The young coach loved the campus life. Small. Cerebral. Students who were serious about education.
He was a basketball coach at Pomona-Pitzer, a combined athletic department of Pomona and Pitzer colleges in the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, about five towns east of Pasadena.
He loved basketball, but he loved other things, too. He had a degree in Soviet studies and had considered a career in the CIA. He loved the intellectual energy that flowed amid the trees of Pomona.
Pomona-Pitzer was a Division III school, which means no scholarships, but the coach didn’t care. He treated his players like they were NBA Finalists. Rode them hard. Cared for them harder.
The coach and his young family of four lived for a couple of years in a Pomona dorm. He officed out of a closet because he wanted to be close to the gym.
The Sagehens were not a powerhouse program. Hadn’t won a conference hoops championship in more than 60 years, and a title would not be soon coming. Pomona-Pitzer went 2-22 that first season, 1979-80. One of the losses was to Caltech, which can turn out a mean engineer but has been non-competitive in basketball for half a century.
Until beating Pomona-Pitzer, Caltech had lost 99 consecutive league games in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. After the turn of the century, Caltech would make history by losing 316 straight SCIAC games. Between 1971 and 2011, Caltech won two conference games. Losing to Caltech is a sign that your basketball career has gone horribly wrong.
But the young coach persevered. He became a Pomona assistant professor, teaching phys ed and serving on various campus committees, and coached up his team. Made a lifelong impression on them, even when he punched a hole in a blackboard out of frustration. Made an impression on the Pomona faculty, too, even serving as chair of the Student Affairs Committee.
Two years, three years, four. Five years, six years, seven and more. Eight years the young coach coached Pomona-Pitzer, a lifetime for someone with any ambition.
He drove the team van and directed intramurals and coached in a gym with scoreboards on the walls and a dressing room that was merely portioned off from the gymnasium, with no ceiling.
Cooked his ballplayers Serbian tacos, befitting his ethnic heritage, and tried to learn the game from those who were at higher levels. Even left Pomona for a year to serve as a graduate assistant at Kansas, only to return to the Sagehens.
In 1986, Pomona-Pitzer won the SCIAC championship, its first outright title in 68 years. To this day, the now-old coach says, the only championship basketball displayed in his office is that of the 1986 Sagehens.
In 1988, the maturing coach was offered another job. He wasn’t sure he wanted to take it. But finally he said yes, and he said farewell to the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, losers to Caltech and winners of an historic title and eaters of Serbian tacos.
You know this young coach. You know him well. Popovich. Gregg Popovich.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.