As Popovich, chasing his fifth N.B.A. title with the San Antonio Spurs, is increasingly celebrated for his team’s perennial excellence, he often remarks how unlikely his career has been because, at heart, he still considers himself a Division III college coach.
It seems quaint to think of Popovich, with his acerbic wit and his suffer-no-fools demeanor, coaching at Pomona-Pitzer, preparing his group of Sagehens — their gym is known as the Hen House — for battle against the Poets (Whittier College), the Stags (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps) or the Kingsmen (Cal Lutheran).
But the eight seasons he spent at Pomona-Pitzer, two colleges in Claremont, Calif., that are small enough to share an athletic department, were formative ones for Popovich. It was where he had his first head coaching job and where he first got the feel for what it was like to oversee an entire operation — although in San Antonio that no longer means driving a team van, working out of a converted janitor’s closet, and living in dormitories.
Popovich has one trophy in his office at the Spurs’ complex, and it is for the 1986 Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship, Pomona-Pitzer’s first in 68 years.
His departure was serendipitous. The Popoviches had been planning to buy a house in the area and had an agreement from the president of Pomona-Pitzer for a loan. But when the president died, the new president would not honor the agreement, which Popovich said he had in writing. Shortly after the meeting, Popovich received a call from Brown offering him a job.
“I think people who do succeed and feel fulfilled at this level, they believe in the institution, and they believe in the mission and the influence and effect they can have on the student-athlete, and they like it,” said Katsiaficas, who has won 10 conference titles. “They’re passionate about what they do, but they also appreciate the balance that does exist.”
Katsiaficas arrived as a volunteer in 1979, when Popovich lured him from Ellsworth, Me., with a job as a painter. Ducey, who also served as an assistant under Popovich at Pomona-Pitzer, spent his sabbatical eight years ago being “a mouse on the wall” observing the Spurs.
“We’ve got our guys for two hours a day, maybe six hours a week,” Ducey said. “You want to be prepared and keep things simple and easily understood. Pop is really efficient. He spends a tremendous amount of time organizing.”
It is probably not a coincidence that some of the N.B.A.’s well-regarded coaches have played Division III basketball: Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Boston’s Brad Stevens, Memphis’s Dave Joerger, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, who was recruited to Pomona-Pitzer by Popovich.