Popp's vision put title in sight

November 24, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- In the beginning, there were three long work tables, six phone outlets and unlimited expectations.

"It looked like a telecommunications room," said Jim Popp of the Memorial Stadium office where Baltimore's relentless pursuit of the Grey Cup kicked off nine months ago.

"We had no secretary, no typewriter. We had to buy a typewriter to type up contracts. We had to get extension cords so we weren't talking on top of each other."

Baltimore's first-year Canadian Football League team had only the bare essentials when it launched operations last February.

But those essentials included coach Don Matthews' know-how in putting a team together and Popp's ability, as player personnel director, to identify available talent.

From that crude start, Matthews and Popp, getting input from the coaching staff, were able to handpick a 37-man roster that defies any conventional definition of the term "expansion team."

With slight revisions, the CFLs' 37-man roster reached the Grey Cup this season in an unprecedented success story. Sunday, they face the B.C. Lions for the CFL championship.

If Matthews, 55, was the wise head with the master plan, Popp, 29, was the young gun with a thorough knowledge of the talent pool in the United States.

Popp came by that knowledge in a winding journey that started in his native Mooresville, N.C., where he was a four-sport phenom.

The journey sent him through two start-up operations that proved invaluable for his job in Baltimore.

The first came in 1991 in the World League with the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, where he was on Roman Gabriel's staff. The team went winless and lasted only a year.

The second was with the Professional Spring Football League, for which he was director of player personnel. It never got off the ground, but it gave Popp more experience judging talent.

"I have been with an organization that didn't win a game," Popp said, "and I learned that a lot of little things make a difference."

He learned more working for Matthews in 1992 and 1993 at Saskatchewan, where most of Matthews' current staff elevated the Roughriders from a CFL also-ran to a playoff team.

Popp was not totally ready for what awaited him in Regina, though.

"I got off the plane for my interview, and I'm in a suit and tie," he said. "Don's in Zubaz pants. He says, 'You're too dressed up for me.' "

Upgrading the Roughriders roster was a gradual process over two years, not an overnight sprint as with an expansion team. In Baltimore, Popp tried to find players who would fit the system Matthews wanted to implement. Unlike Saskatchewan, he didn't have to worry about the import rule that limited Canadian teams to 17 Americans or dislodging long-standing veterans.

"This, to me, was easier because you got to pick what you wanted," he said.

Matthews had Popp compile a wish list of 300 players, trim it to 125 and start making calls. Matthews went after the veterans, Popp after the prospects.

Players turned up in a variety of ways. When Popp was recruiting Brad Clark, the BYU linebacker told him of offensive tackle Neal Fort. Popp studied Fort's background, then offered a contract. Fort, one of the most dependable players on the team, started every game at right tackle this season.

Popp persuaded the Roughriders to give him two players he had signed for them -- defensive backs Lester Smith and Stan Petry -- because they didn't fit in Regina.

Some players, such as All-East cornerback Irv Smith, came to Baltimore after discovering the NFL door closed.

Then there were the cases of Mike Pringle and Chris Armstrong, two players who fell into Baltimore's lap.

The Sacramento Gold Miners dealt Pringle to the CFLs for future considerations that were never exercised.

Armstrong was cut by the Edmonton Eskimos in 1992 and the Las Vegas Posse last summer. When he ran 40 yards in 4.46 for the CFLs in June, they had a big-play slotback. That same day, they also signed wide receiver Walter Wilson after he ran a 4.51.

The bottom line was a 12-6 regular season and congratulations all around.

"Jim has done a remarkable job," Matthews said. "Without a question, the game is decided by players, and the players were found by Jim Popp. He spearheaded all of it."

Popp had gotten into coaching when his career as a defensive back at Michigan State was shortened by a knee injury. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals his junior year in high school, he had chosen football over a possible pro baseball career.

Someday, the son of Joe Popp, who coached 40 years from high schools to the NFL (Cleveland Browns) would like to operate his own team.

"If I stay in what I'm doing, I want to run a team, whatever the title," he said. "Or I'd like to be a head coach.

"Patience is the key. Everybody wants to get somewhere quicker."

GREY CUP 1994

BALTIMORE CFLs (14-6) VS. B.C. LIONS (13-16-1)

WHERE: B.C. Place, Vancouver, British Columbia

WHEN: Sunday, 6:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

% RADIO: WJFK (1300 AM)

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