By his own admission, Gene Popko was never a great volleyball player or coach.
He never won an Olympic gold medal, as Karch Kiraly did with the U.S. volleyball team in 1984 and '88. He never won an NCAA title, as Tim Hovland did with USC in 1980. And he was never named most valuable player of the professional beach tour, as Randy Stoklos was in 1988 and '89.
But through his behind-the-scenes work, Popko helped make it possible for each of those players and countless others to develop their skills and cash in on volleyball's meteoric rise in popularity.
"He's a legend in his own time," said Pete Field, Popko's old beach buddy and coaching partner at Inglewood High.
Twenty years ago, Popko and Field came up with the idea to organize the first league for high school boys' volleyball in Southern California, taking the first step toward CIF sanctioning of the sport.
Two years prior to that, in 1969, Popko promoted and held the first novice beach volleyball tournament, which provided a training ground for many young and inexperienced players.
Kiraly, Hovland and Stoklos all played in Popko's novice tournaments in Playa del Rey as teen-agers. Kiraly, considered among the best players in the world, has fond memories of coming down from Santa Barbara with his father to play in the novices.
"Gene's tournaments were some of the first beach tournaments my dad and I played in," Kiraly said last weekend at the Manhattan Beach Open, which he won with partner Kent Steffes. "They were always fun events where you just played your brains out. It was a great experience. Tournaments like that really helped me become a better player."
Stoklos, the second-leading open winner in beach volleyball history, also credits Popko's tournaments for advancing his career.
"That's where I started playing beach volleyball when I was a kid," said Stoklos, a native of Pacific Palisades. "It was a great learning experience. Gene's tournaments were always a class act. I remember I was only 15, 16 years old and Gene treated me like I was a great player. He always respected all the players. He's one of the people I'd bring up as an influence in my volleyball career."
Needless to say, Popko has touched many lives through his involvement in volleyball, both as a coach and tournament director. He has been treasurer of the California Beach Volleyball Assn. for 15 years.
At 51, he lives comfortably with his wife of six years, Karen, and their two children--son T. K., 4, and daughter Kerry Jean, 18 months. The family resides in a stylish house in Playa del Rey, the product, Popko says, of real estate investments he has made through his connections in volleyball.
"I couldn't afford this on a teacher's salary," he said.
However, it was as a physical education teacher and coach at Inglewood High where Popko first applied the administrative abilities that made him a driving force in exposing many young Southern Californians to volleyball.
Today, about 180 CIF-Southern Section schools field teams in boys' volleyball, according to a section spokesman, and scores of wanna-be Kiralys and Stokloses are learning the ropes of the beach game in novice tournaments.
There was no such thing as interscholastic volleyball when Popko started the Inglewood volleyball club in 1969. A few high schools, most notably the powerful Palisades team coached by Howard Enstedt, competed in United States Volleyball Assn. tournaments, but there was no organized competition between high schools. Of course, not many schools had volleyball teams at the time.
Popko, who will begin his 28th year at Inglewood this fall, knew there was interest in volleyball because of the great success of the school's intramural program, which he directed with his customary enthusiasm.
"Everything started with the intramural sports program," he said. "We had this nice program going and the kids wanted to play other schools. That's how we formed our own club."
With Field, a rated beach player and tournament director, serving as the primary coach, Inglewood competed on a club level for four years (1970-73). Field didn't teach at Inglewood and was recruited off the beach by Popko to coach the team.
"It was a good situation," Field said. "Gene recruited these kids to come out for the team, and I ran the program."
Now a teacher at Leuzinger and the boys' volleyball coach at Chadwick, Field, 50, was one of the first to coach the quick-setting offensive system employed by teams from the Orient. Field learned the techniques from Moo Park, a one-time coach of the Korean national team who assisted in establishing the volleyball program at Pepperdine University.
Inglewood's practices averaged three hours a night, and it wasn't long before other coaches recognized the success of Field's methods. A volleyball clinic conducted by Field and Popko at Inglewood in 1970 drew 50 coaches and more than 200 players.
Still, it took time for Inglewood to catch up with the more experienced programs at beach schools.