If Gregg Popovich were a professor of theology, he might have chosen to spend a sabbatical year in Jerusalem. If he were a professor of archeology, he might have gone to an excavation site in Africa.
But Popovich felt that the best way to improve in his field was to visit the tobacco fields of North Carolina and the wheat fields of Kansas.
The Pomona-Pitzer basketball coach is on sabbatical leave this year and spent the months leading up to the basketball season at the University of North Carolina, studying under Coach Dean Smith. In mid-November, he moved to the University of Kansas, where he has become a temporary member of Larry Brown's staff.
The visits have allowed Popovich to discover the differences--or lack of same--between coaching at the Division I and Division III levels.
"As far as why teams win or lose basketball games, there is no difference," Popovich said. "The X's and O's are the same at Carolina, Kansas and Pomona. It's makes you feel good about what you're doing and you realize there aren't any great secrets."
Popovich, 38, said he was intimidated the day he arrived in Chapel Hill and walked into the lobby area of the basketball office. The North Carolina staff includes Smith, three assistant coaches, a graduate assistant, a person who videotapes practices and games and three secretaries.
One by one, Popovich said, all of the assistants and secretaries came out to greet him. Even Phil Ford, a former All-American guard for the Tar Heels who was visiting, came by and said hello. Smith, however, was nowhere to be found.
"I was getting more and more nervous by the minute," Popovich said. "All of a sudden it was afternoon and I still kept missing Coach Smith. Finally, he appears and says, 'Pop-oh! I was wondering where you were. C'mon, it's time to go to practice.' "
It didn't take quite as long for Popovich to cut through the formalities at Kansas. Popovich said when he walked into the office, Brown, seeing him in a necktie, ran up and ripped it off his neck. "That's when I became comfortable," Popovich said.
Brown and Popovich had met before. In 1972, Brown was helping at the U.S. Olympic team basketball tryouts, where Popovich--who played at the Air Force Academy--made the alternate team that toured South America with Indiana Coach Bobby Knight.
Brown and Popovich met again in 1975, when Brown was coaching the Denver Nuggets, then in the now-defunct American Basketball Assn. Popovich, who had played on a 1972 AAU-champion armed services team after college, was unsuccessful in his attempt to make the Nuggets as a free agent. Popovich took the setback with humor.
"It was hard for me to believe that Coach Brown would keep (No. 1 draft pick) David Thompson instead of me," Popovich said. "That may be the only mistake he's ever made as a coach."
Popovich had no trouble finding a niche in the two college programs on his sabbatical itinerary. The coaching staffs at North Carolina and Kansas embraced him from the outset.
Each year, between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15, coaches from all over the world visit Chapel Hill to observe Smith's program. They watch practice and are welcome to use a film and video library overflowing with instructional films on everything from the outlet pass to the four-corners delay game. Popovich, however, is the only visiting coach that Smith has ever allowed to sit in on practice and planning sessions.
For some people, the word sabbatical conjures up images of relaxation and getting away from the daily grind of a teaching assignment. But there was nothing casual or care-free about Popovich's daily schedule at North Carolina.
Each morning, Popovich would go to the film library and "ravage through it." At 10:30, he'd attend a coaches' planning meeting to map out a schedule for that day's workout. Popovich said that he spent the early afternoon "attacking the assistant coaches" with questions and comments about the films he watched that morning. In the afternoon, he watched the Tar Heels practice and afterward talked with the coaches.
It was in the late evening, however, Popovich said, when he really began to work. Sitting in his room on campus, he'd write for two or three hours, recording his impressions of the day's activities.
"I'd write down the things I learned and the things I already knew that had been verified," Popovich said. "I was very specific. It was a good opportunity to get my thoughts organized and to put things into folders. Most coaches just don't get the time to do that."
Popovich is getting more of a chance to hone his instructional skills at Kansas, where Brown has allowed him to become a member of the coaching staff. Popovich is on the court during practices and on the bench at both home and away games with the Jayhawks.