Former Sagehens Coach Gregg Popovich Enshrined in Basketball Hall of Fame

Coach Gregg Popovich in Pomona-Pitzer huddle

The winningest coach in NBA history, a five-time NBA champion, three-time NBA Coach of the Year, coach of an Olympic gold medal team and now—a hall of famer. San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich joins a league of basketball legends as one of the latest members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Popovich accepted his place in the basketball history books Saturday during a televised ceremony in Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of basketball.

Popovich’s accomplishments as a coach are undeniable: 27 seasons at the helm of the Spurs, including a record-tying 22-season playoff streak that ended in 2020 and, of course, 1,366 regular-season wins and counting, the most of any coach in NBA history. But none of that was quite imaginable in 1979 when he became the head coach of Pomona-Pitzer’s men’s basketball team, finishing the season with a 2-22 record that included a loss to Caltech, which snapped a 99-game losing streak for the Beavers. However, within six years, Pomona-Pitzer would win a SCIAC title and reach the NCAA Division III Tournament.

Popovich told the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn earlier this year that despite his storied coaching career, he was reluctant to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

“I never felt like I really belonged, to be honest with you. I’m not trying to be Mr. Humble or anything. I’m a Division III guy, not a Hall of Fame guy. So, it never really registered. It was embarrassing to think about, to tell you the truth. I’m a product of serendipity more than anything,” Popovich said.

Peter Osgood ’81 played for Popovich in his first couple of seasons with Pomona-Pitzer. Osgood says he learned so much from the future hall of famer in those early years as they worked to build a competitive program.

“He could be incredibly warm and generous and understanding, at times funny. He could also be fierce and intimidating,” Osgood says.

While coaching the Sagehens, Popovich and his young family lived on Pomona’s campus in Harwood Court. Chris Ballard ’95, a contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, has done extensive coverage of Popovich and his time with Pomona-Pitzer, and recalls hearing a story that Popovich played intramurals with some of the professors and became immersed in life on a college campus.

“He befriended students, made them ‘Serbian tacos’ and spent hours talking to them about politics and culture,” Ballard says.

Emeritus Professor of Politics Lorn Foster arrived at Pomona around the same time Popovich did and was able to get to know him. He describes Popovich as a teacher on and off the court. In a press conference leading up to the Hall of Fame ceremony, Popovich spoke about his need to teach and see his players grow as the main reasons he continues to coach.

Popovich has come a long way from his time in the City of Trees to a national platform recognizing the best in basketball. He was presented his award by his former Spurs players Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and David Robinson.

“It’s incredible. It’s obviously an honor, something that one does not think about while going through your years in this game,” Popovich said during a segment of ESPN’s televised announcement of the 12 inductees for 2023. “It’s an awesome thought to just think about all the players that I’ve had the honor to coach, who are the ones who won the games. And I sit here amongst people who I’ve always been in awe of myself. So to be in this situation is kind of an out-of-body experience, to be honest with you. All I can do is thank all the people that have helped me to be in this position.”

Charles Katsiaficas succeeded Popovich as Pomona-Pitzer’s coach in 1988 and continues to coach the Sagehens, passing 500 career wins during the 2019-2020 season. Coach Katsiaficas says he was thrilled and honored to be invited to the ceremony by Popovich.

“I feel so lucky to have him as a mentor through the years, and to have been with him since the early days during his first head coaching job. People see him now and just know him as a successful NBA coach. They don’t know the time and great work he put in through the years, from the Air Force Academy to Pomona-Pitzer, and all the way up to the top of the mountain,” Katsiaficas says. “He is one of the most driven, motivated and innovative people I have ever known. And he never has forgotten his time here. He continues to be a great ambassador for Pomona-Pitzer basketball and a great mentor and friend.”

Popovich’s influence on the game of basketball goes beyond wins and titles. He has paved the way for other coaches to find success. One in particular is fellow Sagehen and NBA champion Mike Budenholzer ’92. Budenholzer led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title in 2021. Popovich gave Budenholzer his first NBA break when he hired him to be the Spurs’ video coordinator and then made him an assistant coach in San Antonio for 19 years.

Popovich also hired former WNBA star Becky Hammon in 2014, who became the first woman to be a full-time NBA assistant coach when she served on his staff. Hammon, current head coach of the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces, is also in the 2023 Hall of Fame class for her playing career.

He has the records, the wins, the championships, but the true legacy of this “Division III guy” is how he used the game of basketball to inspire and uplift those around him.