Joe Popp '52 of Mooresville, N.C., was the eldest son of nine children in a Yugoslavian immigrant family living in Johnstown, Pa., when Catawba College Football Coach Gordon Kirkland made him an offer that he did not refuse. Kirkland offered Joe a chance to attend Catawba College on a football scholarship and Joe did, even though Joe's grandfather was skeptical given that young men of immigrant families often worked in the steel mills and coal mines instead of attending college.
Now, 61 years later and thanks to his family, Joe Popp has his own named scholarship at Catawba that is destined to help future student-athletes. The Coach Joe Popp Athletic Scholarship will be awarded to a deserving high school athlete from Iredell County, N.C., with first priority preference to football or other athletes at Mooresville, N.C. Senior High School, who will participate in football or another collegiate sport at Catawba.
Joe enjoyed a long career coaching football at the high school, college and NFL levels. Now retired, he credits, in part, Catawba and the influence of Coach Gordon Kirkland for setting him on his long and successful career path.
"Coach Kirkland was an innovator – he was ahead of his time," Joe recalls. "We played bigger schools – N.C. State, Tampa, Louisville – and then we would play our North State schools – Appalachian, Lenoir-Rhyne. What I learned in coaching is that he did things differently – we finessed people and I learned that through him."
After playing not just football, but also basketball at Catawba, Joe earned his Bachelor of Arts degree and began his own career. He remembers that he had offers to be an assistant coach at various high schools, "but I said, 'No,' I want to be the head coach. I felt that confident in myself after leaving Catawba."
Joe landed a job as head football coach at Jonesville High School (now Starmount High School). It was while working there that he met his wife of 56 years, the former Peggy Morrison, whose father owned the local dry cleaners in Jonesville, N.C. Joe had visited the dry cleaners to inquire if they would clean the team's uniforms.
At Jonesville, he oversaw a program that won 35 of 39 games between 1952 and 1955. He then coached at West Forsyth High between 1955 and 1957 before moving to Mooresville Senior High School in 1958. In 1961, he steered Mooresville's Blue Devils to the then equivalent of a state championship and earned a reputation for coaching excellence that continues today.
"My dad was a real motivator who made those boys believe that they could do it and they did," Joe's daughter Karen Popp explains. "A lot of them went on to become professionals in their respective fields. When you meet those guys, and I've met many of them over the years, they attribute much of their success to my dad being a great motivator and teacher. I think Dad had a good role model in that regard in Gordon Kirkland.
From Mooresville, the growing Popp family, now enlarged to include first-born Joey Popp '77 and daughter Karen, moved to Chapel Hill where Joe shifted into the college ranks as assistant football coach at the University of North Carolina. From Chapel Hill, he moved to coach at George Washington University, Wake Forest University and finally, Georgia Tech.
By this time, third-born Jim had been added to the Popp family which came full-circle back to Mooresville where they settled near Mooresville High School even as Joe continued coaching. In 1974-75, he got into professional football, first with the Chicago Fire/Winds in short-lived World Football League, and later as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.
Son Jim said that "dad is one of those guys who can have a vision and be able to execute and make it come true. Everybody loves Coach Joe Popp. He will help you get wherever you thought imaginable and he does it in a way that makes you admire, respect and love him. My father treats everybody as equals. He's so into sports for both boys and girls because he believes playing sports teaches you life lessons that you can use forever. And, as a father and husband, he also has been a great role model for his kids. "
"I would never have had the success I had if it wasn't for Peggy," Joe explains. "Coaching is one of the toughest professions there is. Besides coaching, you're recruiting, and particularly in college, you could be on the road for two weeks at a time sometimes."
It was Joe's partner, Peggy, who kept the home fires burning and encouraged her husband to pursue his career. "My parents approached football as a partnership," Karen says. "Their marriage helped him have the career he had and my mom feels very much a part of it."
Joey echoes his sister's sentiments. "Mom was a strong woman and a really big influence in our upbringing." Joey notes that after he and Karen were out of high school, Peggy decided to open her own business; three shoe stores — two in Mooresville and one in Cornelius – Peggy's Shoe Fashions, as well as two other businesses on Mooresville's Main Street — the Army/Navy store and a consignment shop.
"The neat thing about my mom and this goes back to my dad — she let him have his career while the kids were growing up and when we were almost grown and it was time to do her thing, she just jumped right into it with full support from Dad."
Joe jumped with equal agility from coaching positions at the high school, collegiate and professional level and considered himself blessed in every new position.
"I'll never forget when I was coaching in high school, I used to say to myself if I could ever coach at Georgia Tech or Notre Dame, and here I ended up coaching at Georgia Tech with Bobby Dodd as the Athletic Director. Then I thought, I'd like to get in the pros and ended up coaching for the Cleveland Browns. The Lord has been good to me. Every school I went to, there were moments there that were so great. Each was different and had something special to it."
Son Jim reinforces his father's comments about his various coaching roles. "My dad was very, very loyal – that's why he's a loved man and an appreciated person and why he continued to have opportunities as he moved along. Every level that he has ever gotten to, he cherished it and considered it the pinnacle at that time."
"My dad has been well-respected in all the communities in which we have lived. Growing up, I knew he was a special person off the field as well," says Joe's son Joey. "People felt comfortable with him. They would come to him with problems and questions. He was a father-figure — the All-American type coach. He was a tough disciplinarian on the football field, but his players had respect for him and the hard work and results it reaped.
"As his son, I grasped that and took it all in. I learned that things don't come easy, that you've got to go out and work for them."
All three children agree that their own successes are in large part due to having their Dad has a wonderful role model and being exposed to the many cities and other experiences his football career brought to the family. It seems fitting that they have honored their dad with the Catawba scholarship. Joe is humbled by what his family has done.
"I am blessed to have such a wonderful family that supported my career. Like I feel about Peggy, I am so proud of each of my children. Joey has been in TV news for more than 30 years and currently hosts a weekly television show on PBS and is the local weekend anchor on NPR in Charlotte. Karen is a lawyer, starting out on Wall Street, moved to Washington where she was President Clinton's lawyer at the White House and is now a partner in one of the largest firms in the world. Jim has pursued a football career, having been a scholarship player at Michigan State, coached in the college and pros and now is the General Manager of the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am that my family chose to endow a scholarship that will help young people go to Catawba and learn in the classroom and on the playing field. Catawba certainly helped to set me on a great path of life. "
The laurels and honors continue for Joe Popp. In 2008, he was inducted into the Catawba College Sports Hall of Fame. In 2003, he was among the charter class of inductees into the Mooresville Senior High School Sports Hall of Fame. He was also named one of the Top 50 all-time athletes in his home area's history in western Pennsylvania.
CATAWBA STORY: My Catawba Childhood (featuring Coach Gordon Kirkland)