Air Force veteran and Academy graduate Gregg Popovich is a model of longevity and success. He has served as the San Antonio Spurs head coach for more than 16 seasons, longer than any other current head coach in the NBA. As he goes for his fifth NBA championship this week against the Miami Heat, he continues to pilot professional sports’ most successful team with his signature style of consistency and passion.
A 1970 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Popovich was team captain and leading scorer for the Falcons his senior season. He served five years of active duty in the Air Force. As a counterintelligence officer, he toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team.
“A lot of people don't know who they are. I know who I am and it started in the military where they broke me down to zero and put me in a box,” he told military players participating in last year’s Armed Forces Men’s Basketball Championships.
“And they built me back up so that I knew what I could do and what I couldn't do. I knew my strengths. I knew my place. I knew it wasn't all about me. I knew it was about teamwork. And that's how I live. That's the deal.”
Born in Indiana, best known for putting out basketball legends such as Larry Bird and John Wooden, Popovich caught the coaching bug in 1973 when he returned to the academy as an assistant coach, a position he held for six years. He then found a mentor in longtime college and NBA coaching legend Larry Brown who made Popovich an assistant when Brown coached the Spurs in the early 1990s.
“I don't think he's one of the best coaches in the NBA; I think he's one of the best coaches that ever coached our sport,” Brown told NBA.com about Popovich, who was also the best man at his wedding. “He's unbelievably loyal. I think every time his team plays, it's a tremendous learning experience for anybody who appreciates our sport.”
Gregg Popovich ROTC San Antonio Spurs' Head Coach Gregg Popovich (center) is joined by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (seated left) and Spurs' player David Robinson (seated right) as he talks with about 300 Junior ROTC cadets from local high schools at the Alamo Dome, in San Antonio, Texas, on March 3, 2000. (Photo Credit: DoD)
If he can beat the Miami Heat this week, “Pop’s” Spurs will have won more championships than any other team in any league during his tenure – even the New York Yankees. The Spurs are often singled out for their regular-season success, as their .703 winning percentage since 1997-98 is the best 16-year run in NBA history.
What makes Popovich’s record of success and longevity so unique is that he finds ways to renew his team with new stars and key contributors. He came into the league with Navy Vet David Robinson leading the Spurs, eventually bringing San Antonio its first NBA Championship in 1999, when he put together a team of long-time NBA stars and those with championship level experience. And in the years since, he has always found new blood, even from international players such as Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobli (Argentina), complimenting his longtime All Star Tim Duncan.
“He wanted to accelerate my improvements. He was hard on me,” Tony Parker said of Pop’s coaching style in an ESPN television interview.
On April 4, 2008, Popovich returned to the Air Force Academy to receive the Academy's award of Distinguished Graduate, which he called his most meaningful distinction.
Just before this year’s NBA Championship against the Heat, the notoriously passionate Popovich’s Air Force Academy yearbook photo started circulating the Internet, thanks to the Spurs Nation website. Next to his yearbook photo it said “His future plans include happiness.”
Fan sites and blogs teased. But one day Pop may choose to look back on his accomplishments and say he got the happiness he was looking for when he graduated the Academy.
(Source: White House photo)