Before tipoff at Kansas’ famous Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 1, 1987, some Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens took photos of themselves in one of college basketball’s storied arenas. A few asked Jayhawks star Danny Manning, the soon-to-be player of the year and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, to pose with them.
When it was time for their pregame pep talk, their coach, who had one winning record in eight years at the NCAA Division III school, introduced them to Kansas coach Larry Brown.
A few months later, Brown cut down the nets as NCAA Division I champion.
“Enjoy this experience,” Brown told the Sagehens. “This is going to be better than anything else you experience as college players. Now, we’re going to kick your ass so don’t even worry about that. Just make sure you enjoy yourselves.”
After Brown left, Sagehens coach Gregg Popovich, “Popo” to his players, had some advice for those accustomed to playing before a few hundred fans on a campus known for academic excellence, liberal arts and free thinking.
” ‘Whatever you do, don’t hurt Danny Manning. Don’t take a charge against him. Don’t try to block his shot,’ ” recounted Rick Duque, a 6-foot-6 forward on the 1987-88 Pomona-Pitzer team.
The coaches’ relationship, which started at the 1972 Olympic tryouts, produced an improbable matchup of a national championship contender and a DIII school of little prestige.
Seven months after Brown’s powerful Jayhawks delivered a 94-38 beating to Popovich’s Sagehens, it caused a phone call that sowed the seeds of a Spurs’ dynasty. Fresh off that NCAA title, the Spurs hired Brown, who in turn hired Popovich.
That call came about in part because Brown — a 2002 Hall of Fame inductee, the only coach to win NCAA and NBA titles and currently guiding a revival at SMU at age 74 — and Popovich both found themselves in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the fall of 1986.
After guiding Pomona-Pitzer to its first conference title in 68 years, Popovich — with encouragement from athletic director Curt Tong — made arrangements to take a paid one-year sabbatical to do what amounted to a graduate-level study of basketball, first under North Carolina’s Dean Smith.
Smith had been an assistant at Air Force in the late 1950s under Bob Spear, Popovich’s coach when he played for the Falcons.
The time off turned out to be a momentous decision, both for Popovich and the Spurs, but at the time Popovich saw it only as a chance to learn more about his craft so he could become a better coach for the Sagehens.
“Pomona-Pitzer was a good fit for him,” said Atlanta Hawks head coach and former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who was recruited to the Sagehens by Popovich but never played for him. “And he has said many times he could have stayed there a long time. I can tell you that is the truth.”
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“This is going to be better than anything else you experience as college players”
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In Chapel Hill, Popovich availed himself of Smith’s voluminous library of instructional videos and was allowed to observe Tar Heels practice sessions and pick the brains of Smith’s assistants. He spent hours each evening journaling each day’s activities.
“It was a good opportunity to get my thoughts organized and to put things into folders,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Most coaches just don’t get the time to do that.”
On a 1986 visit to the North Carolina campus, where he had starred in the 1960s for coach Frank McGuire and then Smith, Brown reconnected with Popovich, who impressed him at the 1972 trials with his basketball acumen and competitiveness.
Brown sensed that Popovich wasn’t as fully involved with the North Carolina coaching staff as he wanted to be. Brown invited him to Kansas right away.
“He wasn’t doing a lot down there in Chapel Hill,” Brown said. “I told him to come stay with me at Kansas and he ended up spending the year with me there. He sat on the bench and was a big part of our program.”
Brown encouraged Popovich’s input right from the start, treating him like the rest of his assistants.
“He was respectful,” Brown said. “Everybody is respectful of the head coach, and especially coming from where he was coming from. But we spent so much time together and there was a lot of exchange of ideas and it was easy to see he has qualities that make him special.
“My whole thing is I can teach anybody all the basketball I was taught but you can’t teach loyalty. I always tell guys I can’t teach them to love me, so if they care about me that’s really important. I just loved him as a person. I respected his knowledge, obviously, but he’s also one of the most decent, loyal guys I’ve ever been around and I just wanted to be connected.”
Less than three months after Kansas’ Final Four triumph at the end of the 1987-88 season, Brown was named head coach of the Spurs and he wanted those characteristics on his bench.
“When I got the job in San Antonio the first call I made was to [Pop],” he said.
Popovich got the call after he had recruited several players who were academically qualified to attend Pomona or Pitzer. Among those was Budenholzer, who recalled what he thought would be his last conversation with Popovich: a phone call explaining why he would not be coaching the Sagehens the next season.
“He explained that he’d been offered this amazing situation he couldn’t pass up and was very excited about,” Budenholzer said. “Then he assured me Pomona would be a great school for me and that one of his assistants was taking over and he hoped it wouldn’t affect my decision but he understood if it did.
“I remember thinking our paths would never cross again.”
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“I can teach anybody all the basketball I was taught but you can’t teach loyalty”
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Popovich’s career in the NBA began with the worst season in Spurs history: a 21-61 campaign as the franchise waited for the conclusion of David Robinson’s service in the Navy. The tough sledding of the 1988-89 season reinforced Brown’s belief that Popovich would one day be the coach of his own NBA team.
“He’s bright as hell and he works as hard as can be,” Brown said. “He’s got a unique ability to be on guys but make them understand that he loves and cares about them, which he does.
“Doug Moe, Coach Smith, Coach [Frank] McGuire — the great coaches — can be demanding and get in your face but at the end of the day the players know you care and love them and they’ll do just about anything for them. Not everybody has that ability, but Pop clearly did.
“He worked at his job and constantly wanted to learn and get better and that’s rare, especially among elite coaches.”
Popovich’s values were shaped by the totality of his life experiences as a young player in basketball-mad Indiana: as a college player who had to prove himself to Spear at the U.S. Air Force Academy and his assistant, Hank Egan; on Armed Forces All-Star teams in international competitions in the 1970s; and then as a young coach, first at his alma mater and from 1979-88 at the most unlikely of proving grounds for the NBA at Pomona-Pitzer, where he accepted a job as head coach after leaving active duty as a captain in the Air Force.
It was Egan, who had been Popovich’s freshman and junior varsity coach during his first two seasons at Air Force, who brought him back to the academy as an assistant coach in 1973. That was two years after Egan replaced Spear on the Falcons’ bench.
Popovich’s first assignment, at age 24: head coach of the Air Force Academy Prep School, a one-year “junior college” for potential cadets unable to qualify academically for appointments to the academy straight out of high school.
Popovich’s history of encouraging his players to experience life, in all its forms and quirks, may have begun that first season on a long, springtime bus ride from the prep school to Alamosa, Colorado, on a highway snaking along the roaring, snowmelt-fed Arkansas River.
One his big men had sprained an ankle, so Popovich ordered the bus driver to pull off the highway and park near the river.
On the pretext of giving his injured player a chance to ease the swelling in his ankle, Popovich ordered the entire team to shed their shoes, roll up their slacks and wade in the icy water. Of course, he joined them in the river walk.
Years later he would explain that the wade in the water was not about icing an injury. Rather, it was so the players would have an experience to remember.
“I’m sure to this day they probably laugh at me about that,” he said.
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“I remember thinking our paths would never cross again”
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Egan moved Popovich up to a bench role for the Falcons in 1974 because he recognized his potential as a coach.
“He’s a basketball junkie, for one thing,” Egan told the Express-News in 2005. “He had a passion for it and he thought about it in an intelligent way.”
In 1979, Popovich and fellow Air Force assistant coach Reggie Minton, a U.S. Air Force Major, were on a recruiting trip in Los Angeles when Minton got a call that would change Popovich’s life. It was from an old college friend who was on faculty at Pomona College.
Pomona-Pitzer needed a basketball coach. Did Minton want it?
“At that point in time, I was committed to the military, beyond the point I could pick up and leave without making a sacrifice to my years in the service,” said Minton, who later would replace Egan as Air Force head coach and now serves as executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “I turned it down but recommended that Pop would be perfect for the job so my friend said to have Pop send him his vitae.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is a vitae?’ I knew right then and there I wasn’t the right guy for that job. But that was the beginning for Pop and it went from there.”
What Popovich discovered at Pomona-Pitzer was paradise for academics and free thinkers. Pomona College and Pitzer College are two of the five undergraduate schools that make up the Claremont Colleges, located on a one-square mile campus between Los Angeles and San Bernardino in Claremont, California, and self described as “reminiscent of the Oxford-Cambridge model.”
Campus life within the Claremont square mile is unique.
“It’s an incredible setting and environment with the five colleges,” said Budenholzer, Pomona Class of 1992, and Popovich’s assistant coach for 16 seasons before being hired as head coach of the Hawks in 2013. “I always tell people you might go from one campus to another and you wouldn’t even know it’s five different campuses. I don’t know if it exists anywhere else, to have five liberal arts schools that are one community that really gets along and still has pride in its own college.
“I loved it. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about it and it’s really the people. I know most people love their college and have positive experiences but I was around amazing people that I loved. It’s just a great, great place.”
Intercollegiate athletics at the campus are kept in perspective. Players truly are student-athletes — no athletic scholarships are offered — and attendance at games is, to be kind, sparse.
“Nobody comes to the games,” Budenholzer said. “It’s a little humbling. You put in all those hours because you love it. You’re not getting the chicks or free meals. There’s no training table. The league we play in you get in a couple vans and you drive from Claremont to Cal Lutheran or Occidental or wherever. We took these horrible sack lunches. I ate a lot of soggy sandwiches.”
When Popovich arrived, the Sagehens were one of the worst college basketball teams in NCAA Division III. In his first season, 1979-80, they went 2-22 and even lost a league game to the perennially bad Caltech, owners of NCAA records for futility.
By the time he departed, in 1988, he left the framework for one of the best programs in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Sagehens won the conference title in 1986, making the first of what are now 11 trips to the NCAA DIII tournament.
“When Pop got there, Division III basketball was a half-step up from intramurals and wasn’t taken seriously on a lot of different levels,” Budenholzer said. “I don’t know if this happened other places earlier, but he really took Pomona-Pitzer basketball from something that wasn’t taken seriously and turned it into a program.
“He had to do everything and by the time I got there [in 1988], we were building a nice gym and recruited. He came there and took something and built it out of next to nothing. I had brothers who were there and played for him so I can tell you that is no exaggeration.”
Popovich and his family were blissfully happy in such a beautiful, stimulating environment, but it was after his seventh season as head coach when Tong, the athletic director, encouraged him to take the one-year leave.
Before Popovich returned to Pomona-Pitzer, Brown promised to put his Sagehens on the Jayhawks’ schedule for the next season, setting up that Dec. 1, 1987, blowout that Duque and his teammates remember now with such fondness.
Even in being routed by Kansas, Popovich showed the same competitive fire that has made the 65-year-old coach one of the greatest in NBA history, a three-time coach of the year with five NBA titles and 33 wins shy of the ninth coach to reach 1,000 in the NBA.
When that game started, the Jayhawks ran the same play on four straight possessions to produce lob dunks to start the blowout Brown had promised.
“When the ball went up, he forgot all of that stuff he told us,” Duque said of Popovich. “Kansas ran that back pick-and-throw-the-lob four times in a row and he called a timeout and let us have it. He started with, ‘Are we going to compete, or not?’
“Let’s just say that was not a good timeout.”
The Popovich way, then and now: Play hard. Value relationships. Be loyal. Give 100 percent in everything you do. And compete … above all, compete.
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“He … took something and built it out of next to nothing”
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Today, Duque is a teacher and head basketball coach at The Webb School in Claremont, a private college preparatory school. The lessons he learned from Popovich still resonate.
“Popo loves to compete and that’s what I learned from him: competition and that’s what life is,” Duque said. “That’s what basketball brought to me, that you give 100 percent in everything that we do and we take care of each other in everything we do. We take care of relationships no matter where people are in the pecking order. From the custodians to the guys that clean the gym floor to the secretaries, we treat everybody the same.
“To him, everybody was equal.”
When the Webb School recently asked Duque to take over a class for seniors called “The Foundations of Virtue,” he knew exactly where to turn for advice.
“The first guy I called to get an idea of what to cover in the class was Popo,” he said. “‘Give me something to read, ‘Popo.’ Tell me something, because, obviously, your famous quote about the rock and the hammer is all about perseverance and the virtue of sticking with something.’
“He said, ‘Duker, you’ve got to read ‘Unbroken.’ “
When the second quarter at the Webb School begins, (about the time the Spurs will meet LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in mid-November), Duque’s seniors will be finishing Laura Hillenbrand’s inspiring tale of Louis Zemperini’s remarkable perseverance and courage during and after World War II, unaware the reigning NBA Coach of the Year and architect of the Spurs’ 2014 NBA title made it the centerpiece of the course.
“The loyalty ‘Popo’ still shows all of us who played for him, well, it’s just hard to explain what it means,” Duque said. “Everybody who played for ‘Popo’ feels the same way.”
Great insight about the Claremont McKenna – Pomona-Pitzer rivalry:… http://t.co/ztJXVvlqCK
— John McCarthy (@smcollegehoops) October 19, 2014