned on and the music would be turned up,” said former player Rick Duque. “He didn’t accept any excuses.”

And then there is Popovich’s ability to keep perspective, perhaps stemming from a moment during the 1987-88 season, when Pomona-Pitzer visited Kansas and was defeated, 94-38. During the game, Kansas coach Larry Brown grabbed the public address microphone and implored fans to stop chanting “air-ball.”

Popovich told his Division III players to just look around historic Allen Fieldhouse and enjoy. “Is this great or what?” he said he told his players. “We’re going to get our butts kicked. I don’t care. You don’t care. We’re going to enjoy the heck out of this.”

This was the Popovich who would drive players to the hospital, house them in his apartment, invite everyone over for something called Serbian tacos.

By the end of his tenure there, Popovich had become such a part of student life, serving on various faculty committees and recognized as an assistant professor, that he initially balked when called to the Spurs by his mentor, Brown.

“He asked me two questions,” recalled Dignan. “He said, ‘Who is on the team besides David Robinson? And, what is an illegal defense?’”

Since joining the Spurs, Popovich has learned this strange league while never forgetting his comfortable roots. He tells friends that the SCIAC championship basketball has been the only one displayed in his office.

When the Spurs are blown out, he has been known to compare it to a Pomona-Pitzer playoff beating at the hands of Nebraska Wesleyan.

And if any of his former players or coaches call him?

Well, he often calls them first.

When he’s in town to play the Lakers, he tries to attend a game or practice. When Pomona-Pitzer visited Trinity University in San Antonio, he not only attended the game, he hung out with the team later at the hotel. Any friends from the old days who want tickets, they’ve got them. He has hosted them at parties after the Spurs won NBA championships. He has physically illustrated plays from them outside locker rooms.

“We’re in Phoenix, and Poppo is moving people around this hallway to show me a play, and Robert Horry walks by and tells him to quit giving away their secrets,” recalled Dignan. “Poppo is amazing. He’s as down to earth now as he was back then.”

And when somebody dares break up the detailed basketball talk to ask him about Pomona-Pitzer, which happened in a press conference last season? “It was wonderful,” he said later adding, “It gave you a real breadth of experience ... that’s what I thought I would always do.”

He was then asked, did anything learned at Pomona-Pitzer apply to the NBA? A bold question, but one that could be answered by eight years’ worth of former Division III players who have delighted in seeing their nice little game carried to the sport’s grandest stage by a guy who has changed only the patches on his jacket.

“You might think I’m teasing you,” Poppo said, “but everything applies.”

Copyright 2005, the Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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