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Gregg Popovich vs. Ted Lasso: Which hire was more absurd?

Was the Spurs’ hiring of Gregg Popovich in 1996 more or less absurd than AFC Richmond hiring Ted Lasso?

Ted Lasso is one of the best television shows of the last several years, if not this century, if not ever. The show got many of us through some of the darker days of the pandemic, for which we are eternally grateful.

If you are one of the dozen or so people who have not seen it, the show has a fairly simple (though absurd) premise. Ted Lasso is an American football coach at Wichita State who just won the Division II football championship. The new owner of an English Premier League team, Rebecca Welton, hires Ted Lasso to coach AFC Richmond, even though Ted knows nothing about soccer and is completely unqualified to coach a team in England’s top professional league. Rebecca only hires Ted to spite her ex-husband. (She got the team from him as part of their nasty divorce.) Hilarity ensues, along with superb acting, heartfelt emotions and numerous life lessons.

In many ways, Ted Lasso turned out to be the perfect coach at the perfect time for that particular soccer team. The central premise of the show rests on the assumption that no professional sports team would ever actually hire a coach with Ted Lasso’s meager credentials to coach such an iconic team in one of the best leagues in the sport.

Gregg Popovich just established a record that may never be broken. He just won his 1,336th game as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, more coaching wins than anyone else at any level of basketball. As a bonus, he did so with the same franchise. Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkins, Jerry Sloan, and Pat Riley are now 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the all-time list, all other than Sloan getting those wins with multiple teams.

Because I have known Pop longer than probably anyone reading this, this is a good time to revisit the amazing odds against this ever happening. I was an assistant coach at Claremont McKenna College in the 1980s when Pop was the head coach at our rival Pomona-Pitzer. Both colleges were, and are, Division III athletic programs located just east of Los Angeles.

While Claremont was the class of the league during those years, Pop’s team was not. In his first season, his team lost to Cal Tech, which had not won a league game for decades. Pomona Pitzer went 2-19 that year. Only twice did Pomona-Pitzer break .500 while Pop was coaching, and in one of those “good years” the team barely won more than they lost at 12-11. Pop’s 1985-86 team did win the first league title for Pomona-Pitzer in 68 years. But the following season, his last year with the program, Pop’s team went 7-19 overall, 4-6 in league. During the nine years he coached Pomona-Pitzer, the team won 76 games and lost 129.

That 1987-88 season in which his team went 7-19 was Gregg Popovich’s last season as the head coach of a basketball team before he became head coach of the San Antonio Spurs eight years later. In that last season as a head coach, his team lost 19 of their 26 games. Yet in 1996, the San Antonio Spurs hired Pop to coach their iconic professional basketball team in the best basketball league in the world. And you thought Ted Lasso’s premise was unrealistic.

One can picture Pop’s interview (if he even got the interview in the first place). ”How much of what you learned coaching a Division III team translates to coaching an NBA team?” Pop, with disdain: “All of it”. (Actual question by interviewer after the Spurs hired him, and his actual answer.)

Of course, we all know that Pop did not need to submit his coaching resume or interview for the Spurs job. Indeed, Pop would have been both the interviewer and the interviewee — he was both Rebecca and Ted Lasso. As the Spurs’ general manager, he appointed himself head coach 18 games into the 1996-97 season. He thus avoided having to answer any interview questions about his 37% winning percentage in the only head coaching position he ever had — achieving that dubious percentage at a Division III school with no scholarships. Or having to explain how his team lost to Cal Tech.

Put another way, would any other NBA general manager other than Gregg Popovich have hired Gregg Popovich to coach an NBA team? Only Gregg Popovich had the genius to make the best coaching hire in the history of any sports league ever.

Except, perhaps, Rebecca hiring Ted Lasso to coach AFC Richmond. But Ted does not have five championship rings. Yet.