Coach Pop – The Ultimate Leader

Coach Pop and Tim Duncan“I don’t think I have ever been on a team where the coach told us to know something about your teammate,” said former Spur Robert Horry. “Know something about your teammate because if you do, he becomes a part of you. He becomes like family.”

Family. That’s the culture in San Antonio. To be closer than just teammates. Become connected with your comrades. Be attached to them, like brothers. That is the culture that Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich has developed in the Alamo City.

For the past few weeks I have been observing Coach Pop for a leadership class. The assignment was to watch an individual and see what kind of leadership qualities they possess, and then write a case study. Now, without getting too much into the moral conundrum of good and bad leaders, strictly from a basketball perspective, here are a view reasons why I selected to observe a coach from a small market franchise instead of anyone else in the world.

I chose Pop because of his resume – four-time NBA Champion, three times an All-Star Game Head coach, twice the Coach of the Year. All of that is impressive. But how about this one: 900 victories with the same team.

I chose Pop because of the mark he has left on his assistant coaches  and players – seven former players or assistant coaches are now or have been head coaches for other NBA teams.

I chose Pop because he is fearless, especially regarding the league commissioner. I’m not going to say anything else about that.

I chose Pop because of Stephen Jackson. That decision last year was tough. But as you will find out in a few paragraphs, you play the “spurs way” or you don’t play.

All in all, this has been a fairly simple task. As an avid San Antonio Spurs fan, I have always been a fan of “Coach Pop” and I firmly believe that he is currently the best coach in the NBA and that he is one of the best coaches of all time. While I have always loved him as a coach, I have new perspective on the guy, and I have to be honest: he is a pretty legit dude. I think he would be the ultimate boss. He is what we want from a leader. Hard and soft. Mean and kind. A workaholic and relaxed. All of it.

From what I have learned over the years and most recently just observing closely, I’ve been able to pinpoint a few things I have noticed throughout the years, but have never been able to identify. I can see how good of a leader this guy is just from watching whatever I can about the guy that doesn’t involve basketball. Then the basketball part makes sense.

He has always been a laid back kind of guy, but fiery when needs to be. He is a former military officer and is very disciplined. Throughout my life, I have come to believe that good leadership is a learned trait and is usually subjective, a decision that ultimately is weighed by your followers. However, I think that with the resume that Coach Pop has produced with the San Antonio Spurs over the years, and with the amount of “Robert Horry’s” that come through the program, he is beginning to fall more into the objective category.

Popovich Coah of the YearPart of being a good leader is finding the right goals  to motivate your performance. I think that this is a huge quality of Coach Pop. As Horry summarized, Popovich leads on the court during games by using intense coaching techniques, but he always values people. He values his players and allows them to grow as people.

In an interview about drafting Tim Duncan, Pop says the first way to tell if he has a winner on his hands is to see if he has a sense of humor. Wait, what? That can’t be right. How can such an intense coach be so blatantly defiant on the court and to the NBA and yet, still value humor as a winning quality? Could it be because he cares about the people rather than the player? Could it be that he struggles to see them as just players? Could he care too much for the NBA head coaching standard?

Pop has always called the Spurs team, their “organization.” He calls it that because he believes that players should come to San Antonio and become part of a their system. It is a function and an absolute. A quid pro quo (if this, then that). Pop looks at his team as a make up of parts. Rather than just basketball, he looks for quality people, neh, the “right” people, to fit within the makeup of the Spurs structure. He wants to develop his players into quality people that fit within the quality of the organization.

As a leader, Pop is not motivated by wins. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Yes, he believes that they should play the game to win, and he is certainly about winning. But with his players, he is also concerned about how they play the game of basketball. How did they handle the things they could control and how did they respond to the things they couldn’t control?  Pop believes that how these grown men play the game of basketball is how they will play the game of life.

This is often forgotten, if not ignored, in the game of basketball. Often times, the multi-million dollar athletes are viewed as employees or just bodies, readily at the disposal of the General Manager, and in or out at a moments notice. Sure, there is a business side to it all. But Pop’s ability to teach his players to “shrug off” defeats and “do their job” is what helps the organization function inside of the corporate structure. How many times have we heard Pop at a press conference or media availability say, “It’s just basketball. It will either go in or it won’t. These guys are grown men. They understand that.” Horry talked about how the Spurs organization represented a family. In this video, we see Pop and how he showed his care for his players, as well as how he demanded the most out of them.

Being family-like, a special relationship formed with Pop and Tim Duncan, who is probably going to go down as the greatest power forward of all time. After being drafted, Pop took Duncan in at a critical time when Duncan lost his father. The two became closer as people and as friends.  But because of that, Pop could always hold Duncan to a higher standard, almost how a father will do to a son. That means, when Pop got onto Duncan, other players knew that they weren’t above getting chewed out too. A standard was set. It is a dangerous game because Pop could have easily played favorites with Tim. But he created a climate about caring for players and then demanding their best, regardless of who the players were.

Climate. A climate is the internal environment. It’s the attitude on the inside. The pulse of the organization. The internal environment of the Spurs is a place where the players know that they have to come to work every day with a professional attitude. They know that there is no preferential treatment and that everyone, even if the front office, works hard every day. The climate is formed by Pop, who is also the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Spurs. On top of coaching, Pop also oversees the scouting, drafting, signing and trading of players. In short, no one works harder than Pop.

Pop has developed a climate that demands his players show up each day ready to perform. When a player is not standing up to that measure, he is removed from that organization. He does not allow anyone to go against the climate of the organization. He values the organization and believes that the climate is solid and in place for a reason. He trusts the system and believes that is bigger than one person. In this climate, people want to play on this team and they want to be apart of this organization. The climate of the Spurs is exactly what makes them great. It’s a chain of events and a continuous circle.

The players receive support from their leader, Coach Pop.  They occasionally participate in decision making. For instance, Coach Pop allows his veterans to contribute to decisions such as bringing in a new player or developing a new strategy. Pop values their opinions.

They develop trust with Coach Pop. They know what he is thinking during a game and he knows what they are anticipating as well. There is openness and candor, because Pop allows for joking and relaxation. He even has his players over for dinners at random times.

And he sets high-performance goals. The goal is always to win a championship, but he always sets goals for individual players as well. These goals are always high, but he gets them to believe that if they buy into the system, they can achieve them.

It is a contagious atmosphere and it begins with their leader, Coach Pop. Because he has a positive climate, he can develop the culture. He allows for people to understand the “Spurs way.”

The Spurs organization does it in a quiet, deglamorized, no attention, no drama type of atmosphere. Because the climate allows for support from the coach, the culture is very prominent and very positive. Players and coaches around the league want to play for Pop or be trained under him. Popovich has former assistant coaches in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Philadelphia and all have pieces of him incorporated into the teams they coach for.

In this article by Kelly Scaletta, we see how Pops system has bred a culture of winning by using the right formulas. I love this excerpt from the article:

“President Theodore Roosevelt once said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." It's an apt expression to describe the relationship between the Spurs and their coach. In short, it’s more than what Popovich does that makes him so successful, it’s who he is. “

Popovich has even developed a staunch attitude when dealing with the press. In short, he is a “no-nonsense” type of guy. His way of doing things is what works. A possible concern for someone with this attitude is considered from the  “My Past Holds the Answer” Paradigm. In Teri Gamble’s book, “Leading with Communication,” this paradigm is referenced by saying “the reality is that learned perceptions can create biases and blind spots. It is up to the leader not to be controlled by unconscious learning but to gain control of learning by reflecting instead on what it is she or he wants to do.”

I think that Pop walks this line exceptionally.

Pop has a way of doing things. It is an old school method, it is very unorthodox by todays NBA standards and it is hard to accept at times. But it works. Al Hamnik of the NWI times talks about how Coach Pop wins the old school way. The entire article is listed here.

My favorite part is that he refers to Pop as a maestro. It makes me think how a maestro must conduct an orchestra and get all the parts to flow simultaneously together. A tuba by itself might not sound too good. A clarinet solo could be good, but boring. A random cymbal splash could be distracting. But all of it together, under the lead of the maestro creates a beautiful symphony that is pleasing to the audience.

This is how coach Pop is with his team. He takes all the good parts from his players and blends them together for the good of the organization. He conducts the game masterfully and has the attention and discipline from all the players. They are all on the same page and they all perform their parts and jobs harmoniously.

Pop is the ultimate leader. Pop is the ultimate coach.  He is far and away the best coach in todays NBA and could be in the conversation of the elite when it is all said and done. And the reason why? Because of the climate he produces, the culture within his organization and his uniqueness for his system. He is what a follower would want a leader to be. To Robert Horry, Coach Pop is family.

Even a Laker knows that.

About Michael A. De Leon

Michael founded Project Spurs in 2004. He started The Spurscast, the first Spurs podcast on the Internet, in 2005. Michael has been interviewed by the BBC, SportTalk, the Sports Reporters Radio Show, MemphisSportLive, OKC Sports Wrap and ESPN radio among others. He is a credentialed member of the media for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Toros. He is also the founder of Project Spurs' sister sites, Toros Nation and Stars Hoops.