When Gregg Popovich fired Bob Hill and took over as Spurs head coach 20 years ago this month, it was hard to envision five championships and a Hall of Fame plaque to follow.
At the time, Pop was San Antonio’s general manager, and not only did he possess no experience as an NBA head coach, the only head coaching job he’d had at any level was eight seasons at Pomona-Pitzer College. For him to really think he could lead an NBA team, he must have been delusional… right?
Now that Popovich is 20 years into his run in San Antonio, with his legacy secure as one of the three best coaches in NBA history, we can look back and laugh at how off-base everyone was when he moved down to the Spurs’ sideline in December 1996.
“Popovich’s ego may overflow,” wrote Alan Greenberg in the Hartford Courant, “but don’t look for him to coach beyond this season.”
Marc Stein, now with ESPN, then with the Daily New of Los Angeles, made this brilliant prediction:
“For now, at least, the responsibility for getting the Spurs ready falls to Popovich,” he wrote. “And it says here he won’t be as successful as Hill, whose two full years ended in playoff disappointment but did include 121 regular-season victories.”
Some of the criticism Popovich took was for the timing of Hill’s firing. Star center David Robinson was just coming back from a back injury, and the 3-15 Spurs seemed destined to improve no matter who was coach. Popovich appeared to be swooping in just in time to reap the wins Robinson would sow.
“Odd timing, isn’t it, that Robinson just happened to be returning Tuesday night?” wrote Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman. “Coincidence only that Popovich took the hot seat when the Spurs were playing at 3-14 Phoenix, right? (And they still lost!) Sheer luck of the draw, of course, that four of San Antonio’s next five games include two with Phoenix, one at the 7-13 Los Angeles Clippers and a home contest against mediocre 7-11 Dallas.
“Popovich’s reputation took a hit when he sent disgruntled, crowd favorite Dennis Rodman to Chicago,” Bohls continued. “It’ll probably take another after this act. Expect Hill to be scooped up in short fashion by another NBA team. Conveniently for Popovich, expect the Spurs to be looking up. About 7 feet, 1 inches up.”
Bohls was right that things were looking up for Popovich Robinson and the Spurs. But his man Bob Hill? The guy sure to be hired ASAP by an NBA team? He spent several years out of coaching, then took a job at Fordham, where he went 36–78 in four seasons. He eventually returned to the pros as a SuperSonics assistant and was became Seattle’s head coach in January 2006, holding that position for only 16 months. The Sonics went 1-6 against Popovich’s Spurs in that time.
We’ll leave the final word on this to NBA Hall of Famer Denis Rodman, who resented Popovich for trading him to Chicago and sharply criticized the coach in his autobiography.
“Gregg Popovich was the big problem in San Antonio,” Rodman wrote, according to the Seattle Times. “We didn’t get along from the beginning. He’s Mr. Discipline, Mr. Straight, Mr. Conservative.”
Yeah, that Popovich fellow. He’ll neeever amount to anything.