Long before his NBA titles, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he ‘fell in love’ with Division III lifestyle at Pomona-Pitzer

Before becoming a five-time NBA champion as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich began his career at Division III Pomona-Pitzer. (Courtesy: Peter Osgood and Tiago Hammil)

This March, the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team was on a roll. 

A miraculous buzzer-beater sent the Division III Sagehens to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history — until the coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt halt to the NCAA’s March Madness and the rest of normal life around the world. 

The dominance of these Hens, before their sudden stoppage, would have been unimaginable 40 years ago, when a hapless Pomona-Pitzer squad had just put the finishing touches on a dismal 2-22 campaign.

Leading that team was a 31-year-old rookie head coach by the name of Gregg Popovich, who had jumped at the opportunity to move from assistant coaching at the Air Force Academy to taking the reins of the essentially unknown DIII Pomona-Pitzer. 

“Little did I know that their program sucked,” said Popovich, now 71, speaking to TSL by phone from San Antonio as he waits out the pandemic and suspension of the NBA season. 

These days, Popovich, or Pop, is a basketball icon and household name, with five NBA titles as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, three NBA Coach of the Year awards and the most career wins in league history under his belt. 

But in 1980, still at the beginning of his eight-year stint with the Sagehens, he was just another DIII coach trying to figure out how to motivate a group of not-so-talented collegiate athletes at a consortium of tiny liberal arts schools.

Notorious for being snarky to sideline reporters and frustrated by cliche questions during NBA games, Pop doesn’t give many lengthy, in-depth interviews like he did with TSL. But he’s quite amenable to reflecting on his time at Pomona, which had just 1,400 students when he arrived — so small that it had combined its athletic department with nearby Pitzer College a decade earlier.

The two schools had intelligent, scholarly students, but hardly any talented athletes between them. 

“It was a horrendous beginning,” Popovich recalled, comparing the first year’s squad to an intramural team. “But be that as it may, I still fell in love with it.” 

Immersed in Claremont 

In 1979, Popovich was in Colorado, coaching at the Air Force Academy, his alma mater. He was casting around for a head coaching gig, and “wasn’t enamored” with how most Division I basketball programs were run. 

Popovich describes himself as “a Division III coach through and through.” (Courtesy: Peter Osgood)

“I looked for something that would involve more time on a campus, more time to be with my wife and two children,” he said. “My interest was as much on the academic side as the basketball [side] in the sense that I wanted to be a part of a college, of a community.”

Popovich secured an interview with P-P through a connection with Robert Voelkel, Pomona’s vice president and dean of the college at the time. Today’s Sagehen basketball teams now practice and play in a gymnasium named for Voelkel, who was a fierce proponent of collegiate athletics and with whom Popovich had a close relationship.

“He was a mentor of mine — not just basketball, but I learned a lot about life, about being professional,” Popovich said. “He was just a class act — somebody I miss every day.” 

Pop took the job, moved to Claremont and lived with his family in Harwood Court, which still houses Pomona first-years and sophomores. He quickly fell in love with the college’s close-knit academic environment.

“I was in awe the whole time I was there, just with the level of professionalism, the level of intelligence,” he said. “I just thought it was an opportunity of a lifetime. I miss it. I always say that I’m faking it as an NBA coach because at heart, I’m a Division III coach through and through.”

When he wasn’t busy coaching, Popovich said he enjoyed walking around the Claremont Colleges observing different art installations, running on Pomona’s track and taking his two young children to eat at Frank and Frary Dining Halls. 

“Those were all special moments,” he said. 

Popovich was also involved in campus life, and said he chaired a committee aiming to eradicate fraternities on campus. 

On the basketball court, though, life wasn’t so easy. 

“My interest was as much on the academic side as the basketball [side] in the sense that I wanted to be a part of a college, of a community.” — Gregg Popovich

That first year, the Hens lost to Caltech, breaking the Beavers’ 99-game conference losing streak. Caltech men’s basketball won just two conference games between 1971 and 2011.

Few of the players on that first disastrous Sagehen team had even played high school basketball, Popovich said, and nearly all were cut the following year. 

But don’t get him wrong — Pop forged strong connections with his athletes, year after year, and remains close with Pomona professors, administrators, coaches and former players to this day. 

“I still have about five or six really good friends that I’ve stayed in touch with all these last … almost 30 years,” he said.

Harvey Mudd College’s admissions director Peter Osgood PO ’81 works mere blocks from the gym where he used to play for Pop, and is one of the players on that original 2-22 team who is still friends with his former coach.

“I admire Pop more than you can imagine,” Osgood said via email.

Heading in the right direction

Pop’s solution to turn the program around was simple: recruiting. 

“You can be a good coach, but if you have zero talent, it makes it real tough,” he said.

Before Popovich arrived, he was unaware that Pomona and Pitzer, where athletics took a backseat to academics, didn’t bother to recruit athletes.

“I was just so naive — I didn’t think that that was even a possibility, that no one was ever recruited,” he said.

Without the same means of recruitment that exist today — mixtapes, the AAU circuit, exposure camps — the process of finding and luring players was labor-intensive. 

Soon, Popovich and his staff were sending thousands of letters across the country trying to get the names of players who were “interested in playing basketball and not gonna get a scholarship to a big-time school.”

From there, the process involved phone calls with recruits and conversations with the admissions offices. 

Coaches at DIII schools with prestigious academics, even today, have the difficult task of seeking the small cross-section of prospective athletes who have both good enough grades to be admitted and sufficient skill to help their teams — but aren’t so talented that they’re likely to be scooped up by a DI program that can offer a scholarship.

“It was a lot more manual labor [back then],” said current P-P head coach Charles Katsiaficas, who was Pop’s assistant at the time. “A lot of letter-writing, a lot of sending out mailings, a lot of follow-up phone calls, and you really had to work very hard at generating a recruiting list from which you could even get started.”

Along with Katsiaficas and Lee Wimberly, another assistant at the time, Popovich created a recruiting program that would eventually help bring the Hens out of their misery.

“It worked, little by little,” Popovich said.

But progress was slow. Records show that the Sagehens finished 10-15 the year after Pop’s inaugural 2-22 season — a remarkable turnaround. Still, they won just three of 12 conference games that year, and finished 9-17 the following year.

A Grantland story from 2015 chronicles some of the unorthodox strategies Popovich employed to motivate his team, as remembered by the players themselves. One time, they recalled, he had them play 4-on-4, leaving the fifth player and his defender near half-court.

Another anecdote recollects a practice at which Popovich, frustrated with his players’ poor shooting at the charity stripe, had them strip off an article of clothing every time they missed a free throw.

“I have no recollection of such things,” Pop said with a laugh. “Fake news.”

‘A really satisfying journey’

What he does remember, though, is that his players began to buy into the culture of accountability and respect he was creating. He encouraged them to support other sports teams and events on campus, starting a tradition of basketball players manning the snack stand ahead of football games that continues today.

“Slowly but surely, they took pride in the program and that worked,” Popovich said. 

In 1986 — just five seasons after that 2-22 season — the Sagehens were SCIAC champions, earning their first outright conference title in 68 years.

“That was … a really satisfying journey in the sense that it took a long time, and it started from scratch. And we did that — Charlie and Lee and I did that,” Popovich recounted.

Katsiaficas said that winning the SCIAC championship that year was “unbelievable.”

“It was only my second year here, but even in that time, you got a sense of the culture change that Coach Popovich had been able to transform,” he said. “When he came here as a head coach, I think the thoughts of winning a conference championship were not even in the guy’s imagination.”

Can the feeling of securing a conference championship be compared at all to winning an NBA title? 

“I think [incoming Hall of Famer] Tim Duncan had a lot to do with our success [in San Antonio],” Popovich said. “I didn’t recruit Tim Duncan — we drafted him — and that wasn’t a very tough choice. So it’s a little bit different here, but back [in Claremont], it was like, grinding it out. Here, you’re gonna have talent. It’s your job to put it together and not screw it up.”

Popovich leads a huddle during his tenure at P-P. (Courtesy: P-P Athletics)

That same 1986 season, the team earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament, and faced Nebraska Wesleyan in the first round.

“They destroyed us,” Popovich said. “It was like men and boys, just horrible. I mean, they really beat the hell out of us.”

But for the Sagehens, losing that game didn’t matter.

“We didn’t really care,” Popovich said. “We’d have rather won, but we were so excited about winning the conference championship for the first time in so many years that it didn’t even feel like a loss.”

The following season, Popovich went on sabbatical, traveling to Lawrence, Kansas, to serve as an assistant under Larry Brown, head coach of the powerhouse Kansas Jayhawks and a basketball coaching legend. While in Kansas, Pop developed a close relationship with Brown — who eventually helped him land his first gig with the Spurs in 1988, when he left P-P.

After Popovich returned to Claremont, the two coaches arranged an exhibition match, in what would be Pop’s last season as a Sagehen. 

It was the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup — the 1987-88 Jayhawks went on to win the DI national championship that season, and featured a pair of future NBAers in Kevin Pritchard and Danny Manning. Manning won the 87-88 Naismith and Wooden Awards as DI Player of the Year, and eventually became a two-time All-Star in his 15-year NBA career. 

But despite being significantly outmanned, the DIII Sagehens kept it tight in the first quarter, according to Popovich.

“Then [Kansas] got angry,” he said. “And then they started playing, and pretty soon, it flip-flopped.”

He remembers calling a timeout where his players, desperate to put up a fight, said something to the effect of, “Coach, what are we gonna do? We gotta press!”

Popovich, aware that his team stood no chance, told them, “We’re gonna get our ass kicked. It’s OK. We don’t care. Everybody, stand up, and just start looking around the gym. You’re in Allen Fieldhouse. An iconic place. Just do a 360. Look all around the gym and take it in. Go back out, get your ass kicked and then we’re gonna love it, and we’re gonna go home, and we’re gonna laugh our ass off.”

Of all the games Pop coached, though, the stakes never felt higher than when P-P played Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, the other team at the Claremont Colleges, which practices and plays just across Sixth Street — less than a quarter mile away. 

“That rivalry has been bigger to me than any rivalry I’ve had in the NBA,” he said. “It’s not even close. Winning or losing to Claremont McKenna was like life and death. If we won, you’re high forever. If you lost, you wanted to jump off the building.” 

“It was just the most intense nervousness and anxiety I’ve had in my body athletically when we played them,” he added. “Nothing like it.”

Still a Hen at heart

Now more than 30 years removed from his tenure at P-P, Popovich is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history and a surefire Hall of Famer. 

Still, he remains close with many in the Sagehen community.

On road trips, he likes to meet with his former P-P players who live near NBA teams that the Spurs are playing, and he has maintained frequent communication with Katsiaficas.

Popovich’s bio, as depicted by a 1980-81 Pomona College physical education department magazine. His goal at the time: “To make Pomona-Pitzer a winning program.” (Courtesy: Peter Osgood)

“To this day, we continue to stay in close touch, and I appreciate that for his friendship, I appreciate that for the fun that we have when we get together or talk and I appreciate it for the fact that I can pick up the phone and pick his brain about basketball,” Katsiaficas said.

“He’s interested in people,” Osgood added, mentioning that Popovich has attended many Pomona alumni events despite his busy NBA schedule. “It’s not just about the money side of things or the winning side of things.”

When P-P plays Trinity University in San Antonio, Popovich tries to meet and speak with the team. He has followed the Sagehens “every season since the day I left.”

Last year, Pop and Spurs assistant coach Will Hardy, a Williams basketball alum, were planning to attend what would have been a Sagehens-Ephs Sweet Sixteen matchup, but P-P was eliminated in the round of 32.

“So this year, it was even sweeter,” Popovich said. “The team was so good. The team [the Sagehens] were gonna play in the next round, I think they had a great chance of beating them. So we were all pretty excited about it, and I can’t even imagine the disappointment, but a lot of people have had that, whether you’re a high school senior or a college graduate — it’s just tough for a lot of people.”

Flattening the curve

As the NBA nears the two-month mark of its shutdown — and some team practice facilities prepare to reopen — Popovich said the country’s sports associations did the right thing by suspending their seasons quickly.

“I think everybody understands we’re in this for the long haul, and hopefully we won’t do anything that’s a knee-jerk sort of reaction, where we just jump back in because we’re instant gratification people,” he said.

Though he rued the necessity of increased phone and email communication with players and Spurs personnel — he’s an in-person, face-to-face kind of guy — Popovich was focused mostly on those who are most affected by the pandemic and associated economic hardship.

“We can’t do what the first-line people are doing, whether it’s hospitals or driving buses or checking out groceries, because we’re pretty much stuck to our homes, but there are other ways to help out, so we’re all trying to do that as an organization and individuals,” he said.

Several weeks ago, various media outlets reported that Pop gave an encouraging pep talk to staff members at the San Antonio Food Bank, on which he serves as an advisory board member.

“I miss it. I always say that I’m faking it as an NBA coach because at heart, I’m a Division III coach through and through.” — Gregg Popovich

Popovich, an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, called Trump a “sociopath” in his interview with TSL, and said “the more we ignore him, the better off we’ll all be.”

But overall, he thinks the U.S. is trying to do the right thing in its response to the pandemic.

“I think that the country, with governors and mayors and localities, are really trying to do this right, and they understand about flattening the curve, and they understand about staying the course for longer than just today, that this thing is gonna be with us for a long time,” he said.

He worried about the coronavirus’ effect on minority communities.

“Hopefully that will be remembered when this dies down a bit so that … structural changes can be made to make things a little more just,” he said.

Popovich reminded people quarantining across the country, though, to “imagine what people in real situations have to do.”

“There’s camps and [people who] don’t have homes and they’re crossing borders and thinking about wars where bombs are dropping while you’re being isolated and you don’t have food,” he said. “We’re all still pretty damn lucky.”

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