Pop's one-of-a-kind path

May, 30, 2014
May 30
11:34
AM ET
How does one go from Division III coach to the modern Godfather of NBA coaches?

How does one go from Gregg Popovich at tiny Pomona-Pitzer, where he was commonly referred to as Poppo, to the universally known Pop, who now ranks as one of the consensus top-five bench men in league history?

You have to see it line by line to believe it.

And now you can. With a massive assist from ESPN.com’s peerless Adam Reisinger, Stein Line Live has the timeline to retrace all the steps for the fatherly half of our “Power Couple” featured in the accompanying opus on the San Antonio Spurs.

Jan. 28, 1949: Gregg Charles Popovich is born in East Chicago, Indiana.

1966-1970: Studies and plays basketball at Air Force Academy. Two-year letterman on the basketball team, leading the team in 1969-70 (14.3 PPG) and ranking third all-time in Air Force history in career field goal percentage (.541).

1970: Graduates from Air Force with a degree in Soviet Studies, followed by a five-year military commitment.

1970-1972: Tours Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces basketball team.

1972: Named captain of the Armed Forces Team and leads it to the AAU championship. Invited to try out for the 1972 U.S. Olympic men's national team but does not make the final roster.

1973: Returns to Air Force as an assistant coach under Hank Egan and spends six seasons in that role.

1975: Tries out for spot on Denver Nuggets. Gets cut but furthers relationship with Nuggets coach Larry Brown, whom he met at the Olympic trials three years earlier.

"Larry Brown screwed me as a player," Popovich joked at his recent NBA Coach of the Year press conference. "He had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me. But I think he or Doug [Moe] or both of them said I should put on a tie and do something else."

1979-80: Hired as men's basketball coach and assistant professor at Pomona-Pitzer after earning master's degree in physical education and sports sciences from the University of Denver. Team goes 2-17 in his first season.

1985-86: Leads Pomona-Pitzer to its first conference championship in 68 years, going 16-12.

“I wonder how many of your readers really know what Division III basketball is like or where Pomona-Pitzer is,” said Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who, well before his lengthy stint at Popovich’s elbow as a Spurs assistant, was recruited by the man to play at Pomona. “He likes to joke about it, but it’s mind-boggling to think about how truly far it is from wherever you put him now.”

1986-87: Takes a one-year sabbatical at Pomona-Pitzer to work as a volunteer assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas. Taking over for Popovich that season as interim coach at Pomona-Pitzer is Charles Katsiaficas, who remains the Sagehens' coach to this day.

"In five minutes, a player knows whether you can coach or not and help them get better," Brown says now. "You figure that out immediately with Pop, whether you're from North Carolina or UCLA or Pomona-Pitzer."

1987-88: Popovich returns to Pomona-Pitzer to coach the Sagehens for his final season. In a nonconference game at Kansas, Popovich absorbs a 94-38 loss to Brown's Jayhawks, who go on to win the national championship, led by star forward Danny Manning.

"Coach Brown would bring in a lot of [guest] coaches to work with us and gather knowledge and information from," says Manning, recently installed as the new head coach at Wake Forest. "But right away you could tell Pop was different. When he said something, it resonated. It stuck. It meant something."

June 1988: Larry Brown is hired as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich is hired by Brown as an assistant coach soon after.

"With that year we spent [at Kansas], we just became best friends," Brown said. "I think our backgrounds are so similar. I happened to be [coaching] at UCLA and Kansas, but in terms of what we were taught and our values, it was the same. So when I got back in the NBA, my goal was to bring him with me. And the rest is history. He was the best man in my wedding."

Jan. 21, 1992: Popovich remains on the Spurs' staff through the end of the season after Brown's dismissal.

May 19, 1992: Hired as an assistant coach by Golden State's Don Nelson. The Warriors go 84-80 in Popovich's two seasons on the bench.

"Pop went with Nellie because he thought there were new things he could learn," Brown said. "He's always been an unbelievable student of the game."

Said Nelson: "I didn't really know him. But we played them in the playoffs and I was watching him work, so I went after him after Larry got fired. He was interviewing for another job with the Clippers, but I told him I wanted to hire him. He was shocked. He said, 'How do you even know me?' And then we just hit it off. His communication skills are just excellent. He just had a way with people that was really special. The players knew that he loved 'em, yet he could be their boss. And then he learned the nuances of the [NBA] game, and he's become the best coach there is. He's 10s in every category."

1993: Peter M. Holt and a group of 22 investors buy the San Antonio Spurs from Red McCombs for $75 million.

May 31, 1994: Popovich is hired as the Spurs' executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager.

Aug. 29, 1994: Popovich hires Bob Hill as the Spurs' new coach.

June 1994: Popovich hires R.C. Buford, whom he met during his season as a volunteer assistant at Kansas and served with as a fellow assistant on Brown's staff in San Antonio, as the Spurs' head scout.

“It was quick to tell how good a coach and teacher he was,” Buford said when asked to reflect on his introduction to Popovich back in Lawrence. “He gained the trust of our players very quickly … to the point that Larry wouldn’t let him leave.”

July 21, 1994: Popovich makes his first two free-agent signings with the Spurs: Avery Johnson and Chuck Person.

Dec. 10, 1996: With David Robinson returning from injury and San Antonio mired at 3-15, Popovich controversially fires Hill and assumes head-coaching duties in addition to his front-office titles.

April 23, 1997: Popovich signs a multiyear contract extension as head coach and GM.

May 18, 1997: The Spurs, after a 20-62 season, win the draft lottery, converting on a 21.6 percent chance to win the No. 1 overall pick.

June 25, 1997: San Antonio selects Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick.

July 1997: Popovich promotes R.C. Buford to Director of Scouting.

June 25, 1999: San Antonio beats New York 78-77 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to clinch the club's first championship since merging out of the ABA in 1976-77.

June 30, 1999: San Antonio selects Manu Ginobili with the 57th overall pick in the draft, after using an earlier second-round pick (No. 40) on Gordan Giricek.

July 6, 1999: Popovich signs a four-year contract extension as head coach, vice president and general manager.

July 1999: Popovich promotes R.C. Buford to vice president and assistant GM.

Aug. 8, 2000: After strongly considering a free-agent move to Orlando, Duncan re-signs with the Spurs.

June 27, 2001: San Antonio selects French teenager Tony Parker with the 28th overall pick in the draft.

Oct. 10, 2001: Popovich signs another three-year contract extension.

Dec. 13, 2001: Popovich is named assistant coach to George Karl for Team USA, which winds up finishing an embarrassing sixth in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis.

April 13, 2002: Popovich drops GM title, promoting R.C. Buford to general manager.

July 17, 2002: After spending the previous three seasons in Italy, Ginobili signs a two-year contract with the Spurs worth just under $3 million.

April 28, 2003: Popovich is named NBA Coach of the Year for the first time.

June 15, 2003: San Antonio beats the New Jersey Nets 88-87 to secure their second NBA title. David Robinson retires after posting 13 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks in the clincher, but Popovich, for the first time since returning to San Antonio, sees Spurs fans migrating over to his corner after so much outrage and skepticism when he originally replaced Hill. Between championships, Popovich and his staff were infamously branded by Lakers coach Phil Jackson as the
“Simulator Crew,” since none of them had played in the NBA.

"I was fat, dumb and happy as a Division III coach and would have done that the rest of my life," Popovich said last month at his Coach of the Year press conference. "It was fantastic. I loved it. But all of us take a different road here and there. I ended up on a sabbatical one year with Coach Brown and Coach [Dean] Smith [in a stop at North Carolina before his stint at Kansas]. That's when I met R.C., and the rest is history … too long a story. But the NBA was never a dream or a thought, like I'm going to go to the NBA and be a coach. No clue."

July 24, 2003: Jason Kidd spurns the Spurs' free-agent overtures and re-signs with the New Jersey Nets.

Dec. 16, 2003: Popovich signs a contract extension through the 2007-08 season.

Aug. 15-28, 2004: Popovich continues to serve as an assistant for USA Basketball, this time under mentor Larry Brown. The team settles for bronze and becomes known as "The Nightmare Team."

Nov. 11, 2004: With the Spurs still smarting from Derek Fisher’s .4 buzzer-beater, Parker signs a six-year, $66 million contract extension, cementing his role as the team's point guard after the failed flirtation with Kidd.

June 23, 2005: The Spurs beat the Pistons 81-74 in Game 7 of The Finals to clinch their third NBA title in a series that pitted Popovich against his mentor Larry Brown.

June 14, 2007: One year after losing a devastating Game 7 at home in overtime to their Texas rivals from Dallas, San Antonio completes a 4-0 sweep of LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and former Spurs assistant coach Mike Brown with an 83-82 triumph.

May 28, 2008: Popovich signs a contract extension through the 2011-12 season.

Oct. 30, 2010: Parker signs a four-year contract extension, keeping him tied to the Spurs through the 2014-15 season.

May 1, 2012: Popovich is named NBA Coach of the Year for the second time in his career.

July 11, 2012: Following a crushing 4-2 series defeat to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals -– after San Antonio had won 20 consecutive games -- Duncan signs a three-year contract designed to keep him in black and silver through 2014-15.

Nov. 29, 2012: Popovich sends Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green home early from a road trip on the same day of a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. NBA commissioner David Stern fines the Spurs $250,000 for the incident.

June 20, 2013: San Antonio loses Game 7 of The Finals in Miami 95-88 after taking a 3-2 series edge and a seemingly commanding five-point lead over the Heat with 28 seconds to go in Game 6. It marked the first time a Popovich-coached team lost in the NBA Finals.

“The way we lost in the finals wasn't an ordinary loss,” Popovich said last month at his COY presser. “It was pretty devastating. We decided that we needed to face that right off the bat, at the beginning of the season, and get it out of the way. Don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship. And that’s that. And you move on.

“In all of our lives, there are many things more important than winning or losing a basketball game. And that’s the perspective we had to take. And our team showed great maturity and resilience in being able to do that and set it aside and begin again. I’m very proud of them for that.”

July 11, 2013: Ginobili signs a new two-year deal, keeping him tied to the Spurs through the 2014-15 season. It means that the contracts of Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich are all timed to expire at the same time.

April 22, 2014: Popovich is named Coach of the Year for the third time in his career.

“He’s Coach of the Year every year as far as I’m concerned,” Nelson said.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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