Image via Pomona-Pitzer Magazine
So how did a young assistant at the Air Force Academy make it to the pinnacle of the coaching profession?
By way of the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, of course.
Per Bill Plaschke's feature for the Pomona College Magazine, "Poppo" (as he was nicknamed then) inherited a miserable Sagehens squad that went 2-22 in his inaugural season in 1979. That included a loss to a Caltech team that had lost its previous 99 contests.
Truly at the rock bottom of head coaching, Poppo set about restoring Pomona-Pitzer to its former glory, relying on the smarts of his liberal arts student-athletes to carry out his strategies.
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 Tim Dignan, referring to a math term. “I looked around and realized, it’s amazing, we all understand what he’s saying.”
In 1986, Poppo led the Sagehens to their long-awaited championship season, reestablishing Pomona-Pitzer as a DIII powerhouse.
After eight years, Larry Brown—for whom Popovich was a volunteer assistant under when Brown coached Kansas—invited him to join his staff with the San Antonio Spurs. Although he was initially hesitant to leave the college ranks, Pop accepted, completing his transition from AFA to DIII to the NBA.