We all know who this silly-grinning bearded-yet-balding man is. He is one of the greatest coaches of the past decade and currently the longest tenured coach in the NBA. He’s a leading candidate for the 2010-2011 Coach of the Year. He’s definitely an interesting personality, from the story behind this picture (bonus points if you know its context) to his style of responding to interview questions. However, today on the dawn of the NCAA championship, we will talk about his coaching career before he made it into the limelight, a dark, oft-forgotten/unknown time in his career: His career as a college D3 head coach.
Pop took his first coaching gig at the Air Force Academy (his alma mater) as an assistant. After getting his Masters, Popovich took his first head-coaching job at Pomona-Pitzer in 1979. This Division III team is comprised of 2 colleges in the 5-college Claremont consortium. To say the least, this team was awful. Not much is known other than the following: A) In Pop’s first year, his team had a 2-22 record. B) One of those 22 losses came to Caltech.
To put this in perspective, this is the same Caltech that earlier this year won its first league game in 26 years. The streak is older than Nick Young, a SoCal native himself. There even is a documentary specifically about the team’s unfathomable ineptitude. Here is Caltech’s conference record for the past 30-ish years:
Note: The 1st, 4th and 5th columns are year, conference record and coach, respectively.
I mean, you have to feel bad for Gene Victor, a guy who put in almost 15 years of work, never won a league game, and saw two seasons where the school couldn’t even field a team. But, let’s focus on the wins Caltech had: There was the one this year, against Occidental. Then, in 1985, there was the 1-11 year with a win against La Verne. The win before that? The one in the 1979-80 year? That was a win against Gregg Popovich’s Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens. For the record, it’s not like Caltech was good that year, the chart shows the college going win-less in the eight seasons before and in four seasons following their victory over Pop’s ‘Hens. You can’t help but wonder what hurts more for Pop: The entire 1979-80 season or this.
Now, I assume you are asking the following questions: How did a coach with about as awful of a track record as possible end up making it to the League? And how did he become so successful, to the point where he is one the few coaches that casual fans are familiar with? The answer: A cool cat named Larry Brown.
While coach of his historically bad Pomona-Pitzer team, Pop studied and eventually befriended Larry Brown, who at the time was coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. The two made for quite an improbable pair of coaches-as-friends. However, the relationship was genuine, or genuine enough that Brown would think to offer Popovich a spot as an assistant coach at UK. If I had been alive at the time, I would have indubitably questioned Brown’s decision to bring in a coach who had lost to the worst freakin’ college basketball program ever. Popovich took up Brown’s offer and worked for UK during the 1985-86 season. However, for whatever reasons (maybe Brown realized that a coach who fails with a D3 program won’t be that helpful at the D1 level), Popovich returned to Claremont for the following two seasons. Pop, however, miraculously caught another break–he was once again able to team up with Brown. This time, however, was with the San Antonio Spurs.
The rest, as they say, is history, and the bizarre story pretty much ends here. Popovich was the best man at Larry Brown’s 1990 wedding, and Popovich more or less remained with the Spurs organization ever since teaming up with LB in San Antonio. (Pop had a weird and brief stint with the Warriors in 1992 as an assistant coach, after which he briefly retired.) Since his return with the Spurs in 1994, the unique fellow has given us a more than a few championships and more than a few laughs, including the one that gave us the picture above. And for now, we can laugh at the fact that on the dawn of the NCAA championship game, one of the best NBA coaches ever (and a certain 2010-2011 COY candidate) is the protagonist of one of the most embarrassing college hoops stories of all time.
Convinced that Larry Brown isn’t crazy? Have a better Pop-related story or anecdote? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.