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Kliff Kingsbury Should Channel His Inner Serbian

At some point good luck and fortunate timing will have to catch up with Kingsbury's hard work and intensity. In the meantime, perhaps it'd be wise to go a little "Serbian," just like his role-model so often does.

Travis Hale

His possessions include an expansive wine cellar, three Coach of the Year awards and the satisfying memory of a requitable dismantling of the Miami Heat in last summer's NBA Finals. In a few weeks he will add to his impressive collection when presented with his fifth diamond encrusted and beautifully gaudy championship ring on opening night for the San Antonio Spurs.

But the path that led to this point in Gregg Popovich's life didn't always wind through fields of lavender and gold. In fact, it was a rather rocky one early on for the now legendary coach and former GM.  And as an admitted admirer of the man currently navigating a rocky path of his own, Kliff Kingsbury could draw strength from Popovich's history.

Popovich was an unproven commodity when hired as the Spurs General Manager in 1994 and was a highly controversial figure two years later when he fired fan-favorite Bob Hill and named himself head coach. But the low point had to be early in the 1999 season when a loss against the Houston Rockets would have surely cost him his job.

Now he is Alamo City royalty, but in the early years he had a tough time winning over an entire fan base.

From the timeless Buck Harvey in the San Antonio Express News in May of 1994 prior to Popovich's hire as GM:

Popovich has the inside track for this job not because of what he has done, but because of who he knows. Should the Spurs make their most important hire since Larry Brown for this reason?

Popovich won't want to hear that, but it's the truth. In the late '60s he was a cadet at the Air Force Academy when a general named Robert F. McDermott served as dean. They weren't close, but they knew each other. Popovich's wife, Erin, was a friend of McDermott's daughter, Betsy.

Without this tie, Popovich wouldn't be the leading candidate. He would be what he is, just another bright assistant looking for a break. He might get a head-coaching job in Sacramento in two years, or one in Vancouver in three.

And the parallels with the current situation at Texas Tech seem obvious:

But this is not just another hire. The Spurs' owners are trying to hire The Vision - the one who will determine what the franchise will become, how it will do business, how it will use the final years of David Robinson's career.

So the Spurs' hire will be solely responsible for both GM and coach. And this is the absolute power that Golden State gave Don Nelson, who had proved himself in Milwaukee; that Milwaukee gave Mike Dunleavy, who had proved himself with the Lakers; that Atlanta gave Lenny Wilkens, who had proved himself in both Seattle and Cleveland.

Popovich, compared to them, is an intern. One league official, when asked about Popovich assuming a Nelson/Dunleavy/ Wilkens position, asked only this: "Has he ever even coached before in this league?"

The official knew the answer. "You move one seat over on the bench, " he said, "and everything changes. Unless you've sat there, you don't know what you can do, or even what your coach needs."

It seemed a daunting task for a bright young coach/GM, but twenty years later his level of success is obvious and rarified. Of course Popovich will always be the first to say that the secret to his success was to win the NBA Draft Lottery twice and use those picks on certain Hall of Famers, but in doing so he sells his own influence short. And this is where the comparison between the two gets frustrating: both have "The Vision," and both are interminably stubborn in their pursuit of it. The difficulty for fans is in finding the patience to allow the vision play out.

Popovich had the luxury of having Tim Duncan and David Robinson on his roster in his early years while Kingsbury seems to have entangled his reputation and career into the lanky right arm of Davis Webb. For Kingsbury, realizing the vision will indeed be difficult, but is not out of the question.

And it's completely unfair to compare Kliff Kingsbury to Gregg Popovich, but in so many ways it's unfair not to.

Gypsy Souls

Coaches are nomadic by nature. They have to be. They have to be prepared to uproot their families and don new school colors more quickly than you and I can decide on dinner. And regardless of level, they are required to entrust their earnings (and its potential) to men and women much younger than themselves; much less experienced than themselves. Whether it's $30,000 or $3 million, their next paycheck is tied to the fate of the performances they can draw from their teams. And when it stops working they move on.

Of course there is a certain amount of skill involved, but it's also silly to discount the roles played by luck and circumstance. And sometimes it is those same players that previously struggled that can step in and save their coach. Just ask Gregg Popovich about how things played out on March 2, 1999 in Houston. From Marc Stein's outstanding portrait last May:

But by the time the Spurs were headed to Houston for the 15th game of a truncated schedule that left no time for early slumps, pressure on Pop wasn't coming solely from the public or the media. The belief among many of Pop's players was that the coach was on the brink of being fired. Or being forced, at the very least, to return to a GM-only role.

"It was different from the regular pregame," former Spurs forward Malik Rose said, rewinding back to the game in question against a Rockets team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.

"David [Robinson] usually didn't say much beyond a prayer in the huddle when we brought it all in, but [before this game] David was saying, 'We've got to get it together, we've got to do this, this is a big game.'

"If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc ... that was the rumor. I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I'll never forget it.

"It's true, kids: Pop wasn't anywhere near his current Godfather of Coaching status in Duncan's early years. It took two championships to start making the locals forget the controversial timing of the dismissal of the popular Bob Hill, who was fired just as Robinson was getting healthy. It realistically took three titles before anyone was really ready to put Pop on a one-name level with Phil and Riles.

Which is among the reasons that Avery Johnson, Pop's point guard and the most vocal of leaders on that Spurs team, says today that he has no doubt that Houston game was the ultimate must-win for the third-year head coach.

"Absolutely," Johnson says. "Things had been communicated to us. It was really real.

"There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc, so David [Robinson] and I went to Pop's house before we got on the flight to go to Houston. Pop talked to us and ... what I will say is we came out of there feeling so strongly about Pop that we knew we had to go win that game."

Kingsbury hasn't yet reached his "Houston moment," in fact he's far from it. But it will likely come at some point because the moment comes for all nomads. No matter their success, all coaches will inevitably face the situation when one season, one game or one singular moment will decide their fate.  When the moment comes for Kingsbury we can only hope that his hard work and intensity are joined by a healthy dose of luck and good-timing to help him through. In the meantime though, it wouldn't be a bad idea for him to emulate his self-professed role model.

Last April I asked Kingsbury about discipline and focus. "Our players know that as a program we are all about giving maximum effort every time we step into our building," he said. "We talk about controlling the things we can control which are attitude and effort."

But when that doesn't work, perhaps it's time to go Serbian.

How does it feel to absorb the full-blast wrath of Gregg Popovich when Pop, in his own words, goes "Serbian" on a particular Spur with an all-out eruption in front of all his teammates?

"It's not pleasant," Thomas confirms.

"You're pretty much deflated," said former Spurs captain Johnson, "and borderline depressed."

"It sucks," adds former Spurs forward Elliott. "If you play for him long enough, it doesn't matter who you are. You're gonna get torn down. You're gonna get it during film sessions, you're gonna get it on the court, you're gonna get in practice."

As Johnson went on to explain: "He just wants to know who he can depend on. Pop would say things to David [Robinson] like, 'I don't understand how you ever made the All-Star Game,' but then he'll support it with video. He always has the video to back up his point. He was always on me for being the worst defensive point guard in the league. 'You don't get long rebounds; you don't get your knees dirty enough; you take shots from the wrong spots on the floor. I told you you're a poor shooter from 80 percent of the spots on the floor, and you won't go to your 20 percent areas.' On and on and on.

Yeah, a little Serbian might be good for everybody at this point.