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Archive for Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Woodling: Popovich’s KU connections still paying off

June 18, 2003

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I had to smile the other day when I read a story about Gregg Popovich, the bland, low-profile head coach of the newly crowned NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

The story intimated that Popovich, who avoids the spotlight like an albino, would like nothing more now than to become the Invisible Man.

I was amused because Popovich really was the Invisible Man during the 1986-87 basketball season.

In the 54-year-old coach's lengthy resume, you will find nothing about the '86-87 season. Popovich's coaching history states he was at Pomona-Pitzer, an NCAA Div. III school in Claremont, Calif., from 1979 to 1986 and again from 1987-88.

Where was he in 1986-87? It doesn't say, but he was definitely at Kansas University. I know it, he knows it and KU players and staffers who were here then know it.

Nevertheless, no hard written evidence exists that Popovich spent practically the entire 1986-87 basketball season with the KU men's team. You won't find his name anywhere in that season's basketball media guide or in game programs. He was a true phantom, perhaps the only time in his coaching career he really was the Invisible Man.

Popovich wasn't an assistant coach, he wasn't a graduate coach and he wasn't a student coach. Basically, he was just an observer. Popovich received no pay because he was on a sabbatical as a physical education instructor, his primary job at Pomona-Pitzer. In Div. III, coaching is an extracurricular activity.

"He was planning to go around the country and visit Division One programs on his sabbatical," said Doug Vance, a KU associate athletic director who was the Jayhawks' sports information director then. "He started at North Carolina, then came here and planned to go somewhere else, but he stayed here for the rest of the year."

Their personalities may have been poles apart, but Popovich and KU coach Larry Brown operated under a common denominator: Both were committed to understanding the basics and the nuances of basketball and to placing an emphasis on the teaching aspect of the game.

During his five years at Kansas, Brown had one great team -- the 1985-86 club that won a school-record 35 games. Popovich arrived the following season, the year Brown had difficulty replacing departed seniors Ron Kellogg, Calvin Thompson and Greg Dreiling.

Still, the Jayhawks made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 with narrow victories over Houston and Southwest Missouri State at the Omni in Atlanta. Then the season ended with a 70-57 loss to Georgetown in Louisville's Freedom Hall.

When the Jayhawks arrived at the airport for the flight home, they learned the assigned flight crew has eclipsed its legal time limit and the KU traveling party had to wait on the ramp for another pilot and co-pilot to show up.

"It was during that wait that Larry decided to play Pomona-Pitzer the next year," Vance said.

Even though Pomona-Pitzer was in Div. III -- meaning it awarded no athletic scholarships -- Brown offered to play the Sagehens, in part to pay Popovich back for staying and helping with his program, but also because Brown wanted an easy game after the Jayhawks returned from the season-opening Maui Classic.

Kansas has played several NCAA Div. II schools over the years -- notably all those Sunflower State colleges during the reign of Roy Williams -- but Pomona-Pitzer is believed to be the only Div. III school ever to appear on KU's schedule.

The result was predictable. Even though KU played the Sagehens a day after returning from Hawaii, the Jayhawks posted a convincing 94-38 victory. KU made 75.9 percent of its shots that night (41 of 54). That sizzling percentage is still the school record (although it probably should contain an asterisk).

Exactly four months later, Kansas stunned Oklahoma, 83-79, for the NCAA championship. In another three months, Brown was head coach of the Spurs and one of his assistant coaches was Popovich.

Clearly the friendship nurtured while Popovich spent his sabbatical on Mount Oread remains intact to this day. Brown may have the itchiest feet in the history of basketball coaching -- has he ever tried tough actin' Tinactin? -- but he obviously maintains friendships.

When Brown coaches the U.S. men's basketball team this summer, his three aides will be Oliver Purnell of Dayton, what's-his-name at North Carolina and, you guessed it, Popovich.

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