Education: Joe Popp starts scholarship at Catawba
Catawba College News Service
Joe Popp, ’52, of Mooresville, 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 Popp a chance to attend Catawba on a football scholarship, even though his 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, 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, with first priority preference to football or other athletes at Mooresville Senior High School, who will participate in football or another collegiate sport at Catawba.
Popp 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 Kirkland for setting him on his long and successful career path.
“Coach Kirkland was an innovator ó he was ahead of his time,” Popp recalls. “We played bigger schools ó N.C. State, Tampa, Louisville ó and then we would play our North State schools ó Appalachian and Lenoir-Rhyne. What I learned in coaching is that he did things differently ó we finessed people, and I learned that through him.”
After playing football and basketball at Catawba, Popp earned his bachelor of arts degree.
He landed a job as head football coach at Jonesville High School (now Starmount High School). It was there that he met his wife of 56 years, the former Peggy Morrison, whose father owned the a dry cleaning business in Jonesville.
At Jonesville, he oversaw a program that won 35 of 39 games between 1952 and 1955. He 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 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,” Popp’s daughter, Karen Popp, explains.From Mooresville, the growing Popp family, now including first-born Joey Popp, ’77, and daughter, Karen, moved to Chapel Hill where Popp was assistant football coach at the University of North Carolina. From there, he moved to George Washington University, Wake Forest University and Georgia Tech.
By this time, third-born Jim had been added to the Popp family, that came back to Mooresville as Popp continued coaching.
In 1974-75, Popp got into professional football, first with the Chicago Fire/Winds in the short-lived World Football League, and later as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.
“I would never have had the success I had if it wasn’t for Peggy,” Popp 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.”
Popp 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.”
“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 son Joey.
“People felt comfortable with him. They would come to him with problems and questions. He was a father-figure ó 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.”
“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,” Popp says. Catawba certainly helped to set me on a great path of life.”
In 2008, Joe Popp 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.