Vintage Jim Popp interview: The Life and Times of Jim Popp

The following was writen almost 8 years ago now... To this day the best interview done about Jim, there is no author, so it might have been done by someone associated with the team at the time. Enjoy

The life and times of Jim Popp

The all-time great coaches and general managers in sports have one common characteristic. They all got their starts in the business at a very young age.

Jim Popp fits into that category.

The Montreal Alouettes vice president, general manager, director of football operations and director of player personnel, was just 23 years old when he took his first U.S. college coaching job at The Citadel.

Four years later, Popp moved into the pros and in 1992 his brilliant CFL career started when he was named director of player personnel and wide receivers coach for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

In 1994, Popp joined the organization, the Baltimore Stallions, which are now the Alouettes. For two years he served as assistant general manager and player personnel director. When the franchise shifted to Montreal in 1996 he became GM.

The Elkin, N.C. native, now 38, was born into football. His father was a scout and coach and Jim played three seasons, 1983-85, as a receiver and defensive back at Michigan State.

Popp and success go hand-in-hand. In the Stallions' two-year existence, the team reached the 1994 Grey Cup game and won in 1995. The Alouettes have reached the Eastern Division final six times in Popp's seven years as GM, advancing to the 2000 Grey Cup game and winning in 2002.

His streak of consecutive winning seasons in the CFL is now at 11. The Roughriders reached the playoffs in the two years he worked in Regina.

Jim's life is hectic even away from the Alouettes. He and his wife Kim have four young children, four-year-old twin girls Hannah and Hayley, and two sons, three-year-old Preston and one-year-old Hudson. During a hectic training camp, and before heading home to drop off birthday presents for the girls, Jim sat down to discuss his life and the Alouettes.

Seven years, six Eastern finals, two Grey Cup appearances, one win. What's been the one common trait throughout the years that has made the Alouettes so successful?
Hard work, surrounding yourself with good people and very successful Canadian drafts. I think we do a nice job of keeping a positive atmosphere for our players. We do a good job of keeping problems away from the players and letting them focus on football.

Do you eat, sleep and drink football?
I do. I would categorize myself as a workaholic. I feel at times I don't put in enough time as a good husband and good dad. I go home and work on football.

In theory, the NFL has grabbed the best 1,600 football players in the world. How you do find the best of the rest?
It's easy to pick good players. It's digging in the dirt. Being in the CFL, part of my job is finding players I know won't go in the seven rounds of the (NFL) draft and sorting through the next 200-500 who'll be signed as free agents. You have to use a lot of avenues. College, the Arena league, NFL Europe, the NFL and then players just sitting on the street who have been through all that or never gotten the opportunity. The unique thing is I'm always working one or two years in advance. A lot of times I've evaluated a guy five times, sometimes in five different places. It never stops. You win the Grey Cup and before I even got off the field I had people asking me, `What are you going to do?' It just never stops. Even when you win the Grey Cup you want to win the next one. That is a burning desire to always be the best.

Take us through a typical workday.
I stay at the office from 7 in the morning to 10 at night. When I get home I work on football on my computer after I see my wife and hopefully my kids. Most days, I work until midnight or 2 in the morning. I only get five hours of sleep a night. Being part of the re-start of the organization is like watching a child grow up. You can always be better. It's a huge challenge. It's amazing the distance we have traveled since 1996.

Are you disappointed with the time, energy, effort and understanding you invested in Lawrence Phillips to have it turn out the way it did?
I worked on Lawrence Phillips for three years. The contract he played under was the third he had signed with the Alouettes. The other two never made it to being registered with the league, because he was having trouble getting into the country. The original plan was for Lawrence Phillips and Mike Pringle to play together, in the same backfield, for the Montreal Alouettes. By the time he did sign we had gone to a one-back set. We knew when we took on Lawrence Phillips … we agreed to give it a try. We knew what we were taking on and we'd give him a clean slate and an opportunity. He went through some issues and we tolerated some things but after a while there's only so much you can do (about him) crossing the line one too many times. We wish Lawrence Phillips the best of luck. I'm disappointed for Lawrence because he is a very talented player. His being here was good for the organization but it was time for us to go separate ways.

What is the most demanding aspect of the job?
To be successful is tied directly to the amount of time you have to put into it to be successful and if you don't, you can't be successful year after year. You have to want to do it. On the other side, it's an interesting job because I'm the front man for a lot of things that go on in the organization I have nothing to do with but I take the grief. From a professional end, it goes with the job and I've learned to deal with it. It's not easy at times. What matters to me is the guy who owns the team, Mr. Wetenhall, know what job you're doing.

You met your wife Kim while working for the Baltimore Stallions, a job that led directly to the success you've had here. Your life turned out pretty well because of U.S. expansion didn't it?
U.S. expansion was a good opportunity for me to escalate my career. I went to Saskatchewan and Don (Matthews) and I didn't know each other. When U.S. expansion came along, the opportunity was there for me and to it was too good to turn down. (Saskatchewan general manager) Al Ford offered me a tremendous opportunity to stay but I thought U.S. expansion would give me my best opportunity to make my mark. I liked the opportunity to take a team from scratch and put it together. We went to two Grey Cups in Baltimore, won 13 in a row to finish off 1995 and, what people might not realize, is we set a CFL record that year by winning 18 games. When things shut down in Baltimore, Don wanted me to go to Toronto with him. I chose Montreal because I knew we were starting from scratch again and I wanted to do that again. It's great work, it's not always fun. To this day I can look back and say we've had tremendous teams since Day 1. Obviously, it was missing something. I can look back and honestly say we should have won four Grey Cups since 1996. We had that little crisis in 2001. Sometimes, you have to take a step backward to take two forward. That helped us take this thing to another level. When the time came to hire a new coach (in 2001) I was adamant Don was the man for the job.

You became an assistant coach at The Citadel in 1988, when you were 23. Is football all you ever wanted to be in life? Not a fireman, a doctor, an astronaut or anything.
I was born in a football family. I was brought up moving around and different cities. My dad has coached at every level from high school to the NFL. He finished up with the Cleveland Browns. Growing up, he would always say to me you'd be a good coach. I never thought about that (coaching). Growing up I was a natural athlete. I played four sports in high school. I had scholarship offers in different sports. I could have signed to play pro baseball right out of high school. If you'd asked me as a kid what I was going to be I would have said I'd be a pro athlete. When I was going through college I wanted to be an FBI agent. I ended up getting my degree in telecommunications. As a kid, I was a very quiet and shy person. Before I ever spoke, I thought about what I was going to say. I had a good thought process. I took acting courses in college and that helped me with my confidence.

Quick shots:

Favourite food: Chicken. Pizza and ice cream are my downfalls.
Favourite TV show: When it was on Seinfeld. Right now, CSI-Las Vegas.
Last movie you saw in a theatre: Daddy Daycare
Proudest achievement: My family
Most cherished keepsake: My immediate family and the family I grew up with.
Best part of the job: Seeing athletes and co-workers achieve and making strides.
Worst part of the job: Being away from my family and my parents. I only spent four days in Montreal in January. That's tough.
Favourite vacation spot: The beaches of South Carolina. I can play golf in the morning and play in the sand with my kids in the afternoon.
Football idol: Walter Payton. My football hero would be my dad Joe. There's a difference. Walter Payton stood for so much more than football. The only pictures I have in my office are of my family and Walter Payton.