GREGG POPOVICH: NBA HALL OF FAME CAREER FROM POMONA-PITZER

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

There was something strangely familiar about the way visiting Pomona-Pitzer College had put an end to the longtime men’s basketball domination by the University of Redlands one night in January 1983.

For years, that small SCIAC basketball chase had been a two-team race between powerhouse Whittier College with the Bulldogs usually No. 2.

Located consistently at the bottom were two teams on historic losing streaks — Caltech, from Pasadena, and Pomona-Pitzer College from nearby Claremont.

It certainly didn’t seem like a launching pad for an NBA Hall of Fame coaching career for the Sagehens’ coach, Gregg Popovich.

Gregg Popovich
Who’d have believed that Gregg Popovich would launch an NBA Hall of Fame coaching career at tiny Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.? Part of that trek went through the University of Redlands (photo by Wikipedia).

It was the way he used his bench that night. It was reminiscent of UCLA a few years earlier. The Bruins, then under coach Larry Brown, had reached the NCAA championship game against Louisville (later vacated over infractions).

Kurt Herbst was the Sagehens’ big banger that night. Redlands couldn’t penetrate the 6-foot-6 wide body, who had plenty of help that night against the Bulldogs.

Backtracking a few years, it was Pomona-Pitzer that famously lost to Caltech, ending the Engineers’ 99-game losing streak. I remember that story went out on the Associated Press wire. I published that four-paragraph brief in the Redlands newspaper.

After all, two teams in Redlands’ conference seemed mildly interesting to our readership. That was our mandate, of course, to keep our pages local.

The Sagehens, for all intents and purposes, was a college freshman team — maybe not even that good.

So when I approached Popovich about those UCLA observations, he quickly summoned me inside the Sagehens’ locker room.

He seemed excited, perhaps impressed that I’d made that wise connection.

“Yes,” he said, “that’s exactly the blueprint we use for this team I’ve got here. Larry Brown …” his wife drifted off into a rash of interpretation, basketball lingo and connecting the dots between UCLA and Pomona-Pitzer’s rise to prominence.

Another coincidental connection! Popovich and Brown were connected.

Those connections would later surface, re-surface and surface again.

Popovich spoke of his Air Force Academy background. He was hired at Pomona-Pitzer to coach and run a campus dormitory — something like that, he told me.

His connection with Brown, he told me while Sagehen players were giddily showering after their upset win over Redlands, dated back to 1972. It was at the Olympic tryouts.

Larry Brown
Larry Brown, coaching here at Southern Methodist University, was the catalyst to an NBA coaching Hall of Fame career for Gregg Popovich, who lifted himself from tiny Pomona-Pitzer College to the San Antonio Spurs (photo by SMU).

If Brown coached it, Popovich tried it.

“That’s the relationship we have,” said Popovich.

Popovich was using Brown’s system of defense, not to mention a substitution pattern that was eerily similar. Strange as it might sound, in 1983, that system stood out.

It was a starting five, plus two key contributors off the bench.

Popovich copped to it all.

There was no possible way anything he told me that night could crystallize into Pop’s eventual NBA Hall of Fame career.

I’d keep an eye on Popovich, who took one season off to take a sabbatical at Chapel Hill, N.C. under the eye of Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith. By 1986, Popovich had lifted the Sagehens to the school’s first SCIAC championship in nearly seven decades.

He’d turned it around on a campus that seemed oblivious to its athletics program. In fact, I wrote a column about that once, receiving admonitions from almost all corners of the SCIAC.

I’d written about how some SCIAC campuses were cheating their student-athletes — taking their tuition monies and providing them with slighted facilities, inauthentic coaching and only mild support.

These campuses were supposed to stand for academic strength. Sports, it was reasoned, was pay-for-play. Intramurals. Deemed not important enough. That was my take in the piece.

Truth is, many of those coaches didn’t try hard enough. They didn’t hit the recruiting trail hard enough. Popovich, in fact, did that. I didn’t report that part of it. I should have.

A few Redlands athletic officials were also mildly upset, perhaps thinking their SCIAC rivals suspected that they’d put me up for the piece.

Popovich, in his own way, bailed me out.

“I think you’re one of the reasons I was hired here,” he told me.

In another nice twist, Brown — having led Kansas to an NCAA championship in 1988 with Danny Manning being the key player — invited Popovich’s Pomona-Pitzer team for a non-conference game the following season.

I’ll never forget the score of a Pomona-Pitzer vs. Kansas matchup at the Phog Allen Field House. It was 94-38, Jayhawks.

Eventually, the San Antonio Spurs hired Brown, who stands today as the only coach to win NCAA and NBA (with Detroit) championships. That Spurs’ hiring led Brown to bringing on Popovich.

While spending a couple seasons with the Golden State Warriors, consider that Nevada-Las Vegas’ legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian had been railroaded out of his job with the Runnin’ Rebels.

Tark turned up, briefly, as Spurs’ coach. It didn’t last more than a half season.

Eventually, Popovich appeared as Spurs’ general manager. Bob Hill was their coach.

All of which led to Popovich taking over as Spurs’ coach in 1996. Just over one decade earlier, he’d been in tiny Currier Gym talking over the Sagehens’ win against Redlands.

That Popovich-to-North Carolina connection was Air Force related. Smith had long ago been an Air Force assistant coach under Bob Spear. That was Popovich’s coach when he played for the Falcons.

Connections in the coaching world add up quickly.

I keep giving myself an “atta-boy” for that 1983 observation on a cold, rainy night in Redlands.